Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement: Life on the Home Frontier

By Winter, Kathleen R. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement: Life on the Home Frontier


Winter, Kathleen R., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement: Life on the Home Frontier. Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

People interested in published pioneer women's journals and diaries have many to choose from: Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford in Nebraska and Colorado Territories, with introduction and notes by Donald F. Danker (1976); Lillian Schlissel's Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey (1992); and Kenneth Holmes' Covered Wagon Women (1995), to name a few. These journals and diaries detail, for the most part, the women's journeys westward in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the company of family and friends, and tell a side of the story we hadn't heard until fairly recently. Now, with Peavy and Smith's Women in Waiting in the Westward Movement, we are aware of another factor in this exciting and tumultuous time in our country's history for this book recounts the viewpoints of women who remained at the original homestead for years at a time while their husbands forged new lives on the frontier. Peavy and Smith's book helps us understand the complexities of such separations.

Building on their 1990 book, The Gold Rush Widows of Little Falls (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press), Peavy and Smith give a comprehensive look at six women and their husbands, from Maine to Minnesota, who decided, for one reason or sometimes for several reasons, that they must live apart for a time in the hopes of a happy (and prosperous) reunion eventually. After locating materials relating to fifty-three couples separated during the westward movement, some of which they describe in the introduction, the authors used "double sets of letters that described in varying detail the day-to-day activities and experiences of wives on the home front and husbands on the far frontier." These letters, plus family papers, business records, genealogies, and interviews and correspondence with descendants are the basis of this book. Each of the six chapters (after the introductory chapter) details a couple's early life, marriage, and family. Then the chapter explores concerns for the future; journeys westward by the husband; responsibilities and anxieties of the wife in in her husband's absence; the relationship of the husband and wife while they are apart; and the possibilities for reunion-or the actual reunion itself-of the couple. A few photographs and extensive endnotes assist the reader in understanding "the dynamics of separation" for the six couples.

The first chapter of the book, "Families in Flux: The Dynamics of Separation in the Westward Movement," is essential for a novice to understand the complexities of the westward movement and the people who decided to live separately for a while. In this chapter, Peavy and Smith use many of the other forty-seven families they researched as examples to explain how "far more common [a] phenomenon" separated families were than we realize. They also use them as examples to explain some of the reasons men chose to go west alone and women chose to stay "home"; how "the ideology of separate spheres proved inoperable"; and how women often had to participate in the business world besides caring for children and running a household; how most women had to earn money in some way since their absent husbands usually did not send them the support they had promised; how a woman's ingenuity and frugality often made the difference in her and her family's survival; how economics often meant a woman had to move in with relatives; how mothers tried to keep the memory of a long-absent father vivid in the minds of their children; how the thought of infidelity of a spouse and concern for his safety played havoc with a woman's mind; how some men sent for their wives and family to join them in the west; and, most importantly, how diverse the situations were from family to family.

As educational as the first chapter is, Chapters 2 through 7 are specific and important. …

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