Home on the Range
We were surely taking a wild and inconsiderate step . . . —Sarah Jane Cummins, Oregon settler
On May 4, 1845, Sarah Jane Cummins left St. Joseph, Missouri, a two-year-old frontier town and jumping-off point for the West, to start a grueling migration to the Oregon Territory, and a much longer, unanticipated journey toward greater equality. She and Benjamin Walden, her husband of just two weeks, were seeking a better, more prosperous life in the largely uncharted region, which by 1848 would sprawl across the current states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Wyoming and Montana. After a four-month honeymoon in a wagon train traveling across verdant prairies, arid plains, and the towering Rocky Mountains, they, along with Sarah's family, planned to claim free land in the fertile Willamette Valley. Like other pragmatic young people, they knew that survival there, much less success, required two hardworking, capable partners, and they married before joining the vast enterprise famously defined that very year as America's "manifest destiny to overspread the continent."
Of the thousands of early practitioners of what was later called "manifest domesticity," several hundred, including Cummins, proudly recorded their landlocked westward odysseys. She began her account with a flutter of conflicted feelings. No one had heard from the settlers who had preceded them to the valley the year before, and she admitted that she and her family were taking a "wild and inconsiderate step" into the almost-unknown.
Cummins was just sixteen years old, but she was well prepared to take that wild step, having twice in recent years experienced the rigors of moving west in pursuit of greater prosperity. Agriculture was America's major industry, and her father was one of many men who had profited from developing and selling one farm to buy a larger, preferably cheaper one, sometimes repeatedly. First, he had transplanted her and her siblings from Ohio to Illinois. Then one afternoon, her dazed mother had exclaimed, "What do you think father has done?" No sooner had the family moved to St. Joseph, where Cummins attended its first school, first church, and first lectures on temperance-abstention from alcohol, at least hard spirits-than her father found a lucrative reason to consider migrating again.
In 1843, a provisional government of early settlers tried to encourage development in the Willamette Valley by offering migrants, especially married White men like Cummins's father and their wives (including Native women), a real estate bonanza. These couples could claim 640 acres, or one "section," of land in exchange for living on and improving the property, usually with some cleared fields and a building or two; single men received just 320 acres. (In 1850, two years after the United States officially annexed the Oregon Territory, previously also claimed by Great Britain, Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act, which legitimized the earlier grants and attracted some seven thousand settlers eager to cash in on the same offer.) In February 1845, Cummins's father and her new suitor decided to join the other ambitious, restless, young and youngish men, many of them farmers and skilled artisans, who saw the 1,800-mile migration from Missouri to Oregon as the royal road to potential rewards well worth the risks.
The footloose men's wives often saw the move differently. Like Cummins's pregnant mother, many were deeply engaged with family, home, and community, and they accurately anticipated a dangerous ordeal leading to an uncertain outcome far from loved ones. Some argued successfully against the move, and many others closely negotiated the terms of their compliance. In patriarchal American society, however, men had the last word in such important matters, and some wives went west under strong protest, including women dragged along by force. Even those who like young Cummins welcomed the move experienced the painful wrench of parting and some degree of homesickness.
Most women soon adjusted to life in their new mobile homes. Once across the Missouri River, Cummins boasted that her covered wagon had "the best accoutrements that the age and inventions of the times produced," but it was just ten feet long and three and a half feet wide and crammed with more than a ton of goods. Practical necessities, such as her husband's tools and bacon stored in barrels of bran, jostled against treasures, including a "Bible, dictionary, arithmetic, grammar, charts and maps, also our diplomas of graduation." For good reason, families lived outdoors in decent weather and suffered when conditions forced them to sleep in or underneath their jam-packed wagons at night.
From sunrise to sunset, the migrants' wagons juddered over the deep ruts and perilous rivers that corrugated the Oregon Trail. Then the West's approximation of an interstate highway, it was just a rough dirt track, based on narrow game paths first used by Native Americans and fur trappers, that only grudgingly allowed for wheeled vehicles. After traversing what was then called the Great American Desert, later the Great Plains, they struggled up an eight-thousand-foot ascent to the South Pass over the ramparts of the Rockies. From there, some parties branched off on secondary trails to California or Utah, and others, including Cummins and her family, continued on to the Pacific Northwest.
The challenges of migration and settlement soon obliged women to become more equal to men by behaving that way, if only by necessity. Early in the trip, most couples stuck to the Victorian era’s gender rules: men did the heavy outdoor work, such as driving the wagon and handling the livestock, and women did the domestic chores. As Cummins soon found, however, housekeeping in a canvas-capped “prairie schooner” was rarely smooth sailing. As the migration ground on, it soon became clear that, far from being secondary, so-called women’s work-washing laundry in muddy rivers, gathering dried buffalo dung for fuel, which as Cummins noted, “caused many ladies to act very cross,” and cooking three meals a day over campfires-was absolutely essential to their venture. Indeed, their chores were so onerous that most of the relatively few single men who headed west signed on as extra hands to family parties.
Like most women on the trail, Cummins gradually developed a more flexible, western improvisation on her traditional domestic role. After all, to stay safe, fed, and reasonably clean while progressing with the journey, both partners had to do whatever urgently needed doing at any particular moment without considering gender. Some men occasionally helped with cooking and childcare, but many women often cracked the whip over the great teams of oxen or horses, loaded and unloaded the wagons, and did other such men's chores.
Migration showcased the value of women's work and expanded their functional repertoire, but it also offered them opportunities to experience new freedoms and develop new skills. If they rode horses at all, proper women back East used sidesaddles-originally designed to protect virginal hymens-but Cummins anticipated the cowgirl by looping up her skirts and riding "gentleman fashion." She relished the role of scout, jumping on her horse to guide her husband as he drove their wagon through roiling rivers pocked with the hidden boulders that caused many accidents. She proudly noted that while she was leading several girlfriends on a search for pasture for the wagon train's livestock, their route was closely observed by the men, who "profited by our experience" and quickly followed with the horses and cattle.
At a time when girls did not get the same degree of schooling as boys, Cummins also decided to treat the West like a vast coeducational campus. (Indeed, she still fumed over the teacher who had wasted time by making girls practice facial expressions "suited to the occasion of entertaining company.") She enthused over the region's "sermons in stones, books in running brooks," opportunities for geological observations, and spontaneous encounters with wildlife. Thrilled by the sight, she lyrically compared a thundering buffalo stampede to "the undulating movement of a great sea as it rises in regular billows and falls in gently undulating troughs."
As the journey broadened Cummins's experience and encouraged her sense of agency, she grew more independent. When her elders tried to discourage her from helping the men herd the family's cattle over steep mountains, she shrugged off their concern, writing that her "will was not to be swayed in that matter." She and the poorly equipped and provisioned wranglers soon got lost, however, and avoided death from exposure only when her husband shot a gun at a bit of dry coat lining to kindle a fire. Though shaken by the close call, she reminded herself to focus on her future home rather than her present trials and soon rallied to explore on her own. "Seated on eternal snow," she wrote, "looking from over these mountains and hills, across wide valleys into dark glens, above the roar of wind or of waters, I was lost in infinity."
Despite their experiments with women's traditional role, even spirited young wives such as Cummins, who often behaved like what Americans already called "tomboys," clung to their status as proper homemakers for several reasons. Domesticity was, after all, their major source of social identity and power, and throughout the long journey, they proudly continued to wear its symbolic uniform of white aprons, collars, and cuffs, however grimy and ragged they became. Even those who were willing to take on men's chores as need be did not want to add them to their own brutal workload on a routine basis. Sticking to the familiar amid migration's often disorienting circumstances also afforded them certain precious comforts, including some autonomy from men and the solace of the close female ties encouraged by Victorian society's separate spheres.
Cummins was one of many diarists to describe her affectionate bonds and experiences with other "dear good" women on the trail with a warmth conspicuously absent from their reserved remarks regarding their husbands. Influential figures such as Sarah Josepha Hale-editor of the popular Godey's Lady's Book, proponent of female education, and promoter of the home-oriented, nationwide Thanksgiving holiday-assured women that as rulers of the domestic domain, they were entitled to amicable unions with spouses of their choosing who shared the goal of a comfortable family life. This was an important advance over traditional arranged marriages, to be sure, but rarely did the proper Victorians make mention of their marital relationships. Even Cummins, a new bride, said little about her ties with the man she primly referred to as "Mr. Walden" or "my husband."
