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.

Another great advantage has been the fact that this region was a kind of graduating school, into which the antecedent schools of pioneer-life could send skilled pupils, who, upon a fair and wide field, and in a virgin soil, could build a civil and social fabric, reflecting past experiences and embodying a multitude of separate results into a large and harmonious whole.

Visiting some years since the States of Kansas and Nebraska, we passed first through that rich and already populous region in the eastern part of the former State, which 25 years since was an uninhabited waste. Here were all the appliances of civilization: the school, the church, the town hall; improved agriculture, the mechanic arts, the varied forms of mercantile traffic, and at the base of the fabric the homemade and ordered by a woman.

Here but yesterday was the frontier where a woman was performing her oft before the repeated task and laying, according to her methods and habits, and within her appropriate sphere, the foundations of that which is today a great, rich, and prosperous social and civil State. Here, too, we saw many of the mothers, not yet old, who through countless trials, labors, and perils have aided in the noble work on which they now are looking with such honest pride and satisfaction.

Frontier homesteaders

Frontier homesteaders

For many successive afternoons we passed on from city to city, and from village to village. The sun preceded us westward; we steered our course directly towards it, and each day as it sank to the earth, brightly and more brightly glowed the sky as with the purest gold. The settlements became more scattered, the uninhabited spaces grew wider. We were nearing one of the frontiers.

In the spring the mead through which we were passing was a natural parterre, where in the midst of the lively vernal green, bloomed the oxlip, the white and blue-violet, the yellow-cup dotted with jet, and many another fragile and aromatic member of the floral sisterhood.

Ascending a knoll crowned by a little wood which lay like a green shrub upon that treeless, grassy plain, we saw from this point the prairie stretching onward its loftily waving extent to the horizon. Here and there amidst the vast stretch arose small log-houses, which resembled little birds’ nests floating upon the ocean. Here and there, also, were people harvesting grain.

Among the harvesters were three young women, who were nimbly binding sheaves, with little children around them. The vastness of the prairie made the harvesters themselves look like children playing at games.

Some distance beyond us, in the track we were pursuing, we saw what at first glance appeared to be a white dahlia. As we neared it, this huge white flower seemed to be moving; it was the snowy sun-bonnet of a young school-teacher, who was conveying a troop of children to the school-house, whose brown roof showed above the luxuriant herbage. She seemed to be beloved by her scholars, for they surrounded her and clung to her. She had been giving them, it appeared, a lesson in practical botany; their hats were adorned with scarlet and yellow blossoms, and they carried bunches of oxlips and violets.

The school-mistress had a face like a sister of charity; the contour and lines showed resolution and patience; the whole expression blended with intelligence, a strong and lovely character. She entered the door of the log schoolhouse and gently drew within it the youngest of her charges. Around the schoolhouse we saw other groups of sturdy boys and chubby girls, frisking and shouting gaily as we drove by.

Pioneer Woman

Pioneer Woman

It is under the tuition of the women especially that a vigorous, intelligent, and laborious race grows up in these border settlements on the plains. The children are taught the rudiments, and afterward, endeavor to improve their condition in life. The boys often enter into political and public careers. The girls marry early and contribute to making new societies in the wilderness. These farms are the nurseries from which the State will soon obtain its officials and its teachers, both male and female.

The gardens, the cottages, and cabins nearly all showed some external signs of the embellishing hand of a woman. Entering one of these houses, we found the men and young women out gathering the harvest. An elderly woman acted as our hostess. She was maid of all work, a chamber-maid, cook, dairy-woman, laundress, and children’s nurse; and yet she found time to make us a cordial welcome. The house was only one year old, and rather open to the weather, but bore the marks of womanly thrift and even of refinement.

The matron who entertained us displayed piety, restless activity, humanity, intelligence, and a youthfully warm heart, all of which marked her as a type of that large class of elderly housewives who are using the education which they acquired in their girlhood in the East to form new and model communities on these wide and rich plains.

We asked her about her life and thus came to hear, without the least complaint on her part, of its many difficulties. And yet when her husband and sons and daughters returned home from the field, we could see that it was a joyous and happy home.

The eldest daughter, Mrs. B., then a widow of about 25, told us the story of her experience in border life. She was born in Wisconsin when as a territory it had a population of only 3,000. Soon after the removal of her father and mother to Kansas, and at the age of 16 she had married one of the most adventurous of the race of young pioneers which drew their first breath upon the then frontier in Illinois.

