"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.