Women and Western American Literature

By Helen Winter Stauffer; Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

Reluctant Pioneers

Susan H. Armitage

I am not the wheatfield nor the virgin forest

I never chose this place yet I am of it now

Adrienne Rich, "I Am An American Woman"1

The American frontier myth is male-dominated. Women, when mentioned at all in western literature, are frequently portrayed as uncomfortable and out of place on the frontier. They are reluctant pioneers: afraid of the wilderness, afraid of the Indians, homesick, and often physically or mentally sick as well.

We know that this cannot be the whole story, for the diaries, journals and letters of actual frontier women paint a much more varied portrait, representing an entire range of human experiences and emotions. On the other hand, the same women's sources tell us that the image of women as reluctant pioneers is not completely false. There were reasons-female reasons-why many women were fearful, homesick, and unhappy on the frontier. In this paper the letters, diaries, oral histories, and autobiographical novels by pioneer women in Rocky Mountain mining towns and agricultural regions of Colorado are used to explore the sources of female reluctance.

Mollie Dorsey Sanford, newly married, was not at first a reluctant pioneer. In fact, she took the initiative, persuading her husband to join the Colorado gold rush of 1859. Work was unexpectedly hard to find in Denver. They went to the mountain town of Gold Hill, where he prospected and she, virtually the only woman in the camp, cooked for the men. Lonely and overworked, Mollie's youthful optimism finally broke. She confessed

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