Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 5, 2010

Covered Wagons

Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, Lillian Schlissel (1982), Schocken Books, 239 pp. + tables, list of sources, & index

In the 1990s, PBS created Frontier House, a series following modern families who had volunteered to live for a year in a reconstructed town in the American West of the late 1800s. The only thing missing was the covered wagon journey to take the participants west from their families and friends in the civilized world.

The PBS producers could have referred to Schlissel’s excellent collection, based on diaries written between 1840 and 1870. We all know we have it easy these days, despite current or future challenges, but the descriptions of their lives that women wrote 150 years ago are a terrific reminder of just exactly how easy we have it.

This book also makes a great companion read to the Little House books. Wilder presents a fairly honest picture, but she provides only the child’s view (her own). Caroline Ingalls’ feelings and thoughts rarely appear, and we have to extrapolate them from hints within the text. That process relies too much on interpretation, and the results are unsatisfying. But read this book, and the picture of life for pioneer women is sharply detailed.

Childbearing, of course, was the greatest burden for these women. Many went into labor while making the trip west and had to deliver their babies in the back of their covered wagons, with other women acting as midwives if any were in the traveling party. If the sole female of the party, a woman faced challenges we wouldn’t think of:

Long and full skirts on the Trail were soon begrimed and muddy, but they were worn because of their properties as curtains. Two women together, long skirts extended, lent privacy to a third; and even one woman could provide a measure or propriety to a sister on the Trail. But a woman alone, where could she hide from the eyes of the men? There was periodic menstruation — and the lack of water. There was periodic dysentery — and the lack of water. There was occasional childbirth — and the lack of water. And all of these functions were complicated by the absence of shelter and by a lack of privacy. Only in contemplating the utter emptiness of some of the terrain the emigrants crossed can one comprehend the panic felt by women at the prospect of being alone among men.

Why, then, did they go? Most of them had no choice. Few were able to say no to their husbands, as Caroline Ingalls finally did when her husband wanted to leave De Smet for Oregon. Few knew what difficulties lay ahead of them on the Trail.

Cooking out of doors, driving the oxen, collecting buffalo chips and weeds, helping to pitch the tent, washing on river banks, all these and more began to suggest to many women that the journey had reduced them to work that was only fit for “hired hands.”

At night, the wagons were unpacked, then reloaded again the next morning. If the contents got wet when crossing a river, everything had to be unpacked, allowed to dry, and then packed again. The chores never ended, not even for the Sabbath; the threat of Indian attacks pressed the travelers forward.

A look at a relief map hints at the journey: long weeks across the Great Plains, with few trees to break the monotony. Then the double spines of the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas to scale. The deserts along the southern routes were additional challenges, but it’s safe to say that no part of the journey was easy, and the women no doubt saw broken-down wagons, discarded belongings, and gravestones along the Trail as evil portents.

And yet, they continued to embark. We’re lucky to have these diaries, evidence of the hardy, stubborn perseverance of these pioneer women.

NB: Schlissel, Byrd Gibbens and Elizabeth Hampsten published a sequel of sorts, Far From Home: Families of the Westward Journey (Schocken Books, 1989), that provides more information of life at the other end of the Trail.

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