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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
On the contrary, they all seem to have concurred in the surprising statement made to me some years ago by Mrs. foe T. Brown, a first settler of the 1880’s in southeastern Montana: “I never knew a woman who didn’t like it.”
But is it so surprising, really? After all, few women find life entirely hellish when they are outnumbered, surrounded, and idolized by men.
Miss Mary Peachey Roberts of Mississippi came to the Tongue River valley with Mrs. Brown, her cousin, in the autumn of 1886, Captain Brown, a Confederate veteran, having trailed his first herd in from Indian Territory a few weeks before. The winter that followed is remembered as the worst in the history of the northern plains, freezing cattle to death by the hundreds of thousands and ruining cattlemen right and left. But Miss Mary Peachey, as the only unmarried young lady within fifty miles, was so busy riding around with her squadron of cowboy escorts, visiting and dancing, that she never felt cold at all.
Some of the girls who came west would have been belles anywhere, but when they reached remote Montana, the land of no wallflowers, all of them were belles, regardless.
“Every school-marm who came in here got married, and every hired girl,” to quote my dear friend Mrs. Luther Dunning, who has lived on the Otter Creek tributary of Tongue River for sixty years.
After marriage, it was a lonely life. You might have neighbors within five or six miles or you might not. Mrs. Alderson lived for several years on a ranch where her nearest lady neighbors were thirty-five miles away, “and thirty-five miles of winding river bottom and high, grassy divide were like a Chinese wall dividing us, and we saw each other only twice a year.”
North or south, the men of the cattle kingdom were forever away from home, riding on roundups, buying cattle, delivering cattle. Wife and children stayed behind, with a rifle handy, in case. History knows that by 1880 the Indian menace on the northern plains was broken, but such knowledge is a matter of hindsight. Hideous tales of scalpings and burnings still resounded; hours and days could be spent in chilling dread of an Indian attack that failed to materialize. But when a dark face pressed against a windowpane or a grotesque coppery form appeared at the door, gesturing and grimacing, it took a brave tenderfoot bride to discern that he was only begging for food, and a braver one to call him pathetic.
Sometimes courage was a matter of ignorance. Little Nannie Alderson thought Chief Two Moons of the Northern Cheyennes “absurd and squalid-looking” in his seedy mixture of white and Indian garb, and she enjoyed the joke when he proposed to her husband in sign language to barter horses for her.
Once, when he asked in signs how many horses her husband would take for her, “Mr. Alderson held up one finger. Two Moons laughed long and loud, so we concluded that he had a sense of humor. Next time he asked for my price in horses my husband started opening and shutting both hands very rapidly. Two Moons counted up to fifty or so and then said ‘God damn, too many.’” This amiable red-skinned jokester was one of the leaders who had chopped up Custer’s command at the Little Big Horn only a few years before.
The menace was broken, but not broken enough to keep Mrs. Alderson’s house from being burned to the ground by these same Indians while she was in Miles City having her first baby.
Every frontier had its quota of the unsuited: the women who needed civilization and should never have left it; the ones who hated horses; the ones who shuddered and turned pale at a meal cooked over a cow-chip fire while grizzled plainsmen, masters of the dead pan, looked on in unfeeling mirth. Even relatively carefree Montana had its tragic or pitiful cases: the tenderfoot bride who didn’t see another woman for six months and went insane; a second tenderfoot bride who started to walk back to Boston!
But failures seem to have been few, and it was noticed that when they did occur, husbands as well as hardships played a part. One horseback psychologist told me, in his lovely drawl, of riding into a neighbor’s place one morning to find an irate young wife slapping the pans around in the kitchen and proclaiming: “If this is life on a Texas ranch, I’ve had just about enough!”
It turned out that she had been up since 3 A.M. cooking for her husband and a party of men who had just come in from a cattle-buying trip, and he had hardly spoken a word to her—he’d been out in the corral the whole time.
The visitor drifted out there and dropped a word in his friend’s ear. “I said: ‘Jim, you betta pet yo’ wife a little bit, or you’re goin’ to lose a good woman.’”
The “petted” ones didn’t find it so bad.