Pioneer Women

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., observes in his Preface to this book, “Women have constituted the most spectacular casualty of traditional history.” Because their activities have generally been confined to the private rather than the public sphere, their contributions have often been dismissed as negligible. One woman who was determined to rectify this neglect of the achievements of her sex was Lilla Day Monroe, the first woman licensed to practice law before the Kansas Supreme Court. During the 1920’s, she collected more than eight hundred accounts of life on the Kansas frontier written by women settlers and their descendents. She planned to publish the narratives as a tribute to the pioneer women’s “hardihood, perseverance, devotion, and ingenuity in making the best of everything,” but she died with her project incomplete. Monroe’s manuscripts remained in her daughter’s attic until 1975, when her great-granddaughter, Joanna Stratton, then an undergraduate at Harvard, rediscovered them and began the process of weaving them together into a coherent whole.

Stratton’s rich assortment of primary sources offered her several options. She could follow Lilla Day Monroe’s original plan and publish an anthology; she could use the narratives as the basis for a chronological survey of women’s role in the settlement of the state; or she could select and order her materials to illustrate many different aspects of the lives of her writers. The third option is the one she chose. She incorporates excerpts from dozens of the narratives to describe the arrival of the early settlers, the major obstacles that faced them, the patterns of family and community life, and their involvement in the larger conflicts of the nation—the Civil War and the temperance and suffrage movements.

Stratton’s decision to blend her primary sources into her own survey of life on the frontier gives her book considerable appeal for a wide nonspecialist audience. Her approach is limiting in some ways, however. First, because most of the excerpts are little more than a page long, the reader has little opportunity to develop a sense of the individual voices and personalities of the writers. Second, without a clear chronological framework, it is difficult to visualize how families moved from the very primitive conditions described in the first chapters to the comparative comfort of town life pictured later. Stratton acknowledges the limitations of her method in her Foreword, describing her book as “a personal account of the pioneer experience, described by those for whom ’history’ was nothing more than daily life.” What emerges from this work is not a set of portraits of striking individuals, but rather a composite picture of representative pioneer women, strong, courageous, resourceful, and compassionate.

The pioneer women needed strength and courage to face the conditions that met them when they left their homes in the East. One of the early immigrants, Carrie Sterns Smith, left a wry account of sharing a stagecoach, first with a dirty, nauseated child, then with a pungent bundle of freshly-tanned leather. She finally took refuge on the outside seat with the driver. Mrs. Henry Inman set out more luxuriously on the Union Pacific Railroad but found herself stranded in a blizzard for two days with a carload of men. Many other settlers arrived in the prairie schooners, covered wagons large enough to carry their household goods. Illness and accident marred their journeys, too. One poignant passage recounts the death of a young girl after she was kicked by a wagon horse as she returned from an evening stroll to her family’s campsite.

If the women reached their destinations safely, they faced another challenge—to make a pleasant home out of the log cabin, dugout, or sod house provided for them. There were drawbacks to each of these structures. The log cabins, even with newspapers covering the walls, offered little resistance to winter winds. The dugouts hollowed out of hillsides were subject to flooding in heavy rains, and their dirt roofs were not deterrent to snakes. The sod houses, with two-foot earthen walls, provided effective insulation against the parching heat and bitter cold of the Kansas climate but also left settlers at the mercy of the rains. Yet, while more than one woman is described as weeping at the first sight of her new home, most seem to have succeeded in creating a measure of comfort with their modest possessions. Emma Hill wrote of her cabin, “It had a dirt floor and a dirt roof, but I tacked muslin overhead and put down lots of hay and spread rag carpet on the floor. I put the tool chest, the trunks, the goods box made into a cupboard and the beds all around the wall to hold down the carpet . . . we were real cozy and comfortable.”

Nature provided the greatest difficulties for the pioneers. It seems almost unbelievable that any family was able to survive, much less prosper, in the succession of blizzards, droughts, floods, prairie fires, and plagues...

(The entire section is 2051 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

American West. XVIII, July, 1981, p. 64.

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, April, 1981, p. 126.

Choice. XVIII, June, 1981, p. 1478.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, April 15, 1981, p. 17.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 557.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, March 8, 1981, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LVII, May 4, 1981, p. 169.

Newsweek. XCVII, March 16, 1981, p. 88.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LVII, Summer, 1981, p. 88.