Heroines of the Plains


By William Worthington Fowler in 1877

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

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Fanny Palmer, Courier 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 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *