Woman As A Pioneer

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/Legends of America, updated June, 2016.

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


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