Heroines of the Plains

By William Worthington Fowler in 1877

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Fanny Palmer, Currier and Ives, 1868

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Fanny Palmer, Currier and Ives, 1868

The movement of emigration westward since the early part of the 17th 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 of California 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-American War in 1848, our frontier States were Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, 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 civilization.

The pioneer army of occupation who were to commence this mighty work moved through Missouri and Iowa, and crossing the turbid flood which formed one of the great natural boundaries of that wild empire, saw before them the vast plains of Nebraska and Kansas stretching with scarcely a break for five hundred miles as the crow flies to the foothills 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.

A wagon train and Indians

A wagon train and Indians

The host divided itself: one part spread over and tilled the rich country which extends for two hundred miles west of the Missouri 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 California 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 River and the mountains, and latterly the railroads, were the axes around which the 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 2,000 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:

Kansas Cavalry Unit

Kansas Cavalry Unit

While a squad of United States cavalry was journeying in 1866 from the Great Bend of the Arkansas River to Fort Riley, in Kansas, the commanding officer, as he was sweeping with his glass the horizon of the vast level plain over which they were passing, described 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 30, 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 frail body.

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 Kansas. Her 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 scarlet fever, and they left her sleeping beneath the green meadow sward on the bank of the Kansas River.

Prairie Woman

Prairie Girl

After a wearisome march of eighty days, they reached their destination on the Smoky Hill Branch of the Kansas River and lying about 300 miles west of Fort 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 his 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 thrived 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.

This bright sky was at last suddenly overclouded. A plague raged among their cattle. A swarm of grasshoppers ravaged their crops. A drought followed, which burned up the herbage. “Terrors,” says, the poet, “come not as single spies, but in battalions.” Pestilence, at last, came to complete the ruin of that hapless household. Her husband was first stricken down, and after a week of suffering, died in a delirium, which, while it startled and saddened the little flock, kept him all unapprehensive of the evils which might visit his bereaved family after his departure. The wife dug, with her own hands, a shallow grave on the bluff where their house stood, and bearing, with difficulty, in her slender arms the wasted remains, laid them, coffinless, in the trench, and covering them with earth, returned to the house to find her three oldest children suffering from the same malady. The pestilence made short but sure work with their little frames. One by one they breathed their last in their mother’s arms. Kissing their waxen features, she bore them out all alone and laid them tenderly side by side with their father.

The little babe of four months was still the picture of health. All unconscious of its bereavements and of the bitter sorrows of her on whose bosom he lay, he throve upon the maternal bounty which poured for him, though her frail life seemed to be passing away with it.

Like some subtle but potent elixir, which erects the vital spirit, and holds it when about to flee from its tenement, so did that sweet babe keep the mother’s heart pulsing with gentle beat during the days which followed those forlorn funeral rites.

A week passed, during which a great terror possessed her, lest she too should have the latent seeds of the pestilence in her frame, and should have imparted the dreadful gift to her babe through the fountain of motherhood.

A racking pain in her forehead, followed by lassitude, told her alas! That all she had shuddered to think of was coming to pass. Weary and suffering, she laid herself upon the couch, which she prayed but for her infant might be her last resting place. Too soon, as she watched with a keenness of vision which only a mother can possess, did she see the first shadow of the destroyer reflected on the face of her little one. It faded like a flower in the hot blast of July, “So softly worn, so sweetly weak,” and before two suns had come and gone, it lay like a bruised lily on the fever-burning bosom which gave it life.

Unconsciousness came mercifully to the poor mother. For hours she lay in blessed oblivion. But the vital principle, which often displays its wondrous power in the feeblest frames, asserted its triumph over death, and she awoke again to the remembrance of losses that could never be repaired this side the grave.

Pioneer Grave

Pioneer Grave

Three days passed before the fever left her. She arose from her couch, and, with shaking frame, laid her little-withered blossom on its father’s grave, and covering it with a mound of dried grass, crowned it with yellow autumn leaves.

The love of life slowly returned; but the means to sustain that life had been destroyed by murrain, the grasshoppers, and the drought. The household stores would suffice but for a few days longer. The only and precarious means of subsistence which would then remain would be such game as she could shoot. The Indians becoming apprised of the death of Mr. N., had carried off the horses.

Only one avenue of escape was left her; casting many “a longing, lingering look” at the home once so happy, but now so swept and desolate, she took her husband’s rifle and struck boldly out into the boundless plain, towards the trail which runs from the Arkansas River to Fort Riley, and after several days of great suffering fell in with friends, as we have already described.

The sad experience of Mrs. N. is fortunately a rare one at the present day. The vast area occupied by the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, is in many respect s naturally fitted for those forms of social life in which woman’s work may be performed under the most favorable circumstances; a country richly adapted to the various forms of agriculture and to pastoral occupations; a mild and generally equable climate are there well calculated to show the pioneer-housewife at her best.