Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Outfitted for Going West: A Woman's Journey

Velda Brotherton,

Outfitted for Going West
A woman’s journey
by Velda Brotherton
Copyright © 2012 Velda Brotherton

Westerns often depict a romantic version of the westerward movement, especially the role women played in this important part of our history. Stories told round the campfire leave out the less pleasant stories or gloss over them.

So let’s imagine this for a moment. One day your young husband, whom you wed a scant three months ago, returns home from the mercantile where he clerks, enters your one-room log cabin and announces his intentions to pick up “his” family and head West. That includes you, and in those days women weren't consulted about much of anything.
A typical log cabin of the 1800s

We can blame this idea of Westward Ho! on the gold rush, which began the movement in 1849. The Civil War came along and slowed down the idea, but by 1875 exploring the West had become a popular concept. Getting rich by finding gold had by then turned into a desire to homestead land. For many it was simply a need for adventure. Very few women were too enthusiastic about picking up and leaving family and home, yet they did it. Some talked their parents, brothers and sister into accompanying them.

Young women fared very well until or unless they were expecting a child. Let's explore the type of transportation available for this long trip.

The advice in various guidebooks was similar and recommended what was commonly known as a light, two horse wagon. In 1846, J.M. Shively advised emigrants to " a light strong wagon, made of the best seasoned materials...."

A mercantile store such as
our young husband would have worked in
 Joseph Ware, in 1849, also recommended, "Let your waggons be strong, but light...," as did Andrew Child in 1852 and Captain Randolph B. Marcy, who told emigrants in his 1859 guide, "Wagons should be of the simplest possible construction strong, light and made of well seasoned timber...." Emigrants who had already made the overland trip also offered helpful advice in the letters they sent home.

Forget the movies where great Conestoga style wagons are shown crossing the prairie headed for the spectacular Rocky Mountains. It wasn't done. They'd never have made it through even the easiest of passes. These wagons were popular east of the Mississippi, but once the emigrants crossed the mighty river that separated civilization from wilderness, a smaller lighter wagon was necessary. For the most part a version of a common farm wagon was used. Canvas was stretched over bows in the style of the Conestoga.

A farm wagon with the parts identified

Think of all the "stuff" you have that you'd want to take along on such a trip. Then remember that this little wife waiting in her one-room cabin probably has two or three dresses, bedding for one narrow shuck-mattress, a couple of iron cooking vessels, a few tin plates and cups…well, you get the idea. The largest item she might insist upon taking could be granny's rocker and/or a trunk filled with all she owned.

What she takes along is of smaller consequences compared to what she is facing. It's a sad fact that the three major stresses of pioneer women in route was the birth of a babe, a lost child who wandered off and the train had to keep moving or the death of their husband.

But I digress. Let's return to this young wife. She could be as young as fifteen. She's about to leave her mother, who has been her emotional and physical support, her father who always offers a shoulder to lean on, siblings, probably several since most families were large in those days. She must talk herself into this great adventure because she loves her husband, and in truth also yearns for something more than being cooped up in this small cabin all day every day.

So let's say she begins this adventure with great expectations. Many diaries written by these younger women speak of the excitement, the fun of walking along beside a loaded wagon day after day, discovering new places, colorful prairie flowers, unusual animals.

As the days pass, though, reality sets in. Mud so deep the wagons sink to their hubs and everyone must literally help the mules, oxen or horses pull or push them free; rain day after day until quilts and clothing are soaked and there's no drying them; weavils that hatch into the corn meal and flour; the threat of cholera, a disease that wasn't well understood as to how it was passed from one victim to the other.

Polite women were not to drink, cuss, or be other than pious, however, peddlers sold them almost 100% proof cough medicine. It was acceptable for women to sip medicine. It was fortunate that their tender age saved them from stress developing into depression. Thus, our young wife is lucky in that respect.

Pioneer women whose husbands found the "right piece of land" worked from before daybreak to nightfall. Many a woman's diary (sometimes written on edges of the family Bible for lack of paper) stated she wished she had time to give in to the vapors or be sad. She welcomed the first three children as they would be helpful to her with the baby that arrived every year.

Sounds pretty tough, and it was. Those who survived and raised at least a few of their children to adulthood are the ancestors of our western dwellers of today. No wonder they are hardy, a bit wild and have an affinity for the great outdoors.

Emigrants continued to head West by the thousands, despite letters written back about the hardships of traveling day after day for months and months. Stories of loss and sorrow, interspersed with descriptions of a land so beautiful, of soil so rich it would grow anything, of mountains and plains to take away the breath, did not deter the trips, or even slow them down.

As one woman put it, "we had no fear and we did not know we were poor, for we were all alike and it was our life, one we had chosen."
So read romances of the west and forget the bugs and the hardships, for isn't love the greatest gift?

Images: #1 A typical log cabin of the 1800s #2 A mercantile store such as our young husband would have worked in. #3 A farm wagon with parts identified

Velda's Contest!
I'm posting five questions about Stone Heart and Aiden Conner. Those who answer them in a comment and get them right will go into a drawing for a free copy of this book plus their choice of two of my western historical romances from Kindle Ebooks. The answers to the questions can be found in the first chapter, so they can read it on Amazon or my website.

Here are the questions:
1. What is the name of the Fort where the Northern Cheyenne are imprisoned?
2. Who carries the precious Chief's bundle?
3. What was engraved on the muskets to show they were for trading with Indians?
4. What is the name of Aiden's fiance?
5. What weapon does Aiden use on Lawson when he attacks her?

RTW Note: Comments must include an email address to be entered in the contest. Drawing will be held Saturday, May 12, at 9pm Pacific Time, but will not be announced on Sunday's Chicken Dinner post this time (I'll be without a computer).

Thanks so much for visiting with me here. Check out Monday's interview and excerpt.  Comments to enter the contest (see above questions) can be made on either page.


  1. Hey gang, let's get some comments. Know some of you have been reading this post and contacting me by email. Comment here and get your name in for the free books. Jacquie did a great job with this post. Thanks, Jacquie.

  2. Hi Velda and Jacquie,
    Yes, it is a great post and, as always Velda, you share much of value with readers and writers alike.
    Wagon trains on their way west have been incredibly romanticized over the years. Yet, they offer hope for the new life that many readers seek with lessons in perseverance, endurance, courage and love.
    Thank you both.


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