Women on the Trail

“It strikes me as I think of it now — of course, I was a girl, too young then to know much about it — but I think now the mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else. The men had a great deal of anxiety…but still, the mothers had the families.” – Martha Morrison Minto

Any discussion of the role of women on the Oregon Trail is, at its heart, a discussion of the role of mothers in frontier families. Though there were quite a few single men on the Oregon Trail, there were very few unattached women of marrying age, as what are now thought of as traditional (perhaps quaintly so) gender roles were very much mainstream in the United States of the mid-1800s: men were the breadwinners, while women were encouraged to marry a good provider and keep the house in order. On the frontier, the division between the sexes was perhaps best symbolized by the men working the fields and the women tending the dooryard garden. The men were responsible for deciding what to plant in the fields that generated the family’s income, while the women controlled the garden that the family depended on for greens, vegetables, and often medicinal plants needed to prepare folk remedies. Women also included ornamental flowers in their dooryard gardens — believe it or not, in the mid-1800s dandelions were welcome additions to most lawns and gardens, as they reliably provided some of the first edible greens and colorful flowers every spring.

Women who wished to break out of their traditional roles faced cultural and legal frameworks which made it difficult for them to function independently: men voted on behalf of their families, controlled business relationships, and typically held sole title to the family farm (the Donation Land Act of 1850, which governed land claims in Oregon, was unusual in that it granted half the family claim to the husband and put the other half in the wife’s name). Many women were never taught how to hitch up a team, saddle a horse, or drive a wagon — and actually doing any such thing would have been considered unladylike in most social circles — which meant that they couldn’t readily attend church or get together for a social occasion without help. Thus, once the man of a family decided to pull up stakes and head for Oregon, the wife had little choice in the matter.

“I am going with him, as there is no other alternative.” – Margaret Hereford Wilson

Some women had only a few weeks’ notice that the family was moving to Oregon, while others had enough time to prepare as best they could. Once the husband’s mind was made up, however, women were at best able to delay the journey to Oregon.

“She begged Father to give up the notion but he could not. … Mother finally reluctantly consented to go. … Lovers, sweethearts, and associates were all left behind. … The saddest parting of all was when my mother took leave of her aged and sorrowing mother, knowing full well that they would never meet again on earth.” – Martha G. Masterson

Not all women were against the idea of their families undertaking the journey to Oregon — in fact, some shared their husbands’ enthusiasm.

“I was possessed with a spirit of adventure and a desire to see what was new and strange.” – Miriam Thompson Tuller

However, most women were, if not resistant, then certainly reluctant to leave behind the network of kinfolk and friends they had at home. In an era when railroads were still a new and almost blindingly fast means of transportation, frontier families typically remained rooted in place for years at a stretch. This was time enough to form lasting friendships and for the children in a neighborhood to grow up and intermarry, tying their families together in extended webs of kinship.

“But if there is ever a time in a woman’s life when she will endure hardships and make sunshine out of shadows it is when she first leaves the home nest to follow the man of her choice. … I determined not to be a stumbling block at the threshold of our new life.” – Carrie Adell Strahorn

Sometimes extended families and groups of friends from the same county or town decided to emigrate to Oregon together, but most women on the Trail formed their own, temporary social circles out of necessity.

“Mrs. P. is an exceedingly quiet appearing lady, and has an infant only four weeks old. I am determined to like her. … We are much acquainted in five minutes as though we had known each other all our lives. The formalities of the drawing room are here out of place — it is “How do you do?” with a hearty shake of the hand, sans ceremonie.” – Mrs. Benjamin Ferris

The traditional interpretation of the differing attitudes emigrants held about the journey holds that the men looked forward to their destination, the children thought life on the Oregon Trail was a grand adventure, and the women looked backwards, missing the security of the homes they had left behind. Though most modern historians prefer to avoid speaking in such generalizations, there is good evidence to support the broad truth of that one.

“Well, well, this is not so romantic; thoughts will stray back (in spite of all our attempts to the contrary) to the comfortable homes we left and the question — is this a good move? — but echo answers not a word.” – Lucy Ide

“I would make a brave effort to be cheerful and patient until the camp work was done. Then starting out ahead of the team and my men folks, when I thought I had gone beyond hearing distance, I would throw myself down on the unfriendly desert and give way like a child to sobs and tears, wishing myself back home with my friends and chiding myself for consenting to take this wild goose chase.” – Lavina Porter

Whether this reflects some fundamental biological or cultural difference between men, women, and children is another conversation entirely, but it was true that the women, much more so than their husbands and children, remained strongly connected to the routines of life on the farm. Women were in charge of the domestic routines in camp just as they were back home, and they delegated what work they could to the elder children just as they did at home. While the Oregon Trail was an escape from chores such as making soap or tending the garden, chores such as cooking, cleaning, mending clothes, minding the little ones, and other “women’s work” transferred readily to life on the Trail. More often than not, women had to perform these chores after walking all day long through the dust and heat, and to make matters worse, there were any number of mundane challenges that nobody saw coming but which had to be faced every day.

“All our work here requires stooping. Not having tables, chairs, or anything it is very hard on the back.” – Lodisa Frizzel

“…one does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon, is bacon and bread.” – Helen Carpenter

“Had a rather disagreeable time getting supper. Our buffalo chips burn rather poor as they are so wet.” – Cecelia Adams

“I have cooked so much out in the sun and smoke that I hardly know who I am and when I look into the little looking glass I ask, ‘Can this be me?'” – Miriam Davis

Keeping everyone fed while traveling the Oregon Trail was no small challenge in an age when the first step in preparing fried chicken might very well have been to wring the chicken’s neck. Women coped by sharing time-saving tricks such as using the embers of the campfire to slow-cook a kettle of beans for breakfast the next day or filling the butter churn before hanging it off the back of the wagon, as a rough road would bounce the wagon around enough to churn a small lump of butter for the evening meal. In the face of the limited kitchen facilities and ingredients available on the emigrant road, many women took a certain pride in springing culinary surprises such as preparing a birthday cake or a batch of cookies. Some were so pleased with themselves that they almost bragged to their diaries of small triumphs in the face of adversity.

“…wet up some light dough and rolled it out with a bottle and spread the strawberries over it and then rolled it up in a cloth and boiled it, and then with the juice of the strawberries and a little sugar and the last bit of nutmeg I had made quite a cup full of sauce to eat upon the dumplings… the dumplings were light as a cork and made quite a dessert.” – Mary Powers

All this, however, is not to say that women were unable to step out of their traditional roles when circumstances demanded it of them. Women on the Oregon Trail drove wagons, herded livestock, yoked oxen, and sometimes even took a turn at guard duty.

“…when danger threatened and my services needed, I knew that if I couldn’t shoot straight I could at least sound the alarm. … I put on my husband’s hat and overcoat, then grasping our old flintlock between my shaking hands I went forth into the darkness.” – Margaret Hecox

These times were generally not personal triumphs but concessions to necessity — Margaret Hecox was forced to take a turn on sentry duty when her husband and many of the other men in her wagon train fell ill. When there was no emergency demanding their energies, women had quite enough to keep them busy within their usual, domestic spheres of responsibility.

“In respect to women’s work, the days are all the same, except when we stop… then there is washing to be done and light bread to make and all kinds of odd jobs. Some women have very little help about the camp, being obliged to get the wood and water… make camp fires, unpack at night and pack up in the morning — and if they are Missourians they have milking to do if they are fortunate enough to have cows. I am lucky in having a Yankee husband and so am well waited on.” – Helen M. Carpenter

Indeed, not only did they not normally take on traditionally male roles, but women were typically the most active guardians of the cultural norms that defined “proper” women of the day.

“While traveling, mother was particular about Louvina and me wearing sunbonnets and long mitts in order to protect our complexions, hair, and hands. Much of the time I should like to have gone without that long bonnet poking out over my face, but mother pointed out to me some girls who did not wear bonnets and as I did not want to look as they did, I stuck to my bonnet finally growing used to it.” – Adrietta Hixon

“When we started from Iowa I wore a dark woolen dress which served me almost constantly during the whole trip. Never without an apron and a three-cornered kerchief, similar to those worn in those days, I presented a comfortable, neat appearance.” – Catherine Haun

For their part, men were reluctant to do anything that might be considered “women’s work,” though where, exactly, the line was drawn varied from one marriage to another.

“When the first Saturday came round, I prepared to do some of my family laundry work. My husband… carried water… filled the washboiler and placed it over the open fire for me. Mrs. Norton was a deeply interested spectator… and remarked rather sadly, ‘The Yankee men are so good to their wives, they help ’em so much.’ After that, I frequently noticed Mr. Norton’s way of ‘helping’ his wife. He would stroll in leisurely, after his work of his lounging was over, look around critically, peer into the water bucket, and would then call out loudly, in a tone that brooked no delay, ‘Mary Jane, I want some water! This bucket’s empty!’ And poor Mary Jane, weary and uncomplaining, would stop her dinner getting or put down her fretful baby and run… to the spring to ‘fetch’ water for her husband. Yet her husband was not unkind to her. It was just his way.” – Esther M. Lockhart

In this context, “unkind” is almost certainly a veiled reference to spousal abuse. Then, as now, some wives were subjected to physical and psychological abuse, but in the Nineteenth Century, beating one’s wife (or husband, in some cases) was something which was not spoken of in public — except, perhaps, in a moment of religious fervor. Such behavior was considered a private family matter and not often commented upon by emigrants in their diaries and journals.

“While I’m writing I have an exciting experience. George is out on guard and in the next wagon behind ours a man and woman are quarreling. She wants to turn back and he wont go so she says she will go and leave him with the children and he will have a good time with that crying baby, then he used some very bad words and said he would put it out of the way. Just then I heard a muffled cry and a heavy thud as tho something was thrown against the wagon box and she said ‘Oh you’ve killed it’ and he swore some more and told her to keep her mouth shut or he would give her more of the same. Just then the word came, change guards. George came in and Mr. Kitridge went out so he and his wife were parted for the night. The baby was not killed. I write this to show how easy we can be deceived.” – Keturah Belknap

Under the stresses of the months-long journey to Oregon, domestic violence sometimes took on bizarre dimensions.

“This morning one company moved on except one family. The woman got mad and would not budge, nor let the children go. He had his cattle hitched on for three hours and coaxing her to go, but she would not stir. I told my husband the circumstance, and Adam Polk and Mr. Kimball went and took each one a young one and crammed them in the wagon and her husband drive off and left her sitting. She got up, took the back track and traveled out of sight. Cut across, overtook her husband. Meantime he sent his boy back to camp after a horse that he had left and when she came up to her husband, says, ‘Did you meet John?’ ‘Yes,’ was the reply, ‘and I picked up a stone and knocked out his brains.’ Her husband went back to ascertain the truth, and while he was gone, she set one of his wagon on fire, which was loaded with store goods. The cover burnt off, and some valuable articles. He saw the flames and came running and put it out, and then mustered spunk enough to give her a good flogging.” – Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

That incident aside, women generally bore up to the difficulties of the journey as well as, or perhaps even a bit better than, the menfolk.

“One day I walked fourteen miles and was not very fatigued. The men seemed more tired and hungry than were the women.” – Catherine Haun

Married women in the Nineteenth Century were expected to, and indeed many routinely did, put the welfare of their families above their own well-being, tending to the sick and injured even when they were, themselves, unwell. This perhaps fortified them to cope with the trials and tribulations of the journey to Oregon — not that they had any better idea of how to deal with unfamiliar situations than the men did, but women were accustomed to being a family’s last line of defense against misfortune. However, some women, already enfeebled by illness, malnutrition, or exhaustion, were overwhelmed and ultimately worked themselves to death.

“Mother soon discovered that she was not strong enough for the duties that now devolved upon her. She decided to get along as she could with the Doctor’s help, and keep one of the boys with the wagon until she got to Fort Hall. She would there exchange her stock for horses, and pack into the station and winter there. But already had she begun to sink under her sorrow and the accumulation of cares… Consumed with fever and afflicted with the sore mouth that was the forerunner of the fatal camp fever, she refused to give up, but fought bravely against the disease and weakness for the sake of her children.” – Catherine Sager

Knowing they would have to find the strength to go on if all else failed, women were more highly aware of and concerned about the risks their families were running by emigrating to Oregon than were the men and children. Both men and women sometimes counted graves along the Trail, either out of boredom or morbid curiosity, but for the most part, only women admitted to reflecting on what they saw.

“On the afternoon we passed a lonely nameless grave on the prairie. It had a headboard. It called up a sad train of thoughts. To my mind it seems so sad to think of being buried and left alone in so wild a country with no one to plant a flower or shed a tear over one’s grave.” – Jane Gould

Some women were plagued by nightmares and daydreams about dangers, real or imagined, along the Oregon Trail.

“I have… dreamed of being attacked by wolves and bears. …the heart has a thousand misgivings and the mind is tortured with anxiety and often as I passed the fresh made graves I have glanced at the side boards of the wagon not knowing how soon it might serve as a coffin for some one of us.” – Lodisa Frizzel

However, the truth is that nine out of ten emigrants made it safely to Oregon. Most of the women who set out on the Oregon Trail survived to help their families put down roots in the West, but not many of them were happy about it, at least to begin with. The emigrants, it should be recalled, usually set out in April or May and arrived in October or November — just as the winter rains were setting in. Thus, their first impressions of Oregon were affected by the gray, damp days of wintertime in the Willamette Valley. Perhaps suffering from seasonal depression on top of everything else, a significant minority of emigrants probably would have turned right around and started back home if their wagons and oxen had been in any shape to travel.

“My most vivid recollection of that first winter in Oregon is of the weeping skies and of Mother and me also weeping. I was homesick for my schoolmates in Chicago and I thought I would die. We knew no one in Portland. We had no use for Portland, nor for Oregon, and were convinced that we never would care for it.” – Marilla Washburn Bailey

Given some time to adjust, though, most of the emigrants ended up well pleased with their new homes.

“When the snow was three or four feet deep in Wisconsin, I picked wild flowers in Oregon. Everything around me, so far as nature was concerned, was charming to behold.” – Emeline T. Fuller