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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
Yet life held grim moments. Babies were born and accidents happened—a man dragged by a horse, a child thrown under the blades of a mower—with medical help many miles away. As a result, western lore contains countless unwritten epics of rides for the doctor.
Some of these stories add little luster to the halo of the horse-and-buggy practitioner. A boy was hurt on the roundup south of Miles City in 1883—give or take a year. By the time someone could ride into town and locate the “doc” and pilot him back to the scene of the accident on the uncharted prairie, 24 hours must have passed. The doctor briefly examined the victim.
“He can’t possibly live,” he said, and started to climb back into his buggy for the return trip to town.
“He was a busy man,” was the narrator’s charitable comment at this point.
A cowboy, less charitable, pulled out a gun and said: “You’re not going to leave here while there’s any life left in him. Now get to work.” The boy lived, after all.
People were so desperate to get a doctor and so thankful when they got him that they did not pause to ask whether he had a license to practice medicine. He might be a dentist or a veterinarian. He was better than nothing. Often in the early days, the “doc” had no office, but hung around in the saloons and gambling joints, doing as the Romans did, until such time as the frantic relative of a patient would come and find him. Dr. Cooney remembered one such character, a chronic drunkard, who delivered his mother at most of her confinements. Taking no chances, the men of the family would start out a few days ahead of time and “round him up like an old bronc on the prairie,” keeping him under guard and sober until the baby was born.
There were minister-doctor combinations and doctors who had never completed a medical course. Long after chloroform was standard everywhere else for women in childbirth, there were plenty of horse-and-buggy medicos who never got around to using it.
When a birth was imminent, the mother baked up all the bread and pies and cookies she could, to hold the family over while she stayed in bed, if possible for a week. Efforts were made to have a doctor or a mid-wife on hand, but these arrangements could fail, and the woman could find herself stranded and up against it at the last minute. Because of such mishaps, the gently reared Mrs. Alderson had her last two children on the ranch, with no help but that of her husband.
But the women did more than survive ordeals with courage. They survived—at least some of them did—with all their gusto intact.
What was their distinguishing quality?
They were not afraid. Though they might have known terrible fear, they had faced it down. But they had also faced down the small, nonterrible fears that distort most human character more than the big ones. Squeamishness was burned out of them, leaving no ash. If I were to write their epitaph, it would be: “They did the necessary.”
The delectable Mary Peachey was carried off by one of her escorts and became Mrs. Taylor Cox. Ninety-two at this writing, she still lives in the Tongue River valley, the grande dame of a small but lively ranching community, half of which is related to her in one way or another. She hadn’t been married long when a neighbor boy had a fall with a horse and came to her for help. As usual, no one else was home. Also as usual, the nearest doctor was 65 miles away. It was the first broken bone she-had ever seen in her life, but she said she’d try. The operation was successful.
The ordeal of childbearing was grim enough anywhere until recent times, but the women of Birney, on Tongue River, met it with awe-inspiring solidarity. Either distrusting what they knew of doctors or preparing for a doctorless emergency, they learned to use chloroform and kept it on hand. And because of it, in what is surely one of the most moving episodes of feminine self-help in the history of the frontier, they saved a life.
Everything that forethought could do had been done. A young doctor, thought to be the best, had been engaged. But after the patient had been in useless labor for a night and a day, he broke down and in a dreadful scene confessed that he had never delivered a baby and didn’t know what to do.
A cowboy set off at a gallop for Sheridan, Wyoming, to get another doctor. It was sixty miles, and by changing horses at ranches along the route he made it in six hours. The doctor, driving, took nine hours coming back, despite relays of fresh horses prearranged by the cowboy. The ranches, of course, were away from the road, which added miles to the journey. All this time the women on watch were using chloroform to check the patient’s pain and keep her half-unconscious. They had no mask, only a handkerchief.
Mrs. Cox never forgot the sight of the doctor’s buggy coming over the hill against the sunrise. The woman in labor was her sister.