- Historic Sites
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
In the first place, suspicion deepens throughout the interviews that successful pioneering was a matter of temperament and constitution, combined with width of pelvis, which was luck, a factor not to be overlooked.
I found out that “hardship” is a subjective word, and that life held few “hardships” indeed that these vigorous yea-sayers thought deserving of complaint. There was isolation, and droughts, and plagues of grasshoppers that ate every leaf oil the trees and every spear of green out of the tiny, sun-baked garden; and next year more grasshoppers might come and do it again. There was hardly ever a lloor in the cabin at first. But Goodness! that wasn’t bad.
“The dirt floor packed hard and you could keep it swept very clean,” I was told by more than one white-haired optimist. When winter came, a big steer hide or a buffalo hide made “a nice warm rug.”
No, there were no “hardships,” though the clay chinking was always falling out, and the winter wind whistled through the cracks between the logs and under the door, leaving little windrows of snow. No hardships, and such wonderful Christmases, with homemade dolls, and dried-up apples from the store-keeper’s barrel, freighted in from the East. (The children remembered those.) No hardships; just things like bedbugs, which came in with sundry visitors and took up permanent residence in the log walls, arid rattlesnakes.
There were so many snakes at the Cooneys’ Canyon Ferry ranch that a daughter-in-law, staying there with her three children one summer a generation later, asked Mrs. Cooney senior, somewhat nervously, how she had managed to raise nine children on the place.
“Oh, the big ones looked after the little ones, and the good Lord looked after us all,” was the cheery answer.
Oddly enough, the one thing Grandma Cooney never could stand was to see one of her boys riding an outlaw horse. It was odd, because danger from horses was routine in the West, and while the women might suffer, they learned to live with it. But Mrs. Cooney never did, and when a rodeo broke loose in the corral, she would run and pull the pillows over her head.
But if there were all kinds of women, there were also all kinds of frontiers. A frontier of the plough, and a frontier of the cow. A frontier of the Middle West and one of the West. A frontier of greenhorns, better known as “scissorbills,” and a frontier of the seasoned and fit, who in general hung on to their scalps and knew how to get along.
On the cattle frontier, where no amount of wealth on the hoof could buy ease of life for a woman, beauty and gentle birth did very nicely—with the aid of an enduring if ladylike toughness.
Mrs. William B. Blocker was 88 years old when I called on her at her home in Austin, Texas, in a room dwarfed by the mighty mounted head of a long-horned steer. Her family hail migrated from the ravaged South to Texas in 1867, “Miss Betty,” then fifteen and a daring horse-woman, riding sidesaddle all the way “because the motion of the carriage made her sick”—a pretty enough excuse for a lovely little teen-aged tomboy. At twenty she married tall, gentle, handsome Bill Blocker, one of three cowman brothers whose name fills a page of history. Through twenty years their herds stirred the dust to Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. Miss Betty stayed on the ranch with lier children. There were men to excess, but few women, and no “pleasures”; only hard work, horses and cattle, ropes and guns.
I must have been asking her about hardships, for her answer still stands on a page of my notebook:
“I liked it. I didn’t think it was hard, I thought it was life”—and her eyes danced like a girl’s.
Very few women in those days shared their husbands’ adventures, but one of them did. Her name was Amanda Burks, and she was beautiful.
I know because her grandchildren, on the old ranch at Cotulla, Texas, showed me her picture; the great, serene blue eyes and flawless features looking just as they must have looked on the day in 1871 when her husband bid her good-by and set out for Kansas with a herd of a thousand longhorns, a chuck wagon, and a crew of cowboys. A day later he changed his mind and sent word telling her to join him.