Feminizing the Frontier: Women in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1851-1900

by O. Vernon Burton, Troy Smith, and Simon Appleford, University of Illinois

In the spring of 1835, John and Jane Clemens packed up their family and left Fentress County, Tennessee –the latest site in John’s string of unsuccessful business ventures –and headed for a new life in what was then the western frontier. Not long after their arrival in Florida, Missouri, they welcomed a new addition to their family: son Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The child was two months premature and weighed only five pounds. His mother described him as “a poor looking object to raise.”1 The Clemens’ exodus mirrored the experience of countless other families who crossed the Mississippi during the nineteenth century. And, like almost all those families, the women went as well; the Clemens family history would be woefully incomplete if it did not include the story of Jane Lampton Clemens, a statement which is so obvious that it hardly seems worth making.

And yet, until recent years, the experiences of women in the Trans-Mississippi West were simplified, romanticized, minimized or ignored completely by historians. As late as 1974, an author presenting a social history of the American frontier wrote that “no one has ever questioned, let alone analyzed, the masculinity of the frontier society. Since it is as obvious as the sun in the daytime, the subject has not been discussed.”2 Indeed, Frederick Jackson Turner’s famed frontier thesis does not bring women into the equation at all. Mid-twentieth century books which did focus on women in the West tended to either focus on “wild and woolly” women, a lá Calamity Jane, or on women in the traditional role of “civilizing” a frontier that had been “conquered” by a preceding wave of men. Some such works, like Nancy Wilson Ross’s Westward the Women (1944) or Dee Brown’s The Gentle Tamers (1958), captured the public’s imagination.

A fuller examination of women’s roles in the settlement of the west, however, would require going beyond simple stereotypes. In the 1970s and 1980s, several historians –including Julie Roy Jeffrey, Susan Armitage, Elizabeth Jameson, Glenda Riley, and John Mack Farragher –began to do just that. “Women in the West” became a popular topic among scholars, and by the 1990s that popularity had spread to the general public; one significant consequence has been the higher profile and easier availability of frontier women’s journals. Another is the strong hold that female authors, and readers, now have on the market in Western fiction.

Jeffrey, in her 1979 book Frontier Women, made extensive use of women’s personal narratives to capture the essence of their life in the Trans-Mississippi West. Admittedly, women’s experiences varied widely, depending on location and time period; still, there were some common threads. Jeffrey’s ultimate conclusions were more in line with Brown’s “Gentle Tamers” motif than with the opposing view of Western women as, in the words of one reviewer, individuals who “liberated themselves from constricting and sexist stereotypes and behaviors.”3 Women in mining camps may have been forced to live with a high degree of disorder, but even among prostitutes there was a desire to organize their profession in a way that resembled eastern prostitution –with red-light districts and division according to class and race.4 Farm wives, too, frequently wished to model their new lives in the West on familiar aspects of the life they had previously known.

Hard-riding, hard-drinking “cowgirls” like Calamity Jane or Stagecoach Mary, and crusading suffragettes –lionized as they were, then and now, in popular media –were the exception rather than the rule. Most women who crossed the Mississippi did not want to slip the bonds of Victorian propriety, nor did they wish to revolutionize society. On the contrary, many were reluctant to move in the first place, suffered terrible bouts of loneliness without the company of female friends, bore painful losses along the way, and were eager to reconstruct the “civilization” they had left behind as quickly as possible. For them, according to Jeffrey and Glenda Riley, domestic ideology provided comfort rather than restriction. Such a conclusion challenges Turner’s claims that people were transformed by environment.

On the other hand, it could be argued –and has been –that women’s experiences were significantly different on the frontier than back east, whether they wanted them to be or not, and that traditional social roles were challenged as a result. Susan Armitage and Sandra Myres, in particular, have asserted that western women’s lives and occupations –and their individual responses to the West –varied much more than Jeffrey and Riley indicate.

Still, even critics of Jeffrey’s argument have conceded that it is well-constructed and well-documented. Women’s journals and letters often indicate a desire on the writers’ parts to structure their lives around familiar –and domestic –patterns. These patterns could not necessarily be transplanted instantaneous and whole from East to West, necessitating the sorts of challenges and adaptations which Jeffrey’s critics point to on the part of frontier women. Nevertheless, an eventual return to the “normalcy” of Victorian life seems to have been an abiding goal of many “westering women,” and they strove to transform their new environments by maintaining the domestic attitudes which were familiar to them. This was done, not in a philosophical effort to “spread civilization,” but rather as a means to make a new land feel like home.