After four months and four days of living outdoors we are all in the most robust health,” Sarah Herndon exclaimed as she and her family neared Virginia City, Nevada, after traveling overland from Missouri, in 1865. The familiar image of women on the westward journey is one of suffering and sacrifice. Of course, women did suffer and many died. Almost all had to perform hard daily chores and endure bad weather, illness, and all sorts of emergencies. But by their own testimony, some women felt rejuvenated by the trip.
Sarah Herndon was a teen-ager when she made the trip; others whose health improved were older. “Old Mrs. White, a lady of sixty-five years,” for instance, said that she felt almost young again and attributed her improved health to the “buoyancy of the climate.” Sarah Herndon wrote in her diary on August 31: “Mother’s birthday. She is fifty-three years old.… She was looking frail and delicate when we started, but seems to be in perfect health now, and looks at least ten years younger.”
Even women of extreme age could be found happily traveling west. Sarah commented on a ninety-three-year-old woman in a nearby wagon train. “She is cheerful as a lark, sings sometimes and is an incessant talker. She says she is going to Oregon, where she expects to renew her youth. She looks very old and wrinkled in the face, but is very active in her movements, and not at all stooped.”
When one considers that during the Victorian era women were encouraged to think of themselves as fragile ornaments in a masculine world, that they wore tightly laced corsets and took no regular exercise, it is easy to understand how they often felt better with fresh air, strenuous exercise, and new surroundings—at least until the latter difficult stages of the journey. Mary Rich wrote, “I had never had very good health, until I started on that trip.” Middle-aged Harriet Ward suffered at the outset from “a lame limb.” Six weeks into the trip to California in 1853, her family ran into a raging thunderstorm, and their tent blew away. When Harriet and her daughter reached the wagon, “We crept into bed with our clothes completely saturated with water and it did seem that the exposure must kill us; but the next morn when Father called us to breakfast we came out perfectly well, and my lame limb, which had been troubling me very much indeed, had received much benefit from the wet bath. I think after this I shall become a firm advocate of hydropathy.”
The majority of the women who went west during the covered-wagon era were in their twenties and thirties, and some of the healthiest among them were exhilarated by their encounters with nature. “I went into the river to bathe in the evening, but no one would go with me as such a cold wind was blowing, but I enjoyed it very much,” said Lucy Cooke, camping in Nebraska Territory in the spring of 1852. Cecilia Adams, bound for Oregon in June of the same year, recorded that her group had had to travel nearly a mile in the Platte River itself. “We feel all the better for our ducking,” was her reaction.
Something more than the benefits of a vigorous life was often involved, though. Juliet Brier, a fragile woman when she arrived in Colorado, was to survive an incredible ordeal in the California desert and live on to the age of ninety-nine. Misled into thinking they could save many miles by taking a shortcut, her family set out behind the famous Jayhawker group that headed straight into Death Valley. With incredible strength and endurance Juliet, a tiny “wisp of a woman,” saved her children’s lives by slinging two of them over the back of an ox and carrying the third herself on foot. She later explained, “I knew before starting we would have to suffer, but my husband wanted to go, and he needed me.” She added, “I couldn’t give up.”
The restraints on married women in the Victorian age must have been all the more stultifying after the freedom they enjoyed before marriage. Tocqueville pointed out that the American woman has barely passed childhood “when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom and acts on her own impulse.” But, he went on, her independence “is irrevocably lost in the bonds of matrimony.” The historian Arthur Calhoun agreed that “marriage reduced her to a subordinate and cramped position. She was expected to embrace her husband’s religion, to confine her activities to the home, and to make her husband’s pleasure her guiding star.” For the married woman who chafed at these restrictions, a new life in changing sur- roundings could come as a tonic.
Once the trip was over, the evidence suggests, the old patterns reasserted themselves, and the trip itself might take on the aspect of a dream, so different was it from life before and after. One observer has said that the journey was “in the end treated like an experience out of time and place, a glorious aberration and detour from ordinary real life.” Of course the trip was hardly carefree for anyone, except, perhaps, the woman who stated unequivocally, “It was the time of my life.” But for a fair number of women it was renewing and liberating.
“Oh, this is a life I would not exchange for a good deal,” exclaimed Susan Magoffin as she headed for Santa Fe with her husband in 1846. “I breathe free without that oppression … felt in the gossiping circles of a settled home.”
It is impossible to fathom all the reasons for the many healthy and happy women Harriet Ward, for instance, saw in the wagon trains camping on the Platte. But we do have Harriet’s testimony about why she herself felt rejuvenated: “There is so much variety and excitement about it, and the scenery through which we are constantly passing is so wild and magnificently grand that it elevates the soul from earth to heaven and causes such an elasticity of mind that I forget I am old. Indeed I sometimes feel as if I should take the wings of the morning and fly away.”