Their wedding tour was in a prairie schooner from Atchison to the semi-fertile region which borders on the desert belt which stretches through western Nebraska and Kansas to New Mexico. Here they made their first home. Life in that particular section must be a pastoral rather than an agricultural one: her husband accordingly devoted himself almost entirely to the raising of cattle.



We hardly need say, that next to the hunter, the cattle-herder approximates most nearly to savage life; his wife must accordingly find her position under such circumstances, a peculiarly trying one. The house in which Mrs. B. and her husband lived was a simple hut constructed by digging away the side of a hill which formed the earthen rear and side walls of their dwelling, the top and front being of logs also covered with earth. Their kitchen, sleeping-room, dining-room, and parlor were represented by a single apartment Three men with their wives were their companions in the enterprise, and all lived in similar houses.

As most of the men’s time was occupied in looking after their herds and preventing them from wandering too far or from being stamped and stolen by thievish Indians, a large share of the other out-door labors fell upon the women. Cheerfully accepting these burdens Mrs. B. and her three female companions tilled the small patches of corn and potatoes which with pickled beef formed their only food. Much of the time they were left entirely alone and were alarmed as well as annoyed by frequent visits from Indians, who, however, abstained from violence, contenting themselves with eating what was given them and pilfering whatever stray articles they could find.

Three years were passed by the little colony in this wild pastoral life. Though the heats of summer and the sudden storms of wind in winter, were severe, disease was never added to their list of ordinary discomforts and privations. Two of the men twice a year drove their cattle two hundred and fifty miles to the nearest railway station, but none of the women accompanied them on these trips, which were always looked forward to by their husbands as a relief from the monotony of their life as herders.

The third summer after their arrival was extremely sultry, and the drought so common in that region, promised to be more than usually severe. The crops were rapidly being consumed by four weeks of continuous hot, dry weather, when one day late in July, the four housewives, who were sitting together in the cabin of Mrs. B., observed a sudden darkening of the western sky, and felt sharp eddying gusts of wind which blew fitfully from the southwest. A succession of small whirlwinds carried aloft the sand in front of their houses, which were ranged not far apart on the hillside.

These phenomena, accompanied with various other atmospheric commotions, lasted for half an hour and ceased to attract their attention. The wind, however, continued to increase, and the ears of the four matrons anon caught the sound of a dull, steady roar, which rose above the fitful howling of the blast. They ran to the door and saw a dark cloud shaped like a monstrous funnel moving swiftly towards them from the west. The point of this funnel was scarcely more than one hundred feet from the earth and swayed like the car of a balloon descending from a great height.

Dismayed by this extraordinary spectacle they hastened indoors. Scarcely had they gained shelter when their ears were saluted by a sound louder than the broadside of a double-decker, and the next moment the roof of the house was torn away with tremendous force and almost at the same instant a flood of water 20 feet deep swept the four women with the debris of the house down the hillside and whirled them away over the plain.

Three of the women, including Mrs. B., severely bruised and half-drowned, emerged from the torrent when it spread out and spent itself upon the level; the fourth stunned by a blow from one of the house-logs, and suffocated by the rush of the waters, could not be resuscitated. The water-spout, for such was the agent of the destruction which had been wrought, had fallen on the hillside and swept away two of the other houses besides that of Mrs. B., and for ten days, while new dwellings could be constructed and the furniture and other articles carried away could be recovered, the three houseless families were quartered partly in the remaining house, and the rest encamped under the open sky, where they suffered additional discomfort from the thunderstorms in the night, which followed the water-spout.

Grasshopper Plague

Grasshopper Plague

The next summer they were visited by another disaster in the shape of grasshoppers. Often had these terrible pests of the settlers in that and the adjacent regions, flown in immense clouds over their heads during former seasons, winging their way to the richer country which lay to the east, but never before had they been attracted to the scanty patches of corn and potatoes which skirted the hovels where the herders dwelt. But early in July of that year, a swarm settled down almost ankle-deep on the little strip of plowed land, and within the space between the rising and the setting of the sun, every vestige of greenness had disappeared as if burned with fire.

After a short consultation that evening, the whole party determined to take resting a few days joined a company of five pioneers who were traveling over the military road, via Fort Kearney, and through the Platte Valley, with the intention of settling in the picturesque and well-watered region east of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and slaughtering buffaloes for their skins.

