Women and Westward Expansion: The Pains and Perils of Pioneer Life

Women and Westward Expansion: The Pains and Perils of Pioneer Life

By Sara Ziegler

The pioneers of 19th century westward expansion in the United States are often looked back upon as possessing levels of courage and individualism that are the stuff of legend and lore. However, these men and women are perhaps overly-romanticized out of political sentiment. Highly regarded for settling the west on their own, pioneer frontier spirit has been used to critique government initiatives, when in reality the West was settled only with massive state intervention. In fact, the “hardy” pioneers were more often than not overcome with nostalgia. In Homesickness: An American History, Susan Matt suggests that “under a facade of optimism and adventurousness…often lurked regret and a deep longing for home and family” (Chapter 2). Because men often ventured into the West alone, for the time being leaving their wives and families behind in pursuit of wealth, there were relatively few women in the West. While men often missed the comforts of home, family, and domestic life, it was undoubtedly women who missed them even more (Matt, Chapter 2).

“I trembled at the possibility of being the only woman within eighteen miles”, 1921. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
This pen and ink drawing by John Wolcott Adams was published in The Delineator, a women’s magazine, in 1921. The image and its title suggest sentiments of fear and loneliness felt by women of the frontier, who were few and far between.

Many men flocked to the farthest reaches of the frontier when gold was found in California in 1848. In these early days, there were very few women, and society in general was far less refined in California. The few women in California, still meant to inhabit the domestic space of the home, would have had far fewer opportunities to socialize in this environment. An Englishmen who lived in California for four years in the 1870s, Walter M. Fisher, wrote an account of what he thought of the women of California in his 1876 work, “The Californians”.

 Selections from Chapter VI of "The Californians" by Walter M. Fisher. Fisher connects women, home, and domesticity to all that is good and righteous. He laments the fact that there are so few women in California, citing the damage it has on the character of both men and women, and society in California as a whole.


Selections from Chapter VI of “The Californians” by Walter M. Fisher. Fisher connects women, home, and domesticity to all that is good and righteous. He laments the fact that there are so few women in California, citing the damage it has on the character of both men and women, and society in California as a whole.

 

In his reasoning, Fisher makes three connections that are important to note. First, he links women, and family, to “the golden domestic doors” of home. Secondly, he portrays the domestic, feminine woman as a heroine, linked to “delicacy, elegance, nobility”. Lastly, he links the woman that is in a fallen state of femininity (one who has acquired “habits of self-assertion,…tyranny…a giant’s strength”) to the foreign (“Amazonian dash…Spanish traditions”). These connections fall in line with what Amy Kaplan describes in Manifest Domesticity, which is an understanding of domesticity not only in terms of the contrast of “the domestic sphere with the market or political realm,” but also of “the domestic to the foreign” (582). Contrasting the domestic and the foreign allows domesticity to bring men and women together against the alien (Kaplan, 582), but when the women of California fall outside the traditional realm of femininity, Fisher puts the blame on the alien, and associates these women with the foreign.

Writing around the same time as Fisher, Eliza W. Farnham captures her own account of life in California in her 1856 work, California, in-doors and out; or, How we farm, mine, and live generally in the Golden State. As a pioneer woman herself, she has a slightly different perspective on the women of California.

In Chapter XXXI of "California, in-doors and out; or, How we farm, mine, and live generally in the Golden State", Eliza W. Farnham provides an account of the women in California. Blaming the culture of individualistic capitalism, and a general mistrust of women that she claims is present in the community, she laments the effects of the harsh environment on the values and good quality of the women there. She provides an account of a "beautiful exception", a woman that engages in masculine work yet retains her femininity, and praises this as the most desirable state of pioneer womanhood.

In Chapter XXXI of “California, in-doors and out; or, How we farm, mine, and live generally in the Golden State”, Eliza W. Farnham provides an account of the women in California. Blaming the culture of individualistic capitalism, and a general mistrust of women that she claims is present in the community, she laments the effects of the harsh environment on the values and good quality of the women there. She provides an account of a “beautiful exception”, a woman that engages in masculine work yet retains her femininity, and praises this as the most desirable state of pioneer womanhood.

Although Farnham places much of the blame on a single-minded obsession with attaining material wealth (“It is rare to meet with a man or woman, who seems at all stirred by any but the money phase of the country,” Chapter XXXI), and men’s general mistrust of females in the community, she still frowns upon the loss of “gentleness,” praises the state of being “feminine and sweet,” and seems to hold many of the same opinions as Fisher. Her final words to what she calls the “martyr women of California” are those that encourage great sacrifice: “Forget not this in your afflictions. If it cost you the peace, happiness and outward dignity of your life, forget not that it is carrying to others, elsewhere, the same blessings it has robbed you of…for it rarely happens that the good which our human desire craves, flows to the first laborers in any new field” (Chapter XXXI).

Although there were undoubtedly women that “welcomed the adventure and the liberation from the more rigid and confining gender roles of the East” (Matt, Chapter 2), most were still constrained by the limiting values of domesticity. The women of westward expansion were, therefore, inflicted not only with the same perils of their male counterparts, but also with a repressive system of values. It is no wonder then, that they felt homesick and lonely. It was not easy to leave home, and their bravery should be commended.

This drawing by George E. Niles, entitled “Lost to Sight” was published in 1887. It depicts a Pioneer woman standing in profile on the prairie. Her vision trails off to something she can no longer see. This image portrays the vastness of the West, and one woman’s lone stance within it.

Note: Because I only have a Kindle edition of Homesickness: An American History, I was not able to include exact page numbers.

This post was completed as an assignment for the American Studies course, “The Concept of Home.”  A list of the readings that informed this assignment can be found here.

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