The Other Frontier: Women’s Experiences on the American Frontier

Seminar Paper, 2012

21 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I. Introduction

II. The American Frontier – a Male’s Myth

III. Women’s Role in the West

IV. The Loneliness of Pioneer Women

V. Social Disorder and Pioneer Women as Civilizing Agents

VI. Conclusion

Works cited

I. Introduction

The American Frontier is one of the United States’ great myths that has shaped the whole nation’s perception of their world. Even though many scholars are puzzled by its meaning and the vague definition of the Frontier (West 1994, 115), it still remains a concept which “captured the American public’s imagination and [is] now deeply woven into the American consciousness” (Ridge 1991, 2). The Frontier immediately evokes images in everyone’s head – pictures of a vast and wild land that has been conquered and subjugated by man.

Even Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the great historians of that time, called the Frontier “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Engler 2007, 415). This wilderness is mostly depicted by settlers moving over the mountains in their trail wagons and also strong and fearless cowboys facing the dangers and isolation of the Frontier. In history books, essays and many accounts of the American Frontier we find the glorified man (Hahn 2008, 149) who turned wilderness into the American nation. Of most of the ideas of the Frontier one important element has been denied or is missing – the pioneer woman. The experiences of all these women who were on the Frontier as well and were facing the wilderness are often denied or hardly mentioned. Female scholars bemoaned this obscured reality. Inspired by the feminist movement in the 20th century, women were eager to “recover their past” and historians tried to “place absent women in the westward movement” (Walsh 1995, 244). Therefore, this paper tries to find answers to the questions of what this male myth of the Frontier looks like, what the reasons for muting women’s experiences in frontier history were, and what the female role in this context was. It will also address one common element that can be found in many of the accounts of pioneer women – loneliness. It is to examine how loneliness was expressed, how these women coped with their loneliness and tried to overcome it. Then we will learn how women perceived violence and how they counteracted social disorder and describe women’s tasks as “missionaries of civilization”(Jeffrey 1983, 79). As the topic of this paper indicates we will take a look at “the other Frontier” and try to see it through the eyes of the pioneer women.

II. The American Frontier – a Male’s Myth

In the course of the westward movement in the early days of the nation’s history, many settlers were excited to leave their homes in the east and face the American Frontier. The first settlers had troubles taming the wilderness that lay ahead but the westward expansion across the whole continent gained momentum. Huge numbers of emigrants travelled along the trails by wagon in their personal pursuit of happiness, freedom, and opportunities. This journey was very dangerous and hard so that many gave up on their way to the frontier. However the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made it much easier for settlers to move west. By that time the population of the land that had been unsettled before was continuously increasing. People were flocking to destinations all over the country. Many of them suffered hardships but others in turn found their fortune in the West (Jeffrey xi - xii). In 1890 the superintendent of the U.S. census stated that the frontier disappeared and announced the closing of the Frontier (Burchell and Gray 1992, 131). Frederick Jackson Turner declared that “the first period of American history had ended with the closing of the frontier” (Ridge 10).

The American Frontier soon became a phenomenon characterized as an “area of rapid change” (Burchell and Gray 130) and has always been a powerful picture, which mostly portrays men as conquerors of wilderness. The “mythical force” (Burchell and Gray 142) of the heroic tales of the American West, has portrayed and glorified men as the ultimate heroes. Tales and stories of great adventures, dangers and pioneering experiences are mostly of a male cast. (Armitage 1982, 2). The range of famous heroic pioneers goes from Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, Buffalo Bill, and of course the famous Daniel Boone (Burchell and Gray 145). Boone serves as the archetype of the American frontiersman and pioneer, and became an icon of the experiences the American pioneers made at the Frontier (West 115).

Talking about famous pioneer heroes, one man must not be omitted – James Fenimore Cooper. In his five ‘Leatherstocking’ novels – The Pioneers, The Land of the Mohicans, The Prairie, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer – he creates the stereotypical pioneer which promotes the settlement process across the nation on the one hand and romantical escapes into the freedom of the wilderness on the other hand (Burchell and Gray 148). Natty Bumppo, the protagonist of the ‘Leatherstocking’ novels, therefore, personifies the people who are engaged in the “frontier idea in all its obsessiveness, naiveté, hope and contradictions” (West 146). As mentioned before, most of the national heroes are men and one can hardly find female heroes among these male dominated ideals. There are however exceptions like Sacajawae (guide and interpreter on the Lewis and Clark expedition), Abigail Scott Duniway (Women’s activist) and also Narcissa Whitman the missionary (Armitage 1982, 2). All these women surfaced, even though they had done great work, as “individuals” and are “portrayed in a male-defined area” (Walsh 242).

The American westward movement and settlement process and the building of a new nation have always been described “in terms of men’s accomplishments, with little attention to the creative achievements of nineteenth-century western women” (Moynihan, Armitage and Dichamp 1996, xiii). Even Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which was much appreciated, challenged, and questioned, put women in their place as an “invisible helpmate” or a “shadowy figure” (Walsh 241).