Most women were determined to resume their place in proper homes as soon as possible-on average, establishing a good house and garden took about two years-yet migration also inevitably expanded their sense of their place in the larger world. Over the long months on the trail, whether enthusiastically or not, they had assumed more responsibility, increased their skill sets, boosted their economic status as valued workers, and, perhaps most important showed themselves-and their husbands and children-that they were capable of more than society maintained.
Indeed, that so many women prevailed over the physical and emotional stress tests imposed by migration, even as the medical establishment insisted on their physiological and mental frailty, is one of American history's underremarked ironies. Many diarists boasted about their improved fitness, which they attributed to their strenuous new lives on the trail and the drier, sunnier western climate. (Cummins credited eating buffalo meat, which meant that "for the first time in my life I began to enjoy fairly good health.") Despite the risks of childbirth for the 20 percent of women who were pregnant on the journey, their mortality rate was lower than that of men, whose work was more dangerous.
Like Cummins, most women functioned well during migration, but some were heroic. Following behind her on the Oregon Trail just a year later, Ellen Smith was widowed when her husband died of a heart attack in Wyoming. As the onset of winter and starvation loomed, the mother of nine saw him buried and continued on. After the ordeal killed her sixteen-year-old daughter, already ill with typhus, Smith tied the smallest children and their essentials atop the oxen and set off on foot with the older ones, keeping her offspring alive by feeding them roasted mice. When they reached their intended destination in Oregon, she established her family's homestead as planned-an outstanding economic as well as physical achievement for a woman at a time when very few elsewhere could become landowners.
Migration increased women’s sense of competence as well as their economic status, but it also encouraged them to see themselves as patriotic pioneers-a uniquely western identity that powerfully reinforced their later claim to full citizenship, even as it further disadvantaged the region’s people of color. In 1836, Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, one of the first two White women to cross the Rockies, set the tone for colonizing maternal “civilizers” charged to create God-fearing homes and families amid the West’s “heathens.” Back home in upstate New York, the evangelical Presbyterian schoolteacher from a prosperous family had yearned to convert western Native Americans; but as a woman, she could only approximate her ambition by marrying an ordained minister, then serving as his helpmeet. After some matchmaking by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, she wed Rev. Marcus Whitman and left for the Oregon Territory. The news that the golden-haired bride had crossed the Rockies-a feat then thought impossible for such a fine lady-and settled at Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, helped open the West to migration by women and families.
After Whitman cofounded a mission to serve the Cayuse people, his focus shifted from evangelizing Native Americans to preaching colonization to White women via letters. She duly gave classes in the Bible and domestic skills to the puzzled Cayuse and even adopted three orphans of mixed White and Native blood. Yet she struggled with her new neighbors' difficult Nez Perce language, and soon adopted the patronizing attitude of less virulently racist settlers, who treated Native Americans like children. Her correspondence with family back East reflects her disdain for the Cayuses' communal way of life and ideas about hygiene. As a proper Victorian, she did not comment directly on their sexual mores, but Native societies generally did not believe that unhappy couples should stay together, so they allowed divorce and polygamy. They often permitted premarital sex and accepted intimate ties that benefited the commonweal, such as diplomatic liaisons with important outsiders. Indeed, for nearly two hundred years before Whitman arrived, the Pacific Northwest's lucrative fur trade relied on common-law marriages between White trappers and Native women, which were recognized à la façon du pays ("according to the custom of the country").
In letters that were often printed in eastern newspapers as reportage, Whitman glibly assured her readers that "families can come quite comfortable and easy in wagons all the way," and added her own support for colonization: "This country is destined to be filled, and we desire greatly to have good people come, and ministers and Christians, that it may be saved from being a sink of wickedness and prostitution."
Copyright © 2021 by Winifred Gallagher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.