Saturday, March 10, 2012

Women in the Old West--Women's History Month

"Go West, young man!" Horace Greeley proclaimed, and many young men followed his advice. Those who traveled to the western prairies brought their wives and children, but it was not an easy life for women in the American West. Harder for some, perhaps, than others.

Homesteader Sarah Sim found life on the prairies a painful challenge. Sarah was 32 in 1856 when she and her husband, Francis, bought 160 acres in Nebraska and moved near Bennett's Ferry with their three children. They built a 10 foot by 10 foot cabin for the family. Imagine how small that would be!

Sarah and Francis bought three cows, two oxen, a horse, pigs and chickens. Francis hunted rabbits and prairie chickens to supplement their food supply while Sarah and the children gathered wild strawberries and plums. There were few trees on the prairie, so Sarah and the children also collected buffalo chips or twists of hay or cornhusks, called "cats," to burn in their stove.

It was a lonely existence for Sarah and her husband who had little contact with outsiders. Homesteaders on the Nebraska prairies were occasionally visited by traveling salesmen peddling stoves, scissor grinders, and clock repair services. Irish and Jewish clothes peddlers would stop by, and the homesteaders depended on these visits for their news of the outside world. There was no school, so the children were taught at home, and although a preacher visited the nearby towns once in awhile, there was no church.

In The Story of the Great American West, Peter M. Chaitin describes the desperate feelings of Sarah Sim as she struggled in her tiny sod home. Sarah wrote frequent letters to her parents and told them of the dry weather, the hard water, and winds so strong she thought "they would blow our little house away!"

When winter came, their situation grew desperate. The winter of 1856/1857 is considered one of the most severe winters in the American West. This was the winter of the Mormon Handcart disasters when 213 Mormon Saints died on their way to Utah. Huge herds of cattle were walled in by snow drifts and froze to death. According to "History and Stories of Nebraska," many Nebraska homesteaders were only able to survive because they found animals frozen in the snow.

Sarah's middle child developed whooping cough and died. Sarah cut her finger and developed an infection. Her finger was amputated. Her husband, Francis, became sick and was briefly bedridden. Sarah felt trapped in her home, frightened, and in spite of the presence of her two remaining children and husband, very much alone. She became severely depressed.

For eight long months as the winds screamed around their house during one of the longest, coldest, most severe winters in Nebraska history, Sarah slowly lost her mind. She tore at her clothes, screamed at her family, tried to bite herself and her children and became so violent that her husband was forced to tie her to their bed. She eventually wrote to her parents about her fears and depression, saying "I would do anything to get better!"

Remarkably, Sarah recovered. Somehow, she found the strength to survive the winter of 1856, the lack of food, the bitter cold, and her lonely prairie existence. As the snow began to melt, the winds died down, and the grass began to grow. Slowly, Sarah's sanity returned. Sarah planted flowers. Francis planted potatoes and corn. They built an addition on their home. More settlers moved into the area. The families worked together to build a church and school.

Life was never easy for families on the western prairies. Sarah and her husband had nine children through the years and Sarah was forced to face the death of four more children to diphtheria and mumps, but Sarah never lost her sanity again, providing a model of strength and perseverance for her family.

27 comments:

Asim Kumar Paul said...

A timely description of life

ARITRA MONDAL said...

100%RIGHT

ARITRA MONDAL said...

nice good one.

swat said...

Yes, it is time to set everything.

Kwena Mabjana said...

"A woman hold the knife on the cutting edge" for her children and family. ( Mosadi o swara thipa ka bogaleng) that's a Sotho language proverb.

pilgrimchick said...

What a wonderful theme for a blog!
I have to say, however, that this is a theme I have seen in a lot of historical narratives--women, emigrating with their husbands and families, and suffering everythign from self-doubt to the insanity you describe here. I often wonder if this is a consequence of the inability of many women to forge their own destinies (rather, being dragged around by a husband in charge of making the "big decisions.").

Stacy said...

It's hard to fathom what those pioneers really endured. I know I would be a raving lunatic if I were stuck in a small space like that for a few weeks, let alone for a few months, and that's with books, telephones and the internet for company. No one's survival depends on me, either!

Found your blog through Blogs of Note.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Pilgrimchick, I understand what you are saying here and have wondered the same thing myself, but I believe that, as in the case of Sarah Sim, this situation ultimately made these women stronger, stronger than they ever imagined they could be. There is some solid evidence to support this idea. For instance, women were first allowed to vote in the West (Wyoming), and the first female governor of an American state was in Wyoming--Nellie Tayloe Ross http://darla-sue-dollman.suite101.com/nellie-tayloe-ross-a200650. The second was in Texas--Miriam Amanda Ferguson http://darla-sue-dollman.suite101.com/miriam-amanda-ferguson-a200162. (The links are to articles I wrote about both of these women.) To me, the important aspect of the story about Sarah Sim is that ultimately, she did survive.