When Frederick Jackson Turner envisioned the settlement process and taming of the wilderness, the only people he had in his mind were men (Jeffrey xii). The envisioned process of civilization consisted of farmers, miners, fur traders and trappers. His traditional history of the American Frontier came from Turner’s “male perspective” (xii) – a perspective where women were hardly mentioned or were described as only passive actors. Because most of the historians emphasized the romantic aspect of the Frontier adventures and also paid much attention to the historical process in becoming a nation there was no space for female affairs (Walsh 244). In fact there was less or at least very little attention to the numerous records of pioneering women. Consequently, “most historians overlooked women altogether” even though they made up half of the population who crossed the Mississippi (Jeffrey xii).

Since they made up such a large number of the population and since they had been crucial to the settlement process, there had to be good reasons for not mentioning them and omitting all those important pioneering experiences.

There are few reasons why women weren’t mentioned, but the basic idea behind it was the attention of historical research was more on public affairs than on women’s personal experiences. Historians, therefore, were more interested in finding out about the notable men of the nation who took part in the historical process of becoming a nation. These men were responsible for all the public documents historians were interested in. Women’s sources were often of a different kind; they described living conditions, personal relationships and drew a picture of communities (Moynihan, Armitage and Dichamp xii - xiii). Another reason for not mentioning women was that they were simply seen as “passive partners” depending on male pioneers. These “passive partners” were depicted mostly as sad beings who endured all the hardships on the frontier. Consequently, most historians found women not capable of coping with all the hardships of frontier life and therefore not worth mentioning.

Until the late 1970s this pattern of describing the history of the American frontier was common among most of the researches in history – the majority of (male) historians did not “question the masculinity of the frontier” (Walsh 242 – 243). With the rise of women’s history this pattern has been altered gradually and female scholars try to re-write the history of the American frontier with the help of the numerous pioneer women’s accounts. They found their answers in the relationships between public and personal affairs that correlate (Moynihan, Armitage and Dichamp xiii). If one hopes to get new information from women’s accounts to rewrite history, one has to know in what ways the records of women differed from the records of men. Female accounts were not of a public source, whereas, as stated before, male documents were public. The female sources are from a variety of genres: we can find diaries, letter, memoirs, autobiographies, community documents, and reminiscences and so on. All of them serve to give a good and useful picture of pioneer women’s experiences of the American frontier (Jeffrey xv). With great vividness these women told stories of cowboys, natural phenomena like blizzards, the seasons, floods, and fires.

Brave women wrote about encounters with Indians, about thefts, their hopes, fears, and dreams. They gave many details about every-day-life, their families and homes, the hardships on the trail, their loneliness and isolation and so on. In short they provided the whole picture of frontier life and history in contrast to male (public) documents. (Stratton 1981, 12). As we find women mentioned in a few sentences in male documents we can also find men only mentioned “on the periphery of the action” in many of women’s narratives. This has two reasons: the exclusion of public affairs and secondly women simply found their achievements and actions primary (Moynihan ,Armitage and Dichamp xviii). But there is one remarkable fact: These women did not write about their experiences to get praise for their achievements, nor did they want to play down their experiences and hardships (Stratton 12). What these women wanted to demonstrate was that they have the resilience and strength to resist the “disintegrating forces of frontier life”, “extend their own social role” and create the Frontier to their fondness (Jeffrey 24). The female role on the Frontier will be examined in the next chapter.

III. Women’s Role in the West

In order to understand women’s experiences in the West we have to understand the role of a woman in these days. This image was different at the end of the settlement from the one in the beginning. Due to hardships, social and physical conditions women had to adapt to the wilderness and therefore a new image emerged – “the Frontier created a new woman” (Walsh 246).

In the beginning the idea of a woman’s place was basically shaped by a Victorian understanding of a woman’s place, which was brought by pioneer women from the East.

This Victorian understanding was based on a “cult of domesticity” (Walsh 246), which meant that the right place for a woman was her home. In this home she was responsible for “creating an atmosphere of peace and [uphold] the moral virtues of society” (Schrems 1987, 56). Therefore women’s tasks were the typical ones of wives, mothers, and housekeepers. As wives, they were to be a companion and helpmate to their husbands and of course to be obedient. As mothers, they were to raise and to take care of the children and as housekeepers to fulfill all the domestic duties a home brings with it. In this respect society attributed a double-sided nature to women, which depicted them as superior on the one hand and as inferior on the other. The superiority of the female character was seen in terms of their “exceptional moral abilities”. This qualified them, alongside other things, as “moral guardians of the home” (Riley 1984, 24). Margaret Walsh puts it in a nutshell “[women] could civilize both men and the wilderness” (246).

