WOMEN'S DIARIES OF THE WESTWARD JOURNEY, by Lillian Schlissel, relates letters, diaries and the lives of dozens of women who traveled the Overland Trail during the 19th century. While the men of this major American migration saw the 2,500 mile trip as an adventure and a way to start up a new life, women saw it as “a leaving behind”—family, friends and as Margaret Wilson wrote, “my children buried in...graveyards.” (pg. 28) The women knew they were leaving stable communities and “domestic circles” for the unknown.
What the women discovered, however, was that necessity really was the mother of invention. Within weeks, if not days, after hitting the trail, women found a new circle of support within the female society of the wagon train. They banded together for the common good to move the train along its rocky and uncertain path to the hoped for happy journey's end.
In the 1800's, a woman's place was home—hearth, children, kitchen. This did not change just because home was now a rolling wagon. A woman continued to do the cooking, baking, washing and tending to the sick and children. Only now, the cooking and baking were done over an open fire, in the rain with wet wood or cow chips gathered while walking the day's miles. The washing was done on river banks with cold water and harsh soaps. The children had more adventures and scrapes to be wary of, but often suffered from neglect, because the mothers “carried more than their normal share of care and work.” (pg. 49)
Women had different routines than men. They rose earlier, worked harder and stayed up up later. They did their own jobs and also helped the men with theirs. Martha Morrison wrote, “The women helped pitch tents, helped unload [the wagons] and helped yoke the oxen.”(pg. 35) They also drove the oxen and wagon and herded the sheep and cattle as well.
The work, no matter how unusual to them, soon became routine and repetitious to the women. The mundane work, however, gave a sense of regularity and predictability that could ward off the unexpected dislocations of the road. (pg 102). It helped them to overcome the hardships they endured— the sickness, the deaths, the lost possessions. It helped the women get through one step, one mile, one day at a time. It helped them reach their journey's end.
I think we often romanticize the days of Western immigration. We don't think about the hardships, the hard work, the hard life. Of course, this is true in any time period. We don't discuss the smells, the dirt, the everyone sleeping in the same room.
What is a historical fact of life that you think is best left out of romance novels? I guess in my Wagon Train story, the dirtiness of the characters would have to be it. I mean, how can they be getting romantic when neither one has bathed for days?
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Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats