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