What were women responsible for during the journey westward in Catherine Haun’s A Pioneer Woman’s Westward Journey?
Catherine Haun travelled west in a group of around twenty-five, comprising "some half dozen families" who had all been lured by rumors of the wealth to be found in the American West. This was in 1849, at the height of the California Gold Rush.
Haun describes how the women took responsibility on the journey for organizing the group, altering schedules to ensure trains would not be delayed by having to get children ready in the mornings. Instead, mothers allowed small children to sleep in the wagons until the trains were well underway. Haun also states that, while the significant proportion of women and children in her caravan probably meant that the journey took longer, they also made the journey safer. This was partly because their presence dissuaded the men from engaging in needless skirmishes with Indians, and partly because women took greater pains about ensuring that everything was clean--meaning fewer deaths from sickness or ill hygiene. Women's skill in the kitchen also prevented deaths from badly cooked food, and meant that the food was better used, to minimize waste.
The members of the train, when camped, were all appointed different jobs: the women washed clothes, made the food, mended clothes, and did household chores. Haun also indicates that women sometimes had to do "man's work" if the company was small: one woman, whose husband had been bitten by a snake, had to take on more and more of his tasks--mending wagons and seeing to the horses--when he was unable to do them.
When they were not working or assisting the caravan, Haun describes how the women would pay each other visits during the day, planning for the future, knitting, crocheting, exchanging recipes, and so on. In this way, the women were able to keep each other's spirits high; Haun noted that "the men seemed more tired and hungry than were the women," who were better able to support each other emotionally.
Catherine Haun was a middle class lawyer's wife from Iowa at the time she and her husband head the news of gold in California; anxious to pay off some debts, they joined with neighbors in 1849 in one of many convoys of prairie schooners (covered wagons) on the long and dangerous trek west. Although sometimes described as the "fairer sex", women on these trips were anything but, as they were responsible for as much, if not more than, the men. Women on these trips cared for the children, did all the washing and sewing, cooked and cleaned/straightened the wagon, and administered whatever medicinal knowledge they had when needed. Despite battlng unpredictable weather, less than favorable road conditions--or no roads at all--the constant fear of Indians and the possibility of illness and disease, Haun in general enjoyed the trip and her first person account generally rings with a genial tone, though she makes it clear that without the women, the men's chances of running an efficient and successful expedition would have suffered:
Our caravan had a good many women and children and although we were probably longer on the journey owing to their presence—they exerted a good influence, as the men did not take such risks with Indians and thereby avoided conflict; were more alert about the care of the teams and seldom had accidents; more attention was paid to cleanliness and sanitation and, lastly but not of less importance, the meals were more regular and better cooked thus preventing much sickness and there was less waste of food.
In A Pioneer Woman's Westward Journey (1849), Catherine Haun writes that westward journeys that had women and children on them tended to be safer than those without women and children. When women were present, the men tended to take fewer risks with Indians and to stay safer, and the men also took better care of the animal teams and had fewer accidents. They also were clean.
Women took care of preparing better meals that were served more regularly and cooked more thoroughly, so fewer people got sick or wasted food. The women were specifically responsible for washing clothes, boiling large bags of beans that could be served for many meals, fixing clothing, and straightening up, while men tended to the animals and their accoutrements, such as harnesses, yokes, and shoes.