Heroines of the Plains
William Worthington Fowler in 1877
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movement of emigration westward since the early part of the seventeenth
century resembles the great ocean billows during a rising tide. Sweeping
over the watery waste with a steady roll, dragged by the lunar force, each
billow dashes higher and higher on the beach, until the attractive
influence has been spent and the final limit reached. The spirit of
religious liberty and of adventure carried the European across the
Atlantic. This was the first wave of emigration. The achievement of our
Independence gave the next great impetus to the movement. The acquisition
and the discovery of gold was the third stimulus that carried our race
across the continent. The final impulse was communicated by the completion
of the Pacific Railroad.
At the close of the
Mexican War in 1848, our frontier States were,
Iowa, and Wisconsin. With the exception of a few forts, trading-posts,
missionary stations, and hunters' camps, the territory extending from the
line of furthest settlement in those States, westward to the Pacific
Ocean, was for the most part an uninhabited waste.
This tract, including
the Gadsden Purchase, covering upwards of seventeen hundred thousand
square miles and nearly half as large as the whole of Europe, was now
to be penetrated, explored, reclaimed, and added to the area of
The pioneer army of
occupation who were to commence this mighty work moved through
and Iowa, and crossing the turbid flood which formed one of the great
natural boundaries of that wild empire, saw before them the vast
stretching with scarcely a break for five hundred miles as the crow
flies to the foot-hills of the Rocky Mountains. The Platte, the Kansas,
and the Arkansas Rivers, with their tributaries, indicated the general bearings
of the march, the sun and moon were unerring guides.
The host divided
itself: one part spread over and tilled the rich country which extends
for two hundred miles west of the
River; another part grazed its flocks and herds on the pasture ground
beyond; another, crossing the belt of desert, settled in the
picturesque region between the barrens and the foothills, another
penetrated into the mountains and planted itself in the labyrinthian
valleys and on the lofty table lands between the Black Hills and the
Sierras, another more boldly marched a thousand miles across a
wilderness of mountain ranges and settled on the slope which descends
to the shores of the Pacific.
The rivers and
streams between the Missouri
and the mountains, and latterly the railroads, were the axes around
which population gathered and turned itself. Here were the dwelling
places of the settlers, here woman's work was to be done and her
influence to be employed in building up the empire on the plains.
We have stated how, by a series of
processes extending through successive generations and the lapse of
centuries, she grew more and more capable to fulfill her mission on
this continent, and how, as the physical and moral difficulties that
beset frontier-life multiplied, she gathered corresponding strength
and faculties to meet them. In entering that new field of pioneer
enterprise which lay beyond the Missouri River in 1848, there still, among others, remained that one great grief over
the separation from her old home.
When the eastern woman bade farewell to her friends and started for
the plains it seemed to her, and often proved to be, a final adieu. We
say nothing of that large class which, being more scantily endowed
with this world's goods, were forced to make the long, wearisome
journey with ox teams from the older settlements of the East.
We take the weaker case of the well-to-do immigrant wife who, by railroad,
and by steamboat on the lakes or rivers, reached, after a journey of two
thousand miles, the point upon the Missouri River where she was to enter the "prairie schooner" and move out into that
vast expanse; even to her the pangs of separation must have then been felt
with renewed and redoubled force.
That "turbid flood" was the casting-off place.
She was as one who ventures in a small boat into a wide, dark ocean, not
knowing whether she would ever return or find within the murky waste a
safe abiding place.
There was the
uncertainty; the positive dangers of the route; the apprehended dangers
which might surround the settlement; the new country, with all its
difficulties, privations, labors, and trials; the possibilities of
disease, with small means of relief; the utter solitude, with little
prospect of solacing companionship.
And yet, with so dreary a picture presented to
her mental vision, she did not shrink from the enterprise, nor turn back,
until all hope of making a home for her family in that remote region had
fled. We recall a few instances in which, after years of toil, sorrow, and
suffering--when all had been lost, the heroine of the household has been
driven back by a stress of circumstances with which human power was
unavailing to cope. Such a case was that of Mrs. N., of which the
following are the substantial facts:
While a squad of United States cavalry were journeying in 1866 from the
Great Bend of the Arkansas River
the commanding officer, as he was sweeping with his glass the horizon of
the vast level plain over which they were passing, descried a small object
moving towards their line of march through the tall grass some two miles
to their left. No other living thing was visible throughout their field of
vision, and conjecture was rife as to what this single moving object in
that lonely waste could be. It moved in a slow and hesitating way,
sometimes pausing, as if weary, and then resuming its sluggish course
towards the East.
They made it out clearly at last. It was a solitary woman. She had a rifle
in her hand, and as the squad changed their course and approached her, she
could be seen at the distance of half a mile putting herself in the
posture of defense and making ready to use her rifle.
The horsemen waved their hats and shouted loudly to
advise her that they were friends. She kept her rifle at her shoulder and
stood like a statue, until, seeming to be reassured, she changed her
attitude and with tottering steps approached them.
She was a woman under
thirty, who had evidently been tenderly reared; small and fragile, her
pale, wasted face bore those lines which mutely tell the tale of long
sorrow and suffering. Her appearance awoke all those chivalrous feelings
which are the honor of the military profession. She was speechless with
emotion. The officer addressed her with kind and respectful inquiries.
Those were the first words of her mother tongue she had heard for four
weeks. Like the breath of the "sweet south" blowing across the fabled
lute, those syllables, speaking of home and friends, relaxed the tension
to which her nerves had been so long strung and she wept. Twice she
essayed to tell how she happened to be found in such a melancholy
situation on that wild plain, and twice she broke down, sobbing with those
convulsive sobs that show how the spirit can shake and over-master the
Weak, weary, and worn as
she was, they ceased to question her, and preserved a respectful silence,
while they did all that rough soldiers could do to make her comfortable.
An army overcoat was wrapped around her, stimulants and food given her,
and one of the soldiers, shortening a stirrup, and strapping a folded
blanket over his saddle, made a comfortable seat upon his horse; which he
surrendered to her. The following day she had acquired sufficient strength
to tell her sad story.
Three years before, she,
with her husband and four children, had left her childhood's home, in the
eastern part of Ohio, and set out for
oldest boy sickened and died while passing through Illinois, and they laid
him to rest beneath the waving prairie grass. After crossing the Missouri
River, her second child, a lovely little girl of six years, was carried
off by the scarlet fever, and they left her sleeping beneath the green
meadow sward on the bank of the
After a wearisome march
of eighty days, they reached their destination on the Smoky Hill Branch of
River, and lying about three hundred miles west of
Leavenworth. Here, in a country suitable for grazing and tillage, they
chose their home. Mr. N. devoted himself to the raising of cattle, tilling
only land enough to supply the wants of himself and family.
She had toiled day and night to make their
home comfortable and happy for her husband and children. Fortune smiled
upon them. Their herds multiplied and throve upon the rich pasturage and
in the mild air of the region where they grazed. Two more children were
added to their flock. Their roof-tree sheltered all from the heats of
summer and the bleak winds which sweep those plains in the winter season.
Bounteous harvests blessed their store. They were visited by the red man
only as a wayfarer and friend.
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