How frontier experience had an impact on women’s role

Term Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Homestead Act

3 Everyday life of frontier women
3.1 Housing conditions
3.2 Dangers of frontier life
3.3 Division of work and possible professions at the frontier

4 Gender role and family life

5 Conclusion


Appendix I

Appendix II

1 Introduction

“Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”[1]

This quotation is part of Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of American History” addressed to the American Historical Association in 1893 on the occasion of a congress in Chicago. In his essay he also mentioned “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”. The frontier was defined as the westernmost area of settlement at any given time in the expansion of the nation – a region at the edge of a settled area.[2] American historians assumed that the process of extending the frontier westward began 1607 with the establishment of the first colony in Jamestown. It ended around 1890 when the U.S. census bureau defined the frontier “[…] as an unbroken line of settlement with two or fewer people per square mile […].”[3] This criterion led Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 to the conclusion that there was no frontier line, due to westward movement and expanding settlement, anymore.

Turner noted the great significance of the frontier to the development of the American society and underlined the frontier’s economic and political contributions. In addition he argued that the spirit of the West was very important, because it “[…] encouraged men to rebel against eastern conservatism, particularly by shaping new policies […] and to liberalize their political views in support of democracy.”[4] When he talked about frontier experience he talked about the story of men’s confrontation with the raw force of the West.

“The wilderness masters the colonist. […] It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. […] at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.”[5]

The above mentioned quotation gives evidence for Turner’s view that men had to adapt to the rough living conditions and that men had to create new ways of living – women and children were not mentioned. Finally, the names of the different frontiers showed the male domination. They were normally characterized by male economic endeavors: the Indian trader’s frontier, the rancher’s frontier, the soldier’s frontier, the miner’s frontier etc.[6]

When analyzing history it is important to have a look at the people. From this point of view frontiers were not just regions at the edge of a settled area, but also places were different people – men, women and children – had to manage their lives. Therefore the topic of this term paper is to investigate how frontier encounters and experiences had an impact on women’s role. For this reason the term paper is structured as follows: it starts with the description of a U.S. federal law from 1862, the Homestead Act. This law gave nearly everyone the opportunity to “acquire” property. In addition it was a main reason for many men, women and families to move west. Afterwards the circumstances of homesteading – housing conditions, dangers of frontier life and division of work – should be investigated in order to find distinctions between frontier life and the everyday life in the eastern regions. Finally, the analysis of gender role and family life at the frontier should provide evidence to answer the question of this term paper.

2 Homestead Act

Before analyzing everyday life of frontier women we have to take the circumstances and conditions of homesteading into consideration. Many western territories “[…] granted women some legal rights, including ownership of property and control of their own wages […].”[7] The Government tried to provide better living conditions for women in the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1890. It declared that any citizen – men and women – who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land.[8] In addition the person had to be at least 21 years old and had to improve the granted land by building a “house” on it and planting crops. If the homesteaders remained on their section for five years they fulfilled the requirements of the Homestead Act and the land became their property. Over 10% of the continental United States was opened up to private citizens by passing the Homestead Act.[9]

Some writers like Elinore Pruitt Stewart promoted the opportunities of women by underlining, that homesteading means to achieve the American Dream: “[…] any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of a sunset […] and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the wash tub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end.”[10] This quotation shows that the new opportunities and challenges of moving west – especially at the frontier – were seen as a chance to emancipate. In order to discuss the impact of frontier experience on women’s role the following section should investigate the everyday life of frontier women in detail.

3 Everyday life of frontier women

3.1 Housing conditions

According to the above mentioned Homestead Act the person – men or women – who was granted land from the U.S. government had to build a “house” on the given section. The appearance and workmanship of those housings were dependent on two factors: the financial opportunities on the one hand and the regional circumstances (weather, vegetation etc.) on the other hand. The first home was often only a wagon or a tent, because the settlers were searching for a good homestead site (see appendix I). While travelling along the roadside women had to cook over an open fire and the bedrolls were spread out on the hard and dusty ground. Emma Hill described the hardship while searching for a good location as follows: “When we crossed the state line into Kansas we were beginning to suffer for water. One night we could find no water for a camp but a farmer who hauled his water six miles gave us a little […].”[11] In addition women and men had to disassociate from old friends who stayed in their homeland and other necessary relationships. The considerable efforts to manage a first housing during the initial phase of settlement were only a preview of the exhausting future at the frontier.

After they had found a good location for homesteading they built dug-outs, log houses or sod houses (see appendix I & II).[12] The dark and dirty dog-outs without doors or windows, mining shacks with dirt floors and canvas ceilings, dirty brown soddies etc. tested the women’s courage and fortitude.[13] In many cases the first impression for women who looked at their new homes was demoralizing. The following quote from Myres shows the reaction of Anna Shaw’s mother to her first glance of her new log house on the Michigan frontier:

“I shall never forget the look my mother turned upon the place. Without a word she crossed its threshold, and standing very still, looked slowly around her. Then something within her seemed to give way, and she sank upon the ground. […] When she finally took it in she buried her face in her hands, and in that way she sat for hours without moving or speaking. […] Never before had we seen our mother give way to despair.”[14]


[1] Turner, F. J. (1986) p. 2

[2] cp. Buffardi H. C. (1999) p. 1

[3] Jameson, E. & Armitage, S. (1997) p. 81

[4] Riley, G. (1988) p. 5

[5] Turner, F. J. (1920) p. 3 et seq.

[6] cp. Jameson, E. & Armitage, S. (1997) p. 81

[7] Hymowitz, C. & Weissman, M. (1978) p. 182

[8] cp. ibid.

[9] cp. Czajka C. W. (2000) p. 1

[10] George, S. K. (1997) p. 153

[11] Stratton, J. L. (1981) p. 46

[12] ibid.

[13] cp. Myres, S. L. (1982) p. 141

[14] Myres, S. L. (1982) p. 141

Excerpt out of 14 pages


How frontier experience had an impact on women’s role
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
Women in the West
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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790 KB
Women, West, American Studies
Quote paper
Bjoern Cebulla (Author), 2007, How frontier experience had an impact on women’s role, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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