In the 1800s most women had little say in their own lives. Often they were married in their teens and moved from their father’s dominion to their husband’s. Some were fortunate enough to find love and satisfaction.
As early as the gold rush in 1849 women were on their way west, in most cases because their men were going. But some struck out alone, and they are the ones we hear little about. I once ran across a photograph of three young women roping and branding cattle on a New Mexico Ranch and I was so struck by their clothing. Proof that women did the work of men. The caption said that the rancher had only daughters, so they worked as if they were sons. I couldn’t believe that they actually carried out this rough and tumble job clothed in dresses that came to the ground, as if they were doing housework. Rarely did a woman wear pants, no matter her endeavor.
But there were exceptions to the rule. Charlie Parkhurst carried it pretty far, living and working as a male stage coach driver for the last half of her life. History tells us that her secret was discovered at her death. Other women dressed as men for various reasons. Some went to the goldfields that way because it was safer than venturing into the center of rowdy men as a female.
Writing about women going west has been my passion for a lot of years. Early in the 90s I wrote and had books published about women in Montana, or heading west from Arkansas to California during the gold rush, or leaving Missouri after the Civil War as a photographer, and the latest tells of a woman betrayed and deserted by her fiance in a small town on the high plains of Nebraska. Though these are romances, I’ve tried to keep their situations authentic to the times as much as possible yet fill them with hope, faith and joy.
Stories that never made it to the pages of my novels are just as interesting as those that did.
Most male historians state women died before the age of thirty because of childbirth.This is not exactly accurate. Women died first because of pregnancy and secondly from madness. Mammals are social beings (with the exception of a few loners). Women needed other women to chatter, ask questions, knit together, cook together. The men were too worn out from their labors and said they didn’t understand women. Women were lonely. Their first stresses were that of loneliness which led to depression. Several Midwest midwife’s diaries state pioneer women (especially those in sod houses) died not of childbirth, but of depression.
The men took the horse and went to the closest town. The women stayed home with crying children, one rifle and scared her husband would not return. Many husbands found pioneer drudgery too much and talk in town of new trails, new adventures caused them to not return to their homes.
Martha Morrison Minto married at fifteen. When her second child was born her husband and her were alone, three miles from any woman or doctor. Her first child was 18 months old. She was later ashamed to admit that her husband had to do the washing, a chore most often left to the women. She only hinted that he assisted her in the delivery of the baby in her journal because such things as pregnancy and birth were never mentioned aloud.
Within the space of three days, Lucy Henderson saw one child buried and another born. There was no time to grieve, for the journey west was relentless. For women of childbearing age the hardships were shattering. The overland journey was indeed for the very young. Lucy was 15 when she married, saying that if a girl was not married by that age, everyone wondered why.
Some wrote of their experiences as if they were a great adventure, but those women who were pregnant and/or had children suffered the most.
Elizabeth wrote in her journal: “It rains and snows. We start this morning around the falls with our wagons…I carry my babe and lead, or rather carry, another through snow, mud and water, almost to my knees. It is the worst road…I went ahead with my children and was afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons turn over into the mud. My children gave out with cold and fatigue and could not travel, and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring them and carry the children on to camp. I was so cold and numb I could not tell by feeling that I had any feet at all…I have not told half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task.”
Elizabeth’s husband died in February. She sat up with him night after night, alone in a leaky shed. After his death she wrote, “We buried my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know; that is, how comfortless is that of a widow’s life, especially when left in a strange land, without money or friends, and the care of seven children.”
Elizabeth and her children survived, she made it on her own to the New Country, eventually met and married a “Yankee” husband, said to be the most prized for their kindness, and built herself and her family a good life. They settled on the west bank of the Williamette River about 20 miles above Oregon City in Oregon Territory.
And these are only a few short excerpts from journals of women who won the west in the 1800s.
As late as April 13, 1911, Representative Hurst said of the “Women’s Suffrage” bill: “This bill should be everlastingly killed.The women should not be further encouraged to this equal suffrage foolishness.”
Velda Brotherton writes of romance in the old west with an authenticity that makes her many historical characters ring true. A knowledge of the rich history of our country comes through in both her fiction and nonfiction books, as well as in her writing workshops and speaking engagements. She just as easily steps out of the past into contemporary settings to create novels about women with the ability to conquer life’s difficult challenges. Tough heroines, strong and gentle heroes, villains to die for, all live in the pages of her novels and books. Read more about Velda at her Website: http://www.veldabrotherton.com or her Blog: http://veldabrotherton.blogspot.com
IMAGES IN SCARLET: Allie Caine is a woman photographer who, soon after the end of the Civil War, takes up what equipment her father left her and heads west in her “what’s it” wagon to begin a new life away from “Bloody Missouri.” She is headed for Santa Fe and pays her way in a trade caravan by taking photographs.
Since this is a romance, there’s also Jake, a fellow she finds out cold and sprawled across the trail before she reaches Westport, Missouri to join the caravan. Jake has been in Andersonville Prison and recalls nothing of his life prior to that. All he knows is he carries a picture of a woman named Lenore who he is sure he loved. If only he can find her, his life will be much improved. But then he begins to dream that he murdered Lenore.
The trip west is filled with danger, adventure and solving the mystery of Jake’s identity.
By the late 1800s there were 10,000 women working in the field of photography in the United States.
I’d like to give a free copy of Images In Scarlet to someone who writes a comment. Kindle books http://www.tinyurl.com/7dr9mbn