Woman As A Pioneer

By William Worthington Fowler in 1877

Colonial Women

Colonial Women, 1876, H. W. Pierce.

Every battle has its unnamed heroes. The common soldier enters the stormed fortress and, falling in the breach which his valor has made, sleeps in a nameless grave. The subaltern whose surname is scarcely heard beyond the roll-call on parade, bears the colors of his company where the fight is hottest. And the corporal who heads his file in the final charge, is forgotten in the “earthquake shout” of the victory which he has helped to win.

The victory may be due as much, or more, to the patriot courage of him who is content to do his duty in the rank and file, as to the dashing colonel who heads the regiment, or even to the general who plans the campaign: and yet unobserved, unknown, and unrewarded the former passes into oblivion while the leader’s name is on every tongue, and perhaps goes down in history as that of one who deserved well of his country.

Our comparison is a familiar one. There are other battles and armies besides those where thousands of disciplined men move over the ground to the sounds of the drum and fife. Life itself is a battle, and no grander army has ever been set in motion since the world began than that which for more than two centuries and a half has been moving across our continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, fighting its way through countless hardships and dangers, bearing the banner of civilization, and building a new republic in the wilderness.

In this army, woman has been too often the unnamed heroine.

Let us not forget her now. Her patience, her courage, her fortitude, her tact, and her presence of mind in trying hours; these are the shining virtues that we have to record. Woman “as a pioneer” standing beside her rougher, stronger companion — man; first on the voyage across a stormy ocean, from England to America; then at Plymouth, and Jamestown, and all the settlements first planted by Europeans on our Coast; then through the trackless wilderness, onward across the continent, till every river has been forded, and every chain of mountains has been scaled, the Peaceful Ocean has been reached, and fifty thousand cities, towns, and hamlets all over the land have been formed from those aggregations of household life where woman’s work has been wrought out to its fullness.

Another fun video from our friends at Arizona Ghostriders.

Among all the characteristics of woman, there is none more marked than the self-devotion which she displays in what she believes is a righteous cause, or where for her loved ones she sacrifices herself. In India, we see her wrapped in flames and burned to ashes with her husband’s corpse. Under the Muslim, her highest condition is life-long incarceration. She patiently places her shoulders under the burden which the aboriginal lord of the American forest lays upon them. Calmly and in silence, she submits to the onerous duties imposed upon her by social and religious laws. Throughout the whole heathen world, she remained, in the words of an elegant French writer, “anonymous, indifferent to herself, and leaving no trace of her passage upon earth.”

The benign spirit of Christianity has lifted woman from the position she held under other religious systems and elevated her to a higher sphere. She is brought forward as a teacher; she displays a martyr’s courage in the presence of pestilence or ascends the deck of the mission-ship to take her part in “perils among the heathen.” She endures the hardships and faces the dangers of colonial life with a new sense of her responsibility as a wife and mother. In all these capacities, whether teaching, ministering to the sick, or carrying the Gospel to the heathen, she shows the same self-devotion as in “the brave days of old;” it is this quality which peculiarly fits her to be the pioneer’s companion in the new world, and by her works, in that capacity, she must be judged.

If all true greatness should be estimated by the good it performs, it is peculiarly desirable that woman’s claims to distinction should thus be estimated and awarded. In America, her presence has been acknowledged, and her aid faithfully rendered from the beginning. In the era of colonial life, in the cruel wars with the aborigines, in the struggle of the Revolution, in the western march of the army of exploration and settlement, a grateful people must now recognize her services.

There is a beautiful tradition that the first foot which pressed the snow-clad rock of Plymouth was that of Mary Chilton, a fair young maiden and that the last survivor of those heroic pioneers was Mary Allerton, who lived to see the planting of twelve out of the thirteen colonies, which formed the nucleus of these United States.

Mayflower approaching land

In the Mayflower, nineteen wives accompanied their husbands to a wasteland and uninhabited, save by the wily and vengeful savage. On the un-floored hut, she who had been nurtured amid the rich carpets and curtains of the motherland rocked her newborn babe and complained not. She, who in the home of her youth had arranged the gorgeous shades of embroidery, or, perchance, had compounded the rich venison pasty, as her share in the housekeeping, now pounded the coarse Indian corn for her children’s bread, and bade them ask God’s blessing, ere they took their scanty portion. When the snows sifted through the miserable roof-tree upon her little ones, she gathered them closer to her bosom; she taught them the Bible, and the catechism, and the holy hymn, though the war-whoop of the Indian rang through the wild. Amid the untold hardships of colonial life, she infused new strength into her husband by her firmness and solaced his weary hours by her love. She was to him, “—-an undergoing spirit, to bear up against whate’er ensued.”

The names of these nineteen pioneer-matrons should be engraved in letters of gold on the pillars of American history:

The Wives of the Pilgrims.

  • Mrs. Catharine Carver.
  • Mrs. Dorothy Bradford.
  • Mrs. Elizabeth Winslow
  • Mrs. Mary Brewster.
  • Mrs. Mary Allerton.
  •  Mrs. Elizabeth Hopkins.
  • Mrs. Ann Tilley.
  • Mrs. —— Tilley.
  • Mrs. —— Tinker
  • Mrs. [Alice] Rigsdale.
  • Mrs. Rose Standish.
  • Mrs. [Mary] Martin.
  • Mrs. [Alice] Mullins.
  • Mrs. Susanna White
  • Mrs. [Sarah] Eaton.
  • Mrs. —— Chilton
  • Mrs. —— Fuller
  • Mrs. Helen Billington.
  • Mrs. Lucretia Brewster

Nor should the names of the daughters of these heroic women be forgotten, who, with their mothers and fathers, shared the perils of that winter’s voyage and bore, with their parents, the toils, and hardships, and changes of the infant colony.

The Daughters of the Pilgrim Mothers.

  • Elizabeth Carver
  • Remember Allerton
  • Mary Allerton
  • Sarah Allerton
  • Constance Hopkins
  • Mary Chilton
  • Priscilla Mullins


Mayflower pilgrims signing the compact, 1620, T.H. Matteson

The voyage of the Mayflower; the landing upon a desolate coast in the dead of winter; the building of those ten small houses, with oiled paper for windows; the suffering of that first winter and spring, in which woman bore her whole share; these were the first steps in the grand movement which has carried the Anglo-Saxon race across the American continent. The next steps were the penetration of the wilderness westward from the sea by the emigrant pioneers and their wives. Fighting their way through dense forests, building cabins, block-houses, and churches in the clearings they had made; warred against by cruel savages; woman was ever-present to guard, comfort, and work. The annals of colonial history teem with her deeds of love and heroism, and what are those recorded instances to those which had no chronicler?

She loaded the flint-lock in the block-house while yelling savages surrounded it; she exposed herself to the scalping-knife to save her babe; in her forest-home, she worked and watched, far from the loved ones in Old England; and by discharging a thousand duties in the household and the field, did her share in a silent way towards building up the young Republic of the West.

Sometimes she ranged herself in battle beside her husband or brother and fought with the steadiness and bravery of a veteran. But her heroism never shone so brightly as in undergoing danger in defense of her children.

In the early days of Royalton, Vermont, a sudden attack was made upon it by the Indians. Mrs. Hendee, the wife of one of the settlers, was working alone in the field, her husband being absent on military duty, when the Indians entered her house and capturing her children carried them across the White River, at that place a hundred yards wide and quite deep for fording, and placed them under keepers who had some other persons, thirty or forty in number, in charge.

Returning from the field, Mrs. Hendee discovered the fate of her children. Her first outburst of grief was heart-rending to behold, but this was only transient; she ceased her lamentations, and like the lioness who has been robbed of her litter, she bounded on the trail of her plunderers. Resolutely dashing into the river, she stemmed the current, planting her feet firmly on the bottom and pushing across. With pallid face, flashing eyes, and lips compressed, maternal love, dominating every fear, she strode into the Indian camp, regardless of the tomahawks menacingly flourished round her head, boldly demanded the release of her little ones, and persevered in her alternate upbraidings and supplications, till her request was granted. She then carried her children back through the river and landed them in safety on the other bank.

Not content with what she had done, like a patriot as she was, she immediately returned, begged for the release of the children of others, again was rewarded with success, and brought two or three more away; again returned, and again succeeded, till she had rescued the whole fifteen of her neighbors’ children who had been thus snatched away from their distracted parents. On her last visit to the camp of the enemy, the Indians were so struck with her conduct that one of them declared that so brave a squaw deserved to be carried across the river and offered to take her on his back and carry her over. In the same spirit, she accepted the offer, mounted the back of the gallant savage, was carried to the opposite bank, where she collected her rescued troop of children and hastened away to restore them to their overjoyed parents.

The Wyoming Massacre

The Wyoming Massacre

During the memorable Wyoming massacre, Mrs. Mary Gould, wife of James Gould, with the other women remaining in the village of Wyoming, sought safety in the fort. In the haste and confusion attending this act, she left her boy, about four years old, behind. Obeying the instincts of a mother and turning a deaf ear to the admonitions of friends, she started on a perilous search for the missing one. It was dark; she was alone, and the foe was lurking around, but the agonies of death could not exceed her agonies of suspense, so she hastened on. She traversed the fields which, but a few hours before, “were trampled by the hurrying crowd,” where “—-fiery hearts and armed hands, encountered in the battle cloud,” and where unarmed hands were now resting on cold and motionless hearts. After a search of between one and two hours, she found her child on the bank of the river, sporting with a little band of playmates. Clasping her treasure in her arms, she hurried back and reached the fort in safety.

During the struggles of the American Revolution, the privations sustained and the efforts made by women, were neither few nor of short duration. Many of them are delineated in the present volume. Yet innumerable instances of faithful toil and patient endurance must have been covered with oblivion. In how many a lone home, from which the father was long sundered by a soldier’s destiny, did the mother labor to perform to their little ones both his duties and her own, having no witness of the extent of her heavy burdens and sleepless anxieties, save the Hearer of prayer.

A good and hoary-headed man, who had passed the limits of fourscore, once said to me, “My father was in the army during the whole eight years of the Revolutionary War, at first as a common soldier, afterward as an officer. My mother had the sole charge of us four little ones. Our house was a poor one and far from neighbors. I have a keen remembrance of the terrible cold of some of those winters. The snow lay so deep and long that it was difficult to cut or draw fuel from the woods or to get our corn to the mill when we had any. My mother was the possessor of a coffee mill. In that, she ground wheat and made coarse bread, which we ate, and were thankful. It was not always allowed as much, even of this, as our keen appetites craved. Many are the time that we have gone to bed, with only a drink of water for our supper, in which a little molasses had been mingled. We patiently received it, for we knew our mother did as well for us as she could, and we hoped to have something better in the morning. She was never heard to repine, and young as we were, we tried to make her loving spirit and heavenly trust our example.

“When my father was permitted to come home, his stay was short, and he had not much to leave us, for the pay of those who achieved our liberties was slight and irregularly given. Yet when he went, my mother ever bade him farewell with a cheerful face and told him not to be anxious about his children, for she would watch over them night and day, and God would take care of the families of those who went forth to defend the righteous cause of their country. Sometimes we wondered that she did not mention the cold weather, our short meals, or her hard work, that we little ones might be clothed, fed, and taught. But she would not weaken his hands or sadden his heart, for she said a soldier’s life was harder than all. We saw that she never complained but always kept in her heart a sweet hope, like a well of water. Every night ere we slept, and every morning when we arose, we lifted our little hands for God’s blessing on our absent father and our endangered country.

“How deeply the prayers from such solitary homes and faithful hearts were mingled with the infant liberties of our dear native land, we may not know until we enter where we see no more ‘through a glass darkly, but face to face.’

“Incidents repeatedly occurred during this contest of eight years, between the feeble colonies and the strong motherland, of courage that ancient Sparta would have applauded.

Tarletons cavalry, Peter Francisco, 1831

“In a thinly settled part of Virginia, the quiet of the Sabbath eve was once broken by the loud, hurried roll of the drum. Volunteers were invoked to go forth and prevent the British troops, under the pitiless Tarleton, from forcing their way through an important mountain pass. In an old fort resided a family, all of whose elder sons were absent with our army, which at the north opposed the foe. The father lay enfeebled and sick. By his bedside, the mother called their three sons of thirteen, fifteen, and seventeen.

“Go forth, children,” said she, “to the defense of your native clime. Go, each and all of you; I spare not my youngest, my fair-haired boy, the light of my declining years.

“Go forth, my sons! Repel the foot of the invader, or see my face no more.”

To get a proper estimate of the greatness of the part which woman has acted in the mighty onward-moving drama of civilization on this continent, we must remember too her peculiar physical constitution. Her highly strung nervous organization, and her softness of fiber make labor more severe and suffering keener. It is an instinct with her to tremble at danger; her training from girlhood unfits her to cope with the difficulties of outdoor life. “Men,” says the poet, “must work, and women must weep.” But the pioneer women must both work and weep. The toils and hardships of frontier life write early wrinkles upon her brow and bow her delicate frame with care. We do not expect to subject our little ones to the toils or dangers that belong to adults. Labor is pain to the soft fibers and unknit limbs of childhood, and to the impressible minds of the young, danger conveys a thousand fears not felt by the firmer natures of older persons. Hence it is that all mankind admire youthful heroism. The story of Casabianca on the deck of the burning ship, or the little wounded drummer, borne on the shoulders of a musketeer and still beating the “rappel” — while the bullets are flying around him– thrill the heart of man because these were great and heroic deeds performed by striplings. It is the bravery and firmness of the weak that challenges the highest admiration. This is woman’s case: and when we see her matching her strength and courage against those of man in the same cause, with equal results, what can we do but applaud?

A European traveler lately visited the Territory of Montana–abandoning the beaten trail, in company only with an Indian guide, for he was a bold and fearless explorer. He struck across the mountains, traveling for two days without seeing the sign of a human being. Just at dusk, on the evening of the second day, he drew rein on the summit of one of those lofty hills which form the spurs of the Rocky Mountains. The solitude was awful. As far as the eye could see stretched an unbroken succession of mountain peaks, bare of forest–a wilderness of rocks with stunted trees at their base, and deep ravines where no streams were running. In all this desolate scene there was no sign of a living thing. While they were tethering their horses and preparing for the night, the sharp eyes of the Indian guide caught sight of a gleam of light at the bottom of a deep gorge beneath them.

Descending the declivity, they reached a cabin rudely built of deadwood, which seemed to have been brought down by the spring rains from the hillsides to the west. Knocking at the door, it was opened by a woman, holding in her arms a child of six months. The woman appeared to be fifty years of age, but she was in reality only thirty. Casting a searching look upon the traveler and his companion, she asked them to enter.

The cabin was divided into two apartments, a kitchen, which also served for a store-room, dining-room, and sitting-room; the other was the chamber, or rather bunk-room, where the family slept. Five children came tumbling out from this latter apartment as the traveler entered, and greeted him with a stare of childlike curiosity.

The woman asked them to be seated on blocks of wood, which served for chairs, and soon threw off her reserve and told them her story, while they awaited the return of her husband from the nearest village, some thirty miles distant, whither he had gone the day before to dispose of the gold dust which he had “panned out” from a gulch nearby.

Cabin fireplace, 1894, E.M. Van Aken

He was a miner. Four years before he had come with his family from the East, and pushing on in advance of the main movement of emigration in the territory, had discovered a rich gold placer in this lonely gorge.

While he had been working in this placer, his wife had with her own hands turned up the soil in the valley below and raised all the corn and potatoes required for the support of the family; she had done the housework, and had made all the clothes for the family.

Once, when her husband was sick, she had ridden thirty miles for medicine. It was a dreary ride, she said, for the road, or rather trail, was very rough, and her husband was in a burning fever. She left him in charge of her oldest child, a girl of eleven years, but she was a bright, helpful little creature, able to wait upon the sick man and feed the other children during the two days’ absence of her mother.

Next summer they were to build a house lower down the valley and would be joined by three other families of their kindred from the East. “Have you never been attacked by the Indians?” inquired the traveler.

“Only three times,” she replied. “Once three prowling red-skins came to the door, in the night, and asked for food. My husband handed them a loaf of bread through the window, but they refused to go away and lurked in the bushes all night; they were stragglers from a war-party, and wanted more scalps. I saw them in the moonlight, armed with rifles and tomahawks, and frightfully painted. They kindled a fire a hundred yards below our cabin and stayed there all night as if they were watching for us to come out, but early in the morning, they disappeared, and we saw them no more.

War party, Frederic Remington, 1916

“Another time, a large war party of Indians encamped a mile below us, and a dozen of them came up and surrounded the house. Then we thought we were lost: they amused themselves aiming at marks in the logs, or at the chimney and windows; we could hear their bullets rattle against the rafters, and you can see the holes they made in the doors. One big brave took a large stone and was about to dash it against the door, when my husband pointed his rifle at him through the window, and he turned and ran away. We should have all been killed and scalped if a company of soldiers had not come up the valley that day with an exploring party and driven the red-skins away.

“One afternoon as my husband was at work in the diggings, two red-skins came up to him and wounded him with arrows, but he caught up his rifle and soon made an end of them.

“When we first came there was no end of bears and wolves, and we could hear them howling all night long. Winter nights the wolves would come and drum on the door with their paws and whine as if they wanted to eat up the children. Husband shot ten and I shot six, and after that we were troubled no more with them.

“We have no schools here, as you see,” continued she; “but I have taught my three oldest children to read since we came here, and every Sunday we have family prayers. Husband reads a verse in the Bible, and then I and the children read a verse in turn, till we finish a whole chapter. Then I make the children, all but baby, repeat a verse over and over till they have it by heart; the Scripture promises do comfort us all, even the littlest one who can only lisp them.

“Sometimes on Sunday morning I take all the children to the top of that hill yonder and look at the sun as it comes up over the mountains, and I think of the old folks at home and all our friends in the East. The hardest thing to bear is the solitude. We are awful lonesome. Once, for eighteen months, I never saw the face of a white person except those of my husband and children. It makes me laugh and cry too when I see a strange face. But I am too busy to think much about it daytimes. I must wash, and boil, and bake, or look after the cows which wander off in search of pasture; or go into the valley and hoe the corn and potatoes, or cut the wood; for husband makes his ten or fifteen dollars a day panning out dust up the mountain, and I know that whenever I want him I have only to blow the horn and he will come down to me. So I tend to business here and let him get gold. In five or six years we shall have a nice house farther down and shall want for nothing. We shall have a saw-mill next spring started on the run below, and folks are going to join us from the States.”

The woman who told this story of dangers and hardships amid the Rocky Mountains was of a slight, frail figure. She had evidently been once possessed of more than ordinary attractions; but the cares of maternity and the toils of frontier life had bowed her delicate frame and engraved premature wrinkles upon her face: she was old before her time, but her spirit was as dauntless and her will to do and dare for her loved ones was as firm as that of any of the heroines whom history has made so famous. She had been reared in luxury in one of the towns of central New York, and till she was eighteen years old had never known what toil and trouble were.

Her husband was a true type of the American explorer and possessed in his wife a fit companion; and when he determined to push his fortune among the Western wilds she accompanied him cheerfully; already they had accumulated five thousand dollars, which was safely deposited in the bank; they were rearing a band of sturdy little pioneers; they had planted an outpost in a region teeming with mineral wealth, and around them is now growing up a thriving village of which this heroic couple are soon to be the patriarchs.

All honor to the names of Mr. and Mrs. James Manning, the pioneers of Montana.

Explorers, Frederic Remington, 1904

The traveler and his guide, declining the hospitality which this brave matron tendered them, soon returned to their camp on the hill-top; but the Englishman made notes of the pioneer woman’s story, and pondered over it, for he saw in it an epitome of frontier life.

If a tourist were to pass today beyond the Mississippi River, and journey over the wagon-roads which lead Westward towards the Rocky Mountains, he would see moving towards the setting sun innumerable caravans of emigrants’ canvas-covered wagons, bound for the frontier. In each of these wagons is a man, one or two women with children, agricultural tools, and household gear. At night the horses or oxen are tethered or turned loose on the prairie; a fire is kindled with buffalo chips or such fuel as can be had, and supper is prepared. A bed of prairie grass suffices for the man while the women and children rest in the covered wagon. When the morning dawns, they resume their Westward journey. Weeks, months, sometimes, roll by before the wagon reaches its destination; but it reaches it at last. Then begin the struggle, and pains, the labors, and dangers of border life, in all of which woman bears her part. While the primeval forest falls before the stroke of the man-pioneer, his companion does the duty of both man and woman at home. The hearthstone is laid, and the rude cabin rises. The virgin soil is vexed by the ploughshare driven by the man; the garden and house, the dairy and barns are tended by the woman, who clasps her babe while she milks, and fodders, and weeds. Danger comes when the man is away; the woman must meet it alone. Famine comes, and the woman must eke out the slender store, scrimping and pinching for the little ones; sickness comes, and the woman must nurse and watch alone, and without the sympathy of any of her sex. Fifty miles from a doctor or a friend, except her weary and perhaps morose husband, she must keep strong under labor, and be patient under suffering, till death. And thus the household, the hamlet, the village, the town, the city, the state, rise out of her “homely toils, and destiny obscure.” Truly she is one of the founders of the Republic.

William Worthington Fowler, 1877. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.

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.

See our Pioneer Women Gallery HERE

Also See:

Heroines Across the Plains

Heroines in the Rocky Mountains

Heroines of the Southwest

Women in the Army

Women in the Homestead

Historical Accounts of American History