The women who dared to go west were tough. They had to be to survive. It might sound exciting, but I wanted to give everyone a glimpse of what it took.
Fortunately, most women were still young, but not all of them. Youth has advantages. Just as today, most 18-30-year-old people have great stamina. They need it.
Most traveled during the summer months. Using a northern route probably made the most sense. How long can you stand being outside in the dead of summer? Add some mosquitoes, other bugs, spiders, snakes, poison ivy, poison sumac, and whatever critters roam the area. Toss in passing through tornado alley, and maybe a hurricane that made landfall, add a few violent thunderstorms, hail, flash floods, and imagine doing it in long skirts with sweat pouring off your body, into your eyes and soaking through your clothes. Long sleeves somewhat protected your arms from bug bites and the sun. Those bonnets with the big brims kept the face somewhat shaded. But anyone who has been outside consistently, such as an outdoor job, knows that you can tan right through your clothes when exposed to the sun for hours.
But didn’t they get to ride in the wagon? It’s shaded and somewhat protected. Actually, no. The wagon was packed tight with belongings. The wagon wasn’t pulled by a bunch pretty horses. They were pulled by oxen, AKA cattle. Oxen or ox is just another word for cattle that have been trained to do things like plowing. Oxen is plural and ox is singular. They didn’t use bulls. They used castrated bulls and cows. A castrated bull is much gentler and less apt to get excited. But frequently cows were used because they could be milked and provide a source of milk and butter.
Many a woman took the milking bucket and hung it under the wagon’s backend, and the constant sloshing would eventually turn the contents into butter. I wonder how much dirt got into it?
The women and children walked their way west, often while carrying a child in their arms. Without bathrooms, everyone was forced to use the great outdoors and privacy was a problem. You didn’t dare wander too far from the wagon train. So, the women would form a circle around the woman who needed privacy to relieve herself, and while facing each other, they would lift the front of their skirts high over their heads, shielding the woman from any prying eyes. I call that Yankee ingenuity. Anyone who has ever done survival camping knows how to dig a latrine. But I’ve never it found it referenced in my research. Just these wonderful circles that the women used to protect themselves. I do know that chamber pots did exist and could be used when the wagon wasn’t moving.
Remember the oxen that were dragging a heavy wagon for miles, it wouldn’t be fair to them to add another 100 pounds to their load. But maybe at night, a chamber pot would provide a family a slight reprieve.
Often the family slept in the open under the wagon. Sometimes they would stop during the heat of the day and hide from the sun under the wagon. Then travel into the evening.
Women faced another problem. Their monthly cycle could be beacon call to wild animals or uncastrated male animals traveling in the wagon train. A wolf or coyote could smell the blood and were drawn to it. Even today zoo workers are often given other jobs to avoid problems with their charges during their monthly cycle.
Did they really circle the wagons? Yes. By circling, they created a fence and could turn the oxen loose to graze, etc. The first wagon became the next day’s last wagon And the number two wagon became the first wagon. And every day the wagons switched positions. Kinda adds a new meaning to the first shall be last. They considered no one privileged. Obviously, the first position had less dust, etc. Often the wagon trains only managed 8 miles in a day and on a good day, they might manage 15 miles. So the first wagon took off and traveled for hours, then quit as the last wagon was taking off.
Scouts rode ahead of the wagon train. What were they actually looking for? American Indians and French trappers or anyone who might want to rob or do harm to the wagon train. By the 1850’s, there were virtually roads called trails to the west, and some of those roads are now super slabs of major highways, such as the Bozeman Trail is now Interstate 90. Scouts also were looking for food, and a good place to stop for the night.
Women were tough. They got pregnant. They got sick. They had to keep going. They lost children along the way to miscarriages and disease. They lost husbands. They faced all sorts of challenges, impossible odds, and they kept going! Weak women did not survive!
I think today more than ever, the United States recognizes our heartland, ranchers’ wives, etc. have a strong, tough, self-reliant attitude. I admire the women who have a little dirt under their fingernails and don’t back down when facing adversity. They’ll sit with their favorite mare while she gives birth, even if that means it’s 3 AM. They have no problems climbing into a tractor by day and wearing pearls and heels to church on Sunday. Maybe it’s in the DNA.
I happen to think the women who settled the west were strong. They survived the odds. Somehow that has been passed down through the generations. I know quite a few women who live in the west on ranches and some that were raised on them but now live in suburbia. I love writing about robust women, and those who took chances.
Would I have survived the wagon train? I doubt it. I probably would have died in childbirth, considering I was lousy in that department! In fact, if I lived back then, I wouldn’t be alive. Modern medicine has saved me from the clutches of death a few times. I’m late getting this up because I’ve had a couple bouts of dental surgery this past week. I happen to like our modern world. I’m not freezing to death because it’s cold outside or baking in our hot, humid summers.
If you want an honest look at what women went through, read A Rancher’s Dream. She went from Texas to Wyoming and wasn’t pretty. But along the way, she found love.
Sorry about the dental problems. Ugh! I enjoyed the post. Positive I would not have survived either.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Caroline. The second surgery fixed it and I can actually eat real food again. So I'm back to normal. But 150 years ago... Yeah, I like modern medicine. But really admire the women who went west.Delete
I agree with you that those women were absolutely amazing. I marvel at the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles my pioneer ancestors overcame. Thanks for sharing!ReplyDelete
Julia, what they did is amazing. Can you imagine walking 3,000 miles or more? That's through creeks, rivers, briars, forests, up and down mountainsides, and across prairies with grass as tall as they were? Women have an inner strength and tenacity that keeps us going.Delete