One thing that is undisputable about the woman’s condition in the nineteenth century: it took a great deal of strength to simply survive. Life expectancies for women were extremely short because of the risks of giving birth. It was not uncommon for men to marry three women in their lifetimes because of maternal mortality. Quite often, women would die in childbirth leaving several young children motherless.
Still, they were expected to shoulder most of the burdens of travel, “Women hauled water, cooked for twenty or more hungry men, and sometimes stored gold dust in milk pails” (Schlissel, 68). Not only were women subject to multiple pregnancies spaced very close together, they did a large percentage of the hard labor: setting up camp, cooking and preparing food. Between 1840-1870, many families decided to seek their fortune in the Western United States. Some had gone to Colorado, or perhaps to find gold in California.
Men would make the decisions and the women would pull up stakes and follow along, no matter how they felt about it. The enthusiasm regarding the journey was variable; some were restless and eager to start a new life in a distant land, while others were less inclined, even though the land on the Eastern seaboard was getting more crowded…the definition of which was much different than it is today. Back in the nineteenth century, if someone moved within 12 miles of your farm, the area was getting oversaturated so they chose to move across the country.
Even so, the trip was difficult for both men and women. “For the men, ordinary work of the journey included driving the wagons and swimming the cattle across innumerable river crossings. There were always tires to be reset, wheels to be taken off and soaked overnight, others to be greased, broken locks to be tightened up, whiplashes to be spliced and cut. ”(Schlissel, 25). One man commented that they were working like slaves, though the parallel did not seem to encourage empathy.
Women had to cook in the wind and rain, making fires out of dung or spare grasses lying around…and quite often they had to do this while pregnant. Some had several small children to contend with and in addition to caring for children and cooking, they had to drive oxen, milk cows, and live gracefully in the wilderness—a circumstance to which they were wholly unaccustomed. While the men would often go forth and hunt for cattle, the women not only had to keep the family organized, but were stuck with the vast majority of the manual labor beyond the cooking.
Their life was pure drudgery. One young woman around the age of 13-14 keenly observed the suffering of mothers on the trail. “Some of the women I saw on the road went through a great deal of suffering and trial. I remember distinctly one girl in particular about my own age that died and was buried on the road. Her mother had a great deal of trouble and suffering. It strikes me as I think of it now that Mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else”(Schlissel, 35).
While travel can offer great adventures, it does not seem quite as fun when one is stuck with the vast majority of the work. Yet their stoic struggles often went unmentioned in the annals of history. We hear of Lewis & Clark, Daniel Boone and a litany of courageous male explorers that braved the elements to explore new land across the Appalachians and the Great Plains. Lillian Schlissel put together a montage of the female experience on the frontier by publishing excerpts from several diaries in Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey.
Only then do students of history get a clear idea of what it was like for women on the settling of the Western frontier. It is difficult for modern women to imagine what it would be like to live in a time when it was unlikely that their children would survive infancy, and that they could fall victim to a number of perils such as heat exhaustion, wild animals, or raiding parties. Even though women demonstrated as much (if not more) courage and forbearance as men, they were not an equal partner in the marriage.
“Quarrels appear regularly noted in the diaries of the women who worried because the decision of a husband or a father to separate from the wagon train could mean loneliness for a wife who found comfort in the company of other women”(Schlissel, 89). Woman’s lack of autonomy in the nineteenth century was not from a fundamental defect that precluded independent thought, but the social and religious convictions that permeated society. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, women were often married quite young and their will was subordinated to his.
There is no other legal or psychological reason why women were treated unfairly by the laws of the land or society at large. Because many of the families making the trip were quite young, it would not be surprising that the women wanted to stay settled until the children were older or not move at all. Unfortunately, the already stressful journey may have been complicated by pregnancy, deaths of little ones, and the emotional separation of families. It is unlikely that most women were consulted for this life-altering decision.
“The overwhelming majority of women who made the overland crossing were married—they went west because they were the wives and daughters of the men who made the journey. In the total group, 73 women were married; 27 women were either unmarried or were children; the status of 3 women is unknown. The placement of women within the family determined that their lives and the choices available to them. In only 2 cases did women travel the overland trail alone”(Schlissel, 150).