American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview

10
Frontier Women

GLENDA RILEY

To many Americans, the history of the frontiersman seems vast and varied, while that of the frontierswoman appears sparse and uninteresting. As sodbuster, cowboy, soldier, miner, rancher, or outlaw, he continues to capture the imagination of the world. As wife, mother, homesteader, teacher, nurse, and laborer, she is still frequently overlooked. This has occurred because when pioneer women did happen to catch an historian's eye, the resulting account was all too often based on imagination and hyperbole. The usual historical descriptions of frontier women tended to portray them in terms of such images as the Gentle Tamer, Light Lady, Calamity Jane, Fighting Feminist, Pioneer Mother, Madonna of the Prairie, Saint in the Sunbonnet, and Pioneer in Petticoats, among others.

Examining the usual characterization of frontier women, there are many models to use. There is, for example, Emerson Hough's character, who was, in his view, the "great romance of all America." Gaunt and sad-faced, she followed "her lord where he might lead, her face hidden in the same ragged sunbonnet that had crossed the Appalachians and the Missouri."1 Or there is Everett Dick's "sod-house" woman, who "grew stooped" as she "tramped round and round the hot cookstove" and pleaded to leave the frontier forever. Other historians concluded that frontier women either "grew old and died before their time" or defied the hardships to become the real tamers of the "Wild West."2

Why did both historians and their readers rely on such exaggerated or mythological pictures rather than searching out factual information regarding frontier women? Certainly one factor was the romantic aura and promise of the American frontier that still intrigues millions of people. During the nineteenth century, the truth rarely satisfied the growing popular curiosity about the frontier. As a result, Eastern writers "romanticized frontier characters in response to literary conventions and commercial requirements."3 Numerous genres of literature, ranging from captivity narratives to dime novels, topped the best-seller lists precisely

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American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vi
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • Notes 6
  • 2 - The Environment and the Frontier 7
  • Notes 21
  • 3 - Economic Development of the American West 27
  • Notes 42
  • 4 - Agriculture and Livestock Production 51
  • Notes 60
  • 5 - Frontier Urbanization 69
  • Notes 82
  • 6 - Frontier and Western Transportation 89
  • Notes 104
  • 7 - Mining Frontiers 109
  • Notes 124
  • 8 - Frontier Social History 131
  • Notes 144
  • 9 - Historians and Indians 149
  • Notes 169
  • 10 - Frontier Women 179
  • Notes 194
  • 11 - Ethnic Groups and the Frontier 199
  • Notes 211
  • 12 - Foreign Affairs and Expansion 217
  • Notes 229
  • 13 - Territorial Government 235
  • Notes 244
  • 14 - The Frontier Army 253
  • Notes 264
  • Sources and Repositories for Frontier and Western History 275
  • Index 279
  • About the Contributors 301
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