the Plains - Page 3
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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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 Great Plains once had an estimated twenty
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
The text as it appears here; however, is
not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern
of the Rocky Mountains
Heroines of the Southwest
Severe drought in Kansas,
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