Mrs. B., and her two female companions, with a shrewd eye to profit, concluded an arrangement with the hunters by which they were to board and make the whole party comfortable, in their capacity as housewives, for a certain share in the profits of the buffalo skins, their husbands joining the party as hunters.

All the necessary preparations having been made, they set out on horse-back with ten pack-mules, and made rapid progress, reaching the buffalo country without an accident in twenty-two days.

Here the women occasionally joined in the hunt and being fearless riders as well as good shots added a few buffalo robes to their own account. On one of these hunts, Mrs. B., becoming separated from the party while following a stray bison with too much ardor, reached a small valley which looked as if it might be a favorite grazing ground for the brutes.

The wind blew in her face as she rode, and owing to this circumstance, the bison being a quick scented animal, she was enabled to approach a solitary bull feeding by a stream at the foot of the hill and dispatched it by a shot from her rifle.

Buffalo Stampede

Buffalo Stampede

Dismounting, she whipped out her hunting knife and was proceeding to flay the carcass, when she was attracted by a low rumbling sound which shook the earth, and looking up the steep bluff at the foot of which she stood, saw a herd which must have contained ten thousand bison, plunging madly down upon her. Her horse taking fright broke away from the bush to which he was fastened and galloped off. Mrs. B. ran after him at the top of her speed but was conscious that the black mass behind her would soon overtake and trample her underfoot, such was the impetus they had received in their course down the hill.

Not a tree was in sight, but remembering two or three sink-holes which she had seen beside a clump of bushes near the spot where she had taken aim at the bull-bison, she hastened thither and succeeded in dropping into one some ten feet in depth just as the leaders of the herd were almost upon her. Lying there panting and up to her waist in water, she heard the shaggy battalions sweep over her, and, a moment after they had passed, caught the sound of voices.

Emerging cautiously for fear of Indians, which were swarming in the region, she saw four of the hunters whom she had left an hour before galloping in hot pursuit of the herd. The five other hunters coming up in front of the herd as it was commencing to climb the bluff on the other side of the valley, succeeding in turning the terrified multitude to one side, and when they came up with Mrs. B. she saw they had caught her horse, which had met them as it was galloping homeward.

Thus supplied with a steed she mounted and regaining her rifle which she had dropped in her flight, nothing daunted by the danger she had so narrowly escaped, joined in the hunt which ended in a perfect battue. The hunters succeeded in driving a part of the herd into a narrow gorge and strewing the ground with carcasses.

Three months of this wildlife made our heroine pine for more quiet pursuits, and she induced her husband to return to the frontier of eastern Nebraska, where, with the profits of the cattle enterprise and the hunt, a large tract was purchased on one of the tributaries of the Platte. Here, after six years of labor, they built up a model farm, well stocked with choice breeds of cattle, planted with nurseries of fruit trees, and laid down to grain. Attracted by the story of their success, other settlers flocked into the region. The completion of the Pacific Railroad soon after furnished them with easy access to market. Everything went on prosperously till the death of Mr. B. from a casualty. But notwithstanding this loss, Mrs. B. kept up the noble farm which her energy and perseverance had done so much to make what it was. She was then on a visit to her father’s family in Kansas, where we met her and had invited her father, mother, and sisters to remove to her home in Nebraska, which they were intending shortly to do.

The whole family showed evidence of the possession of the same bold and energetic character which the eldest daughter had displayed during her ten years’ experience on the extreme frontier, beside those other qualities both of heart and mind which mark the true pioneer woman.

Pioneer woman

Pioneer woman

Heartfelt kindness and hospitality, seriousness and mirth in the family circle,–these characteristics of border life, when it is good, had all been transplanted into the western wilderness by these colonists. That day among the dwellers of the plain; that fine old lady; those handsome, fearless, warm-hearted, kind, and modest young women; that domestic life; that rich hospitality, combined to show how much happiness may be enjoyed in those frontier homes, where woman is the presiding genius.


By William Worthington Fowler, 1877. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated July 2020.

About the Author:  William Worthington Fowler originally published in 1877, a book entitled Woman On The American Frontier: A Valuable And Authentic History. This article is excerpted from this excellent work. The text as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.

Also See:

Heroines of the Rocky Mountains

Heroines of the Southwest