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Heroines of the Plains - Page 3

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The gardens, the cottages, and cabins nearly all showed some external signs of the embellishing hand of 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.

 

First Homestead

Nebraska Homestead, September, 2005, Kathy Weiser

 

 

 

 

The eldest daughter, Mrs. B., then a widow of twenty-five or six, 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 three thousand. Soon after the removal of her father and mother to Kansas, and at the age of sixteen 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 savages, 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 in doors. 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 twenty 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 thunder storms in the night, which followed the water-spout.

 

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 ploughed 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 foot-hills 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 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.

 

Buffalo in the West

The Great Plains once had an estimated twenty million buffalo.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!

 

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.

 

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 under foot, 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 wild life 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 an easy access to market. Every thing 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.

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.

 

 

 

William Worthington Fowler, 1877. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March, 2017.

 

 

 

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 excepted 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

Severe drought in Kansas

Severe drought in Kansas, photo courtesy Charlie Varley

 

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