Women In Transit

The True Pioneers

In most of the older works of western history, women are conspicuously absent. Since the first Women's West Conference was held in 1983, there have been many works published relating to the role of women in the western migration. Women were definitely essential to the overland journey. When reading the diaries written by the women emigrants, one begins to gain an understanding of the determination that these gals had...especially when one realizes that most of them would rather have stayed home, safe and secure.

To date there have been over 800 diaries writen by women on the trail published, with uncounted more still in family collections. In general, these diaries have shown us that most of the women were determined to be equal to the men, and share the chores each day brought. In addition to the domestic chores of preparing the meals, washing the clothes, and watching over the children, they were also expected to drive the teams, and collect "buffalo chips" for fuel.

Most of the women emigrants were unfortunately traveling at an inopportune in their lives. Virtually all of them were married, and therefore vulnerable to becoming pregnant. It's been estimated from the diaries, that almost one-fourth of them were pregnant, or became so during the trek, in addition to having small children in tow. This at a time when there was a definite lack of privacy, and when such topics were taboo. In many of the women's diaries the pregnancy was not even mentioned, they just noted the arrival of a baby. Even with the perils of childbirth along the trail, many more men died enroute than did women--most often from accidents or disease.

The workday of the women who followed their men to the "Home Stations" along the Overland Trail Stage Line was also hard, arduous, and never ending. Mary Ellen Bailey, the young wife of the manager of the Latham Stage Station, usually served daily meals to at least twelve employees of the stage line, as well as taking care of the daily chores of her husband, who appears to have been absent quite a bit.

In one diary entry Mary Ellen wrote that she "milked the cows, got breakfast, dressed 44 pounds of butter, and then did the chores." Later in the day she took time out to take on her lastest job, that of teaching the local children. On another occasion she attended a dance at Godfrey's Ranche, getting home at 5:30 in the morning, just in time to prepare breakfast for the passengers of the stage. On some days she baked as many as 51 pies, on other days she writes that she made 3000 cookies!

One emigrant lady named Parker, wrote in her diary that camped along the banks of the South Platte River, she managed to bake 16 loaves of bread!

Many of the pioneer women who went West were more than a match for the frontiersman, who was supposed to be tough, vigorous, and self-reliant. A lot of women did travel West with their husbands, but just as many came alone, or with their children, homesteading on lands they developed. Many were professional women--lawyers, doctors, journalists and businesswomen--who traveled West to escape the restrictions and puritanical morality of the East.

On the earlier wagon trains, many of the oxen drivers were women--they later became freight haulers or stagecoach drivers. One woman, Mary Fields, became not only a freight hauler, she also became a Pony Express rider in Montana in 1880. Mary, an ex-slave from Tennessee, was fired for her "unladylike" behavior of using her rifle to fight off a wolfpack. She then delievered mail by stagecoach, never missing a day until she was almost 80 years old. She died in Cascade Montana in 1914.

Send comments, suggestions or inquiries: Overland Trail

[Overland Trail | Personalities | Links | Virginia Dale]

Created and maintained by Elizabeth Larson
Copyright © 1996-2000 All Rights Reserved