Jacqui (jacqui) wrote,
Jacqui
jacqui

Women Of the Old West; Their True Stories

This is from a book about women in the Old West by Joan Swalow Reiter. I think it's fascinating. It makes me realize how damned easy I have it and what a pampered whiner I can sometimes be. I stumbled across this today while I was feeling sorry for myself because Beau was rude and bratty, and my checking account is super low. I'm trying to taper off of my antidepressants so it won't be so hard to take them when I'm in the hospital, and in the weeks afterwards when I won't be able to eat anything solid, but I didn't realize it would be this hard to do. I kind of need their space-me-out fuzzy support now that I'm facing something so challenging.

I'm going to copy a moving paragraph here, and then I'll put the whole chapter with this piece in context behind the LJ cut feature, in case anyone is interested.

Perhaps even more painful than unwanted pregnancies, hazardous childbirth and the burdens of raising a large family under ikcaj primitive conditions was the terrible desolation following the death of a child, particularly an only child. The bereavement of Narcissa Whitman drove her to the brink of madness. Her two-year-old daughter, Alice�the first white child born in the Northwest�was the focus and solace of her isolated life. Narcissa had carried Alice in her womb on the long journey to the West and given birth to her in the Oregon country in 1837. �0, how many melancholy hours she has saved me, while living here alone so long, especially when her father is gone for many days to gether,� Narcissa confessed in a letter to her sister.

On the 23rd of June, 1839, little Alice fell into the Walla Walla River and drowned. Narcissa clung to the dead child for four days before allowing her to be buried. �She did not begin to change in her appearance much for the first three days.� she wrote to her parents. �This proved to be a great comfort to me, for so long as she looked natural and was so sweet and I could caress her, I could not bear to have her out of my sight.



Stalwart Nurturers of Family Life

One evening at the height of the California gold rush an audience of grizzled miners sat crowded in a makeshift theater watching a play. Gradually their attention was diverted by a noise that rose above the dialogue onstage. The sound was unmistakable, but incredible. Somewhere a baby was crying. A murmur of excitement swept through the house. Craning their necks, the astonished men saw in their midst an embarrassed woman trying to hush the child she held in her arms. One old miner leaped to his feet. �Stop the show,� he bellowed at the actors, �so everybody can hear the baby!� Applause rang through the theater, and soon someone was passing a hat to collect an offering. The first baby! In any mining camp that was a milestone ranking just after the first woman.

A turn-of-the-century historian of the West had an explanation for the miners reaction: With the coming of women and children came also the graces of life, better social order and conditions, and increased regard for the amenities of existence.� The first California census, taken 1850, revealed that women made up less than 10 per cent of the white population. No wonder any mention that this dreary statistic was beginning to change was met with whoops of joy. The San Francisco newspaper of Caljfomia of June 27, 1851, reported �a most marked increase of the gentler sex� in recent months. �Both during the day and evening,� rejoiced the writer, �the rustling of silks and soft musical voices are quite familiar sounds, and with the silent accompaniment of fresh blooming and pleasant faces, exercises a most pleasurable influence over the minds of the male portion of our citizens.�

To be a mate, companion and homemaker to her husband, to bear and raise children this had been a woman�s traditional destiny, and it was the role the vast majority of women played in settling the frontier. Yet the familiar terrain of marriage and motherhood became a novel testing ground for the Western woman, with problems both spiritual and physical that her sisters back East rarely had to face. She was uprooted from family and friends, isolated from the companionship of other women, obliged to bear children under primitive conditions and, if they survived, raise them without benefit of convenient schools and churches. She had to endure dust storms, blizzards, droughts, blights of grasshoppers, leaking sod houses and incessant, grueling, dawn-to-dark labor in home and field.

And there was the gnawing fear of death or capture by Indians. Relatively few women suffered the latter fate, but the peril was always present. Tales of white women forced to become the concubines of ��savages�� sent a chill through the hearts of the hardiest pioneers.

