February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Legend says the frontier was “hell on women,” but the ladies claim they had the time of their lives
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?
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.
No man ever paid a greater compliment to a woman. It took love plus something else to dictate such an unheard-of invitation. He must have known she could take it. For Amanda, who had handled horses since she was knee-high, it was no trick to overtake the slow herd with her buggy and team. For three months the buggy jounced over trails worn only by the hoofs of cattle, from the southern tip of Texas to the Red River, across Indian Territory, and on into Kansas, a journey of 700 miles. There were times when blistering heat made a mock of the buggy top, when rain lashed in, when thunderbolts crashed and a stampede was imminent, and the lightning seemed to creep along the ground like something alive. She swallowed dust, fled from prairie fires that swept down on the chuck-wagon camp. Worse yet, she started one herself, as thoughtlessly as any tenderfoot. If a lady could retreat to the doghouse …
And that wasn’t all. A big sum of money was tied up in the restless longhorns that almost anything could touch off in an earth-shaking stampede. During crises Amanda was on her own; the cattle came first.
One pitch-black night she was left alone in a hailstorm, hanging onto two terrified horses, husband and herd gone heaven knew where. Drenched, scared, and wishing she had never left home, she was also just possibly angry at her husband, who had driven her hurriedly to a spot under some trees and then galloped off to help quiet the cattle. Hours later the woods rang with his voice calling her name. She still had the horses.
This girl who could drive like a Roman charioteer plunged her team into swollen creeks, down steep banks, into rivers treacherous with quicksands; men shouted and signaled directions, but the cattle came first . Of course, she was never forgotten. One day a prairie fire came down on them so quickly that there was no time to catch and harness her horses—they were doubtless out grazing with the remuda . A couple of cowboys told her to jump into the buggy, then fastened their lariats to it, with the other ends tied to their saddle horns, and pulled her out of danger.
Often, alone at night in her little tent, she sat up, fully dressed for an emergency, listening to the drumming of hoofs in the dark. One night there were Indians near, so a cowboy was left to guard her. Soon there were galloping hoof beats and an apologetic messenger—the Indians were trying to stampede the cattle, and every man was needed. That was the last of her guard. She laughed at it all.
Lovely, willowy Amanda was as tough as a boot and as feminine as a magnolia blossom, and she was doing just what she wanted to do. Years later, as an old lady whose eyes were still big and blue, she told her story in The Trail Drivers of Texas .
“What woman, youthful and full of spirits and the love of living,” she asked in the genteel accents of a southern belle, “needs sympathy because of availing herself of the opportunity of being with her husband while at his chosen work in the great out-of-door world?”
My old ladies lived in Montana, Wyoming, or Texas. They were products of the cattle frontier or the mining frontier or both—two separate yet kindred societies that whooped it up together from Tombstone to Virginia City and Last Chance Gulch. Hardly a husband of one of them ever set hand to a plough unless to put in feed for his livestock.
How totally different was the farm frontier on these same semiarid plains; its men and women locked in a terrible, embittering struggle, with the earth itself—sun-baked, poverty-stricken, hopeless—as the enemy. “Ach, this country, how I hate her,” said a character in Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules . The remark could stand as a motto tor the dry-farm struggle west of the one-hundredth meridian.
But the cowmen didn’t hate her. They got along with the earth and took what it had to offer, which was grass. The cowmen suffered appalling droughts and disasters, gambled with nature and lost, went crashingly broke. Yet they were in tune with their environment instead of fighting it, and despite all their grief they had, in the ringing words of Montana’s late, beloved Joe Kinsey Howard, “a hell of a good time.”
Some of it seems to have rubbed off on their wives.
All this is confirmed by Alice Marriott, who did an immense piece of research a few years ago on the modern ranch wife, direct descendant of our pioneers, for her book called Hell on Horses and Women . The title is no more than a lighthearted kiss blown to Old Man Tradition. Miss Marriott thinks the classic saying; must have been coined by a man, perhaps out of a general masculine guilt-complex egarding the lot of Eve. For in her travels through eighteen cattle-raising states, she says, she failed to find a single woman who agreed that the life was hell, or a grandmother old enough to admit that it had ever been so in her day.
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.
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.
Though the baby was dead, the mother lived and later had four children.
Life was tough but so were they, with the spiritual toughness that is forged in the fires of reality. A well-known Montanan, member of a pioneer mercantile family, told me of his parents’ wedding journey to Fort Benton in 1869. His father had found a bride in the East, and the young couple traveled by steamboat up the Missouri. At a landing in Dakota Territory they went ashore for a walk around. It developed that there had been a little Indian trouble there lately, and various ears, fingers, et cetera, of departed Indians were displayed on the dock in pickle jars.
“Is this the kind of dreadful place you’re bringing me to for the rest of my life?” cried the horrified girl. “Why, these people are nothing but savages themselves!”
At that “a greasy old long-haired trapper” who was standing nearby growled to the husband: “Put your woman back on the boat.”
Yet when she came to her own “dreadful place,” she stayed to civilize it.
They did the necessary. From Wyoming comes the story of a hired man with a gangrened finger. Green streaks were starting up his arm. There was no time to take him to a doctor, no time for wringing of hands. The woman of the house made up a yarn to the effect that blood poisoning could be detected by placing the finger on wood while the patient looked toward the sun. Then she led him to the woodpile in back of the house and directed him to lay his finger on the block used for cutting stove wood.
“Now look right straight at the sun,” she directed.
And as he squinted hopefully heavenward, she swung the axe with flawless aim and chopped the finger off. The doctor said later that she had saved the man’s life.
The old ladies have a quality that sets them apart from sheltered women. All whom I have known have had it, and it shows in their eyes, their wonderful eyes. Young is too poor a word for those eyes; they are timeless. Level and water-clear, they are eyes which have seen life steadily and seen it whole, with death as a part of it.
My second and last visit to Mrs. Blocker took place on the day before I was to leave Texas, to return east for some time. She was almost disembodied vitality as she sat in her chair like a queen, so tiny and frail it seemed the next breath must blow her away; but with humor and fire undimmed, and eyes so bright that I wondered if they had laughed like that even when she was young. When I rose to go she held out her hand, with a smile and a flash of the unquenchable eyes.
“Good-by. I don’t reckon I’ll see you again,” she said.
She was right, of course. But my old ladies are like old soldiers; they never die.