The ascribed inferiority in the female character was simply based on the physical inferiority of women. There was a common opinion that women could not work as hard as men and therefore they had to stay in the house and do the ‘easy’ part of the work. This created an interpretation of a woman’s role on a basis of different roles – men’s and women’s roles. This notion of different gender roles was mainly an Eastern, conventional ‘set of sex rules’ which, due to the demand of the Frontier, could not be upheld for very long, so that the boundaries between the roles of men and women became more and more blurred. The formation of a new society and community within the historical process of the Frontier made it possible that the cultural establishment of ‘the roles’ could be disrupted and gave women the opportunity to question their role and to newly define it. This process of formation and adaption, especially in a time where the structures of a society were fluid, led to a new image of the ‘frontier woman’ (Jeffrey 25 – 26).

In many histories of the American West and folklore we find a stereotypical image of the frontier woman, which includes three types of women: the refined lady, the helpmate, and the bad woman. The first type, the refined lady, represents the genteel, sensitive, and emotional nature of the female character. This lady is a perfect representation of the moral virtues that are ascribed to women mentioned before. The refined lady can be found in a stereotypical depiction of a missionary or of a teacher which are figures representing civilization. The traits of this type of woman are described as too frail, genteel, and too weak for the wild and dangerous life in the West (Armitage 1987, 12). The adaption to the rough conditions in the West was especially hard for this genteel woman. Even though she tried to change her ways she could not adjust to frontier life in the end. All attempts to adjust to the rough life failed and ended up in unhappiness (Stoeltje 29). Because the life in the West was so rough and hard “more strength and initiative were required” (30). All this can be found in the second type – the helpmate. This type is characterized as “strong and uncomplaining” (Armitage 1982, 3) and had no problems adapting to the conditions she was exposed to on the frontier. This woman was both physically and emotionally strong. She was able to be a partner to her husband, carry out her domestic duties, handle difficult and dangerous situations, and all this without any signs of complaint. (Stoeltje 32). The last type, the bad woman, is the one who combined the glamour of the refined lady and the power of the helpmate but did come to an end very fast. (Armitage 1982, 4).

Even though these are stereotypical depictions of women in the West at least one of them contains enough truth to describe the modified image of the frontier woman. The type which represents the frontier woman best is the helpmate. Notwithstanding the fact that the definition of the helpmate did not wholly match reality, it still gives us an idea of the image and role of a woman in the West. This frontier woman became a woman, not just as a comrade for her husband to assure his success, but also working in her own right. With the help of the most important characteristics of the helpmate, the physical and emotional strength to “bear up under difficulties” (Stoeltje 33) she managed to fulfill all her domestic duties, be a partner to her husband and also become independent. Even though many men didn’t like the fact that their wives worked in their own right, many women became entrepreneurs and earned their living by running restaurants, laundries, school, newspapers, boarding houses and so on. In this respect women found a great advancement in their social role away from the Victorian image of a women’s place at home. Glenda Riley concludes the change from the eastern Victorian woman to the woman of the frontier as follows: “[…] western women grew strong, assertive and confident. They realized that with their talents and skills they might play some role in shaping their lives, protecting themselves and their children, and determining their ultimate survival in the West” (29).

IV. The Loneliness of Pioneer Women

To their “ultimate survival in the West” (29) belongs a common theme that can be found in many of the narratives of the women on the Frontier – loneliness. There was not just the uncertainty of an adventure to come that burdened women, but there was also the anticipation of leaving their families and homes and heading into the unknown. Most of these women did not return and therefore suffered from the separation of their loved ones and the isolation of the new world. All this began with the decision to leave their home. One might think that these women did not take any part in the decisions of their husbands and were simply dragged to go west but in fact they played a major role in that. When their husbands left, it meant months or even years of separation, which some women could not or were not willing to bear. Therefore they felt the right to affect the decision-making (Jeffrey 29-30; Moynihan, Armitage and Dichamp 5). One example was the pioneer woman Mary Jane Hayden to “take some interest in affairs” when she heard of her husband’s plans to go to California – without her. In her memoirs she writes:

[…] when I thought it was time for me to take some interest in affairs, and so put the question, “what do you propose to do with me?” “Send you to your mother until I return, ”was his answer, which did not meet with my approval, but I made no answer that time. I was very fond of my husband and was nearly broken-hearted at the thought of separation. […] I said “ We were married to live together”, (he saying “Yes”), “and I am willing to go with you to any part of God’s Foot Stool where you think you can do the best, and under these circumstances you have no right to go where I cannot, and if you do, you need never return for I shall look upon you as dead.” (Hayden 1915)


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The Other Frontier: Women’s Experiences on the American Frontier
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar)
Frontier Culture
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ISBN (Book)
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american frontier, frontier myth, pioneers, pioneer women, davy crockett, frederick jackson turner, frontier thesis, temeprance movement, united states, patrick boone, james fenimore cooper, leatherstocking, narcissa whitman, sacajaweja, natty bumppo, susam armitage, frontier west, westward movement, women's role, women's role in the west
Quote paper
Romina Zeller (Author), 2012, The Other Frontier: Women’s Experiences on the American Frontier, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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