The first order of business for most women on reaching the patch of wilderness that was to be their new home was to establish contact with the old one. Mail was agonizingly slow. Before the railroads sped up delivery, letters sometimes took half a year or more to arrive. The news was always stale but always sweet. In March of 1864, after deep snows had all but marooned the infant settlement of Bannack in southwestern Montana, Mary Edgerton happily reported to her twin in Ohio: �We have just received a package of letters. Among them were two letters from you to me, one dated July 12, the other October 5, �63. I was glad to get them even if they were not of late date.�

Narcissa Whitman, one of the two missionary wives who were the first white women to make the overland journey to the West Coast, did not receive any word from her family in upstate New York until two years and five months after she had bade them goodbye in 1836. Nevertheless, she wrote letters home steadily; the very act of writing formed a bridge to the past that helped sustain her. The Whitmans and their fellow missionaries, the Spaldings, parted company after reaching the Oregon wilderness, each ministering to a different Indian tribe. But Narcissa and Eliza Spalding found a method of circumventing the slowness and uncertainty 0f mail delivery: they kept in psychic touch, as it were. Each morning at the agreed hour of 9 a.m., the two women, 120 wilderness miles apart, isolated themselves for a brief while to meditate on their duties as mothers and to pray for the welfare of their babies. Behind their sincere piety lay a deep need for sisterly fellowship, however tenuous.

Like many literate pioneer women, both missionar ies kept journals. The daily entries served as an imme diate vent of emotions, a solace for loneliness, a way of sorting out thoughts and preserving experiences. Jour nals and diaries provide the most intimate and detailed knowledge of how women lived in the West. The diarists seemed to sense that their lives, no matter how obscure, were part of a great historical venture that would never take place again. They wanted to record it, and they hoped thereby to capture a piece of immor tality, at least among their descendants. Mollie Dorsey Sanford, an early settler in Nebraska and Colorado, asked her grandson to preserve her journal, �not from any special merit it possesses but because I do not want to be forgotten.�

Most women, of course, depended on neither letters nor diaries for companionship. They did their hard daily work, looked after their menfolk and raised large families. But childbearing was at best a mixed blessing. For the Western woman, pregnancies brought special burdens� most obviously, they added to the crushing fatigues of her daily life, which depleted her physical resources dangerously. Medical help might be so far away that it could not be counted on.

In the Oregon country during the late l830s and 1840s, Mary Walker gave birth to eight children; sometimes the doctor arrived before the babies did, sometimes he did not. Little wonder her journal took on a stoic tone: �Rose about five. Had breakfast. Got my house work done about nine. Baked six loaves of bread. Made a kettle of mush and have now a suet pudding and beef boiling. I have managed to put my clothes away and set my house in order. May the merciful be with me through the unexpected scene. Then, without any apparent pause in the account of her day, the entry concludes: �Nine o�clock p.m. was delivered of another son.

Mary Walker�s case was not unusual. Charley O�Kieffe, one of nine children, described the circumstances of his birth on a Missouri River farm: �Mother herded cattle all day long in the broiling hot sun so the children could attend a Fourth of July celebration in a nearby community. The next morning around two a.m., I was born. No doctor, no nurse, no midwife, just Mother and God.�

Women who gave birth on the trail could rarely count on a doctor�s help. At best they had only the assistance of a female relative or friend. At worst they faced childbirth as did the teen-age Mrs. Lane from Missouri (her first name is lost to history), who went into labor on the open plains during a November blizzard, with nothing but a makeshift tent for shelter and her desperate young husband for an attendant. When the baby girl arrived, they washed her with sleet melted in a skillet, but as they were swaddling her, the mother s birth pangs came again, and a second child was born as the storm raged. The family snuggled under a pile of blankets in the wagon, and miraculously mother, father and twins all survived.

Annie Greenwood, a farmer�s wife on the Snake River plains of Idaho, had to toil at household chores up to the very moment her daughter was born. She did not permit herself the luxury of complaining, but her terse recollection of the event speaks with understated bitterness: �The week Rhoda was born I cooked for fifteen men who had come to help stack hay. And in the intervals of serving them I would creep into my bedroom to sink across my bed. I was so tired. Through the bedroom window I could see the mare and the cow, turned out to pasture for weeks because they were going to have their young.�

The profound, unshakable faith in God that upheld so many pioneer women forbade them to murmur against their fate. Most went no further in their questioning than Mary Walker, who wrote in her diary, �I find my children occupy so much of my time that if their maker should see fit to withhold from me any more till they require less of my time and attention, I think I should be reconciled to such an allotment.�

But unfortunately Mrs. Walker could not plan her family. Whether she welcomed her pregnancies or dreaded them, they were nearly impossible to predict, much less control. Reliable knowledge of ovulation did not begin to circulate even within the medical profes sion until an English doctor in 1849 published an article giving the first accurate account of the process. Before then, folk wisdom had wrongly assumed that fertility occurred in the same rhythms in humans as in domesticated animals. Many a hapless female clung to the old wives� belief that as long as a woman was nursing one baby she would not conceive another� only to add another statistic to the old saw, �One in the cradle, one at the breast, one on the way.�

Contraceptive methods were primitive, disagreeable and haphazard. Access to reliable birth control information was confined largely to the wealthier, educated classes until late in the century. Such information or mechanisms as did circulate passed sub rosa, for to distribute or promote this material openly was punishable by law. Books on the subject were considered obscene; toward the end of the 19th Century even physicians writing on birth control were subject to prosecution. Women in the West, who were far from the centers of knowledge and isolated even from one another, were the last to learn even what limited infor mation was available.