Stacy, I agree with you. I lived on 35 acres on the Colorado/Wyoming border for many years and the wind screams and howls through that area for six months of the year. It would pick up our water barrels and send them flying across the prairie. Sometimes we found them miles away near I-25. There were days when we had to speak in loud voices to be heard over the wind--inside the house! We planted a wind block with fully-grown trees, but it didn't help much. When we parked in front of the house, I would enter the truck through the driver's side and climb over to my seat because I could not open the passenger side door--the wind was so strong it would pop the door. My son came home from school once, opened the screen door, and the wind caught it and ripped the entire frame/door/everything off the side of the house. The snow was rarely heavy around the house because the wind blew it away, but it would pile up in six foot snow drifts, blocking our access. We were sometimes stuck inside for a few days, but never, ever encountered the same situation as these early pioneers. We had heat, light, television (when the wind didn't knock it out) food. There is an abundance of rabbits and pronghorn antelope in that area, but they certainly would not be out and about during a blizzard when the family needed food. I can imagine what these women experienced, and yet, I know it was much worse than anything I've ever experienced! And yet, can you imagine the sense of pride and accomplishment they must have felt having survived a winter such as the winter of 1856? Sarah Sim probably never knew it was one of the worst winters the American West has ever seen, but I'm sure she eventually learned from other residents in the are that it was terrible for all of them. In spite of her breakdown and suffering, she did survive.

Humph McPaxo said...

A cracking blog you've got yourself. Keep it up!

Sumi said...

loved reading your blog. Came here through blogs to note , I am glad I found.

recumbent conspiracy theorist said...

Great blog -found it on blogs of note. I love history. Even more than reading about it I like going out looking for it. I've been exploring 1880's one room schoolhouses near my home in North-Central Ohio. Pics on my blog.

Miss Sophie said...

i'm so happy to have found this blog. i hope it is going to help me with my explorations of texas this spring and summer.
sophie
princessrhyme.blogspot.com

Barefoot Backpacker said...

I love your blogs. Very informative!

Paul said...

Although this may came in late, I would still like to say belated happy international women's day!

Tim Shey said...

Those pioneers had it tough. My great-grandfather came from Ireland, lived in Australia for 13 years herding sheep and prospecting for gold. He later "settled" in Iowa, had a wife and children and then homesteaded in western Nebraska. Land-hungry Irishman. Wasn't home much; not much of a family life.

I have hitchhiked through Nebraska many times. Some of the friendliest people I have ever met were in Nebraska. "My Antonia" by Willa Cather is a beautiful novel about Nebraska pioneers.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Interesting story, Tim. I have a feeling most early settlers were in the same situation with very little time to spend with family. I'm working on a blog post now about school teachers and you can see in so many of the photographs of schoolhouses in the 1800s that children as young as two and three were sent to school. I would assume this was because there was so much work to do at home and in the fields for both parents. I can't imagine life as a single parent back then!

My family is also Irish! Well, Irish/German. The Irish side is from Ohio, the German side settled in Texas during the wave of German immigration in the mid-1800s.

I have also visited Nebraska a few times. One of my siblings lives near Omaha. Between the blizzards, tornadoes and floods, it must have been incredibly difficult for settlers. It's difficult for residents now! And yes, "My Antonia" is a wonderful novel. Thank you for reminding me--I think I'll dig that one back out of my library. I remember "The Pioneer Woman's Story" was my favorite for some reason. The deep emotions, perhaps.

Generic Dropshipper India said...

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Irene Kohrs said...

Hello Darla Sue,
I love to read your blog.
Best wishes, Irene

Tim Shey said...

Darla: I once hitchhiked through Red Cloud, Nebraska (I have been hitchhiking the United States for most of 15 years now). There is a Willa Cather Museum in Red Cloud that you may be interested in visiting.

In January of this year, I had a book published titled "The First Time I Rode a Freight Train & other hitchhiking stories" (Amazon.com). The first freight train I rode was coming out of Fremont, Nebraska. My great-grandfather used to ride freight trains between his ranch in western Nebraska and his farm in southwestern Iowa.

Without freight trains, we will be a people no more.

Tim Shey said...

Darla: I see that you are a writer. Here is the only piece of fiction that I had published (Ethos Magazine, Iowa State University); it is a hitchhiking story:

"High Plains Drifter"
http://tim-shey.blogspot.com/2010/07/high-plains-drifter.html

Scribblex said...

lovelly find a "asian dating site" AD just on the left of this post!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Isn't that pleasant, Scribblex! Unfortunately the ads are computer generated using keywords. I can request different ads, but by the time they change them, my posts have changed, too.

Constance Walden said...

This is a real great blog. Very informative. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Connie
http://bringingallthingsunderchrist.blogspot.com/

Economically Humble said...

Wow, this is such a crazy cool blog!!! I love the photos and the short histories!

Skyler said...

Good blog! I studied the Comanche tribe in school!

MikaelSterner said...

I very much enjoy reading you blog and its editorial profile. I am starting a blog from Sweden that will be not totally historic but rural issues oriented. Your blog sets a good example but I will not be able to get my blog, fully at your level! I have a mentioning on railroads here and a reference to emigrants who started on Union Pacific. http://savsjo2014.blogspot.se/

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