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Pioneers In Petticoats
Legend says the frontier was “hell on women,” but the ladies claim they had the time of their lives
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
I once had a conversation about the ways of the West with a wise and literate old man who had been a cowpuncher in Montana in the golden days of Charlie Russell and Teddy Blue. John R. Barrows was the author of a book called Ubet , describing the adventures of his parents who ran a stage station rejoicing in that typically jaunty frontier name. They had gone west with a wagon train from Wisconsin in 1879, taking several small children.
“It must have been a dreadful experience,” someone crooned to Mrs. Barrows years later.
“Dreadful?” she said to her son. “We were young. The weather was beautiful and the grass was green. Mrs. X and I were the only women in the party, and we never touched our hands to dish water . It was the time of my life!”
The “dreadful experience” is a sacred cliché of literature and even, with all due respect, of history—since historians perforce use the selective approach. The western frontier was “a great place for men and dogs, but hell on horses and women”—or on women and cattle—you can take your choice of the many versions. Anyway, it was hell. From the sod-house frontier of Nebraska and Kansas to the sun-parched plains of Texas and the big trees of Oregon, the literature of the West, as far as women are concerned, is one long lamentation.
It is “a tale of toil that’s never done,” wrote Hamlin Garland; a picture of faded beauty, broken health, hope destroyed; of women pining for the civilized niceties they have left behind; women driven insane by loneliness, monotony, and wind. They boo-hooed over their complexions, which were ruined by alkali dust—or the writers boo-hooed for them. The emptiness of the Great Plains is thought to be peculiarly depressing to the fair sex, but when we reach the Pacific Northwest it turns out that the trees were what got them down. It was Hamlin Garland, again, who tacked a seemingly indelible epitaph to the grave of the frontier wife: “Just born an’ scrubbed an’ suffered an’ died.”
But this tearful portrait is punched full of holes by the case of Grandma Cooney. Mrs. M. A. Cooney of Helena, Montana, crossed the plains by ox wagon in 1864, a very young wife with a small baby. Interviewed by a local reporter some sixty years later, she informed him briskly that she had worked too hard all her life to have time lor worry, “and it’s worry, not work, that kills.” No, she could not recall any hardships on the trail. No, she wasn’t afraid of the Indians. (Other young brides were terrified of them, not without reason.) Covered-wagorr days held only pleasant memories.
Grandma Cooney had passed from the scene before I came along with my notebook and pencil, but the memory of her was lively and green. Her nine children never even slowed her down. While they were putting in their appearance one after another, she was doing the work of six women, at first cooking for “half the miners in camp” at Diamond City or Confederate Gulch; later cooking, scrubbing, and churning for her king-sized family and the hired hands on a ranch.
“Prematurely aged,” is it? Always a terrific dancer, she outlasted her husband by some years in that respect; after her sons began to grow up, she would swing through the romping, stomping parties with one of them tor a partner. Her one detect in the eyes of her adoring relatives was that she never could learn to cook for a small family. When Grannie built a custard pudding, it was big enough for twenty men.
My own picture of the women who settled the West has grown out of dozens of interviews, some with the old ladies themselves, others with sons and daughters who retained the liveliest recollection of “the stories mama told.” Mama herself, at eighty or ninety, was clearer-headed than her descendants and as full of bounce as a tennis ball. Her stories were of gold camps in the Rockies; of cattle drives and cowboys; of too many men and too few women; of riding horseback forty miles to a dance and dancing all night and riding home again next day; of Indian scares on lonely ranches; of terrible accidents and babies born without a doctor. But not of hell.
In 1883 Nannie Tiffany Alderson left the silver and old mahogany of her home in Monroe County, West Virginia, for a log cabin in a howling Montana wilderness, ioo miles from the nearest grocery store. When I knew her she was eighty years old and was still living in a log cabin, by choice. To be sure, it was a log cabin de luxe, built lor her by her children on the edge of a lovely mountain stream, so she had running water both indoors and out. But the point is that she liked living in a log cabin. In that cozy dwelling we wrote a book together—the story of her gallant and far-from-easy life on the endlessly demanding Western Frontier.
About the comforts and luxuries that, on the whole, she had missed so little, she said: “I had them all in my growing years, and they never brought me happiness. I soon lost all dependence on them, and I never learned it again.”
In view of the weight of tradition that the frontier was hell, how is it that the ladies who endured it sound so cheerful?