More than one woman desperate to avoid pregnancy resorted to the only method she knew or felt certain of�abstention. Emma Plaisted had undergone six pregnancies, three of them terminating in miscarriage, when in 1889 she reluctantly left Philadelphia to join her husband on the Dakota homestead he had gone ahead to prepare. Before her marriage she had been a professional singer and music teacher; during her husband�s absence she had resumed her career and was thriving on it. Only a sense of duty�she was a minis ter�s daughter� made her go west when the summons came from her husband. The harshness of the climate, the loneliness of the Plains, the tedium of the snow bound winters were a torment.

One of Emma�s children, her daughter Elenore, began to understand as an adult something of both her parents suffering, which she had only guessed at as a child. �Of one terrible night I have a picture branded in my memory,� she wrote years later in a notebook meant for her own daughter. That night Elenore�s fa ther had been drinking from the �black bottles� he brought from town and hid under the closet. �Mother and we three children huddled into the farthest corner of one of the unplastered upstairs rooms. Horse blankets had been nailed over most of the walls, but slits of light shone between the laths. Mother had piled the furniture across the locked door.

�Downstairs there were terrifying noises� Daddy�s roaring, angry voice and the sound of things crashing. Then an angry tramping up the stairs, a horse blanket being jerked aside and, through the slats, my father�s face, dark red and horrible. My mother hid our heads in her skirts and talked to him. My memory of it ends there.�

Elenore felt compassion for her father as well as her mother: �Years later I realized that it was the lonely prairie life, the deadly winter, the need for sex refused by my mother, unwilling to endure another pregnancy, that drove him.� The strains finally forced her parents apart: within two years Emma Plaisted�s health failed and the doctors told her that the Dakota climate was bad for her. She returned to the East, supported the children by giving music lessons and eventually was formally separated from her husband. After her girlhood, Elenore never saw her father again.

Perhaps even more painful than unwanted pregnancies, hazardous childbirth and the burdens of raising a large family under ikcaj primitive conditions was the terrible desolation following the death of a child, particularly an only child. The bereavement of Narcissa Whitman drove her to the brink of madness. Her two-year-old daughter, Alice�the first white child born in the Northwest�was the focus and solace of her isolated life. Narcissa had carried Alice in her womb on the long journey to the West and given birth to her in the Oregon country in 1837. �0, how many melancholy hours she has saved me, while living here alone so long, especially when her father is gone for many days to gether,� Narcissa confessed in a letter to her sister.

On the 23rd of June, 1839, little Alice fell into the Walla Walla River and drowned. Narcissa clung to the dead child for four days before allowing her to be buried. �She did not begin to change in her appearance much for the first three days.� she wrote to her parents. �This proved to be a great comfort to me, for so long as she looked natural and was so sweet and I could caress her, I could not bear to have her out of my sight.�

The elements were an enemy to every Western mother. �We had extremely cold weather here the week before last,� wrote Mary Edgerton from Bannack, Montana, in January 1864. �The mercury in thermometers after going forty degrees below zero froze in the bulb. I never knew such cold weather or anything like it. I was so afraid that the children would freeze their noses or ears in the night that I got up a number of times to see that their heads were covered. Their beds would be covered with frost. I saw their frozen breath.�

On the prairie, the very grass that helped sustain life could turn into a dangerous trap for children. In Lancaster County, Nebraska, one day in 1868, two youngsters of seven and eight, a boy and a girl, decided to go looking for their brother, who was out herding cattle. In the tall grass the children lost their bearings and disappeared. For four days their distraught parents searched for them. Word came from a neighbor that the pair had turned up at his house and he had given them something to eat, but having had no reason to suspect that they were lost, he had let them go on their way. The parents finally gave the children up for dead, concluding that they had been devoured by wolves. It was only by accident that, 11 days after their disappearance, their father stumbled on them lying in the high grass, too weak from lack of food to walk. He carried them home on his back, one at a time, in relays, never letting either child out of his sight.
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