Women in the Homestead

“The young married people, who form a considerable part of the pioneer element in our country, are simple in their habits, moderate in their aspirations, and hoard a little old-fashioned romance — unconsciously enough — in the secret nooks of their rustic hearts. They find no fault with their bare loggeries; with a shelter and a handful of furniture, they have enough.” If there is the wherewithal to spread a warm supper for the “old man” when he comes in from work, the young wife forgets the long, solitary, wordless day and asks no greater happiness than preparing it by the help of such materials and utensils as would be looked at with utter contempt in the comfortable kitchens of the East.

They have youth, hope, health, occupation, and amusement, and when you have added ” meat, clothes, and fire,” what more has England’s queen?”

We should, however, remember that there is another large class of women who, for various reasons, have left comfortable homes in older communities, and risked their happiness and all that they have in enterprises of pioneer life in the far West. What wonder that they should sadly miss the thousand old familiar means and appliances! Some utensil or implement necessary to their husbandry is wanting or has been lost or broken, and cannot be replaced. Some comfort or luxury to which she has been used from childhood is lacking, and cannot be furnished. The multifarious materials upon which household art can employ itself are reduced to the few absolute essentials. These difficulties are felt more by the woman than the man. To quote the words of a writer who was herself a pioneer housewife in the West:

“The husband goes to his work with the same ax or hoe which fitted his hand in his old woods and fields; he tills the same soil or perhaps a far richer and more hopeful one; he gazes on the same book of nature which he has read from his infancy and sees only a fresher and more glowing page, and he returns home with the sun, strong in heart and full of self-congratulation on the favorable change in his lot . Perhaps he finds the home bird drooping and disconsolate. She has found a thousand difficulties which her rougher mate can scarcely be taught to feel as evils. She has been looking in vain for any of the cherished features of her old fireside. What cares he if the time-honored cupboard is meagerly represented by a few oak boards lying on pegs called shelves. His tea equipage shines as it was wont, the biscuits can hardly stay on the brightly glistening plates. His bread never was better baked. What does he want with the great old-fashioned rocking chair? When he is tired he goes to bed, for he is never tired till bed-time. The sacrifices in moving West have been made most largely by women.”

It is this very dearth of so many things that once made her life easy and comfortable which throws her back upon her own resources. Here again, is woman’s strength. Fertile in expedients, apt in device, an artisan to construct and an artist to embellish, she proceeds to supply what is lacking in her new home. She has a miraculous faculty for creating much out of little, and for transforming the course into the beautiful. Barrels are converted into easy chairs and washstands; spring beds are manufactured with rows of slender, elastic saplings; a box covered with muslin stuffed with hay serves as a lounge. By the aid of considerable personal exertion, while she adds to the list of useful and necessary articles, she also enlarges the circle of luxuries. An hour or two of extra work now and then enables her to hoard enough to buy a new looking-glass and to make from time to time small additions to the showy part of the household.

After she has transformed the rude cabin into a cozy habitation, she turns her attention to the outside surroundings. Woodbine and wild cucumber are trailed over the doors and windows; little beds of sweet-williams and marigolds line the path to the clearing’s edge or across the prairie-sward to the well, and an apple or pear tree is put in here and there. In all these works, either of use or embellishment, if not done by her own hand she is at least the moving spirit. Thus over the rugged and homely features of her lot she throws something of the magic of that ideal of which the poet sings:

“Nymph of our soul and brightener of our being:
She makes the common waters musical —
Binds the rude night-winds in a silver thrall,
Bids Hybla’s thyme and Tempe’s violet dwell
Round the green marge of her moon-haunted celL”

It is the thousand nameless household offices performed by a woman that makes the home: it is the home that molds the character of the children and makes the husband what he is. Who can deny the vast debt of gratitude due to the present generation of Americans to these offices of a woman in refining and ameliorating the rude tone of frontier life? It may well be said that the pioneer women of America have made the wilderness bud and blossom like the rose. Under their hands even nature itself, no longer a wild, wayward mother, turns a more benign face upon her children. A land bright with flowers and bursting with fruitage testifies to the labors and influence of those who embellish the homestead and make it attractive to their husbands and children.

A traveler on the vast prairies of Kansas and Nebraska will often see cabins remote from the great thoroughfares embowered in vines and shrubbery and bright with beds of flowers. Entering he will discern the rugged features of frontier life softened in a hundred ways by the hand of a woman. The steel is just as hard and more serviceable after it is polished, and the oak-wood as strong and durable when it is trimmed and smoothed. The children of the frontier are as hardy and as manly through the gentle voice of woman schools their rugged ways and her kind hand leads them through the paths of refinement and molds them in the school of humanity.


By William Worthington Fowler, 1877. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

About the Author:  William Worthington Fowler was a diverse man with a number of careers including lawyer, stockbroker, politician, and author. This article was the prelude to his book Woman On The American Frontier: A Valuable And Authentic History originally published in 1877.

Also See:

Heroines Across the Plains

Heroines in the Rocky Mountains

Heroines of the Southwest

Women in the Army

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