Friday, March 26, 2010

Pioneer Women: How the West was Really Won

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine yourself in the mid 1800’s in Nebraska.  You have stepped off the train in Omaha for the very first time and you are about to embark on what can only be considered a great Western adventure.  The land is mostly undeveloped, there are limited supplies, some of the houses look an awful lot like a mud hut and unfortunately the next train doesn’t come back through for at least a week.  For pioneer women, it was time to straighten your skirts and give it your all. Ok open your eyes; it is time to get down to business.  

Christi Moock Willoughby
Southeast Community College

If you think it’s tough to be a woman in 2010 when we have all the same freedom’s offered to men imagine how hard it was 150 or so years ago on the frontier west. About 10 years ago I spent part of the summer on field trips with my mother tracking down our family roots in Nebraska.  From my shirt-tail cousin who started more than ten Lutheran Churches between Dannebrog and Kearney to my great-grandmother who spent a few years in a sod house we traced our genealogy and mobility through this exciting time in American history.

Today I want to share with you the diverse lives of women on the prairie.

At the end of this essay you will have learned about the impact of women on the prairie and their effect on the home, their contributions to the workplace, and their place as landholders, farmers and ranchers long before women’s liberation.

In the 1996 book Pioneer Women Linda Peavey and Ursula Smith report that, in the Great Migration of 1843 there was a boom of citizens moving to the west for free land.  The legislature had approved the Preemption Act of 1842 which encouraged people to develop the land in the hopes of one day making it their own. I find it hard to imagine people in 2010 being brave enough to move several hundred miles for the possibility of free land from the government in the future, but the pioneers must have had a little more trust than the average citizen today.

Some of these groups were referred to as “movers” (Peavey & Smith, 1996) they packed up and migrated further west several times and were forced to start fresh at each destination. Moving in our civilized world is traumatic enough but moving in 1843 without the ease of a car, prior to the completion of the transcontinental railway, and going to an undeveloped destination took guts. The majority of these moves were by covered wagon with food, safety and illness the primary concerns for families (Peavey & Smith, 1996).

In Nebraska, citizens living close to the Missouri River or other waterways had access to trees to build log cabins, while those in the plains and sand hills of central and western Nebraska were required to live in sod houses Pictures from Frederick Luebbke’s 2005 book Nebraska, An Illustrated History, show the multiple kinds of structures common in Nebraska during this period. 

The sod houses, or soddy’s, as they were often referred to, were dirty and dark.  They were made by stacking hand-cut pieces of sod to build up walls These homes were hot in the summer and, drafty in the winter.  Even the best sod houses were dirty with leaky roofs (Luebbke, 2005).

But what if you sympathized more with Annie Oakley than with Laura Ingles Wilder? 

Not every woman who moved west was attached to a family.  There were single women seeking adventure, or a change of pace, who were eagerly migrating west as well.  Sadly, there were also women who lost their husbands early after arriving in the Midwest.

There is a joke I’ve heard in small towns about women who go to college to get their “missus” and while I suspect that some of the women traveled west for a mate, others were interested in a life built of their own strength, ambition and endurance. Wishart reports in the 2004 Encyclopedia of the Prairie that, under the Homestead Act, only women who were single, widowed, divorced or deserted could sign for their own land.

Many of the women who came west were influenced only by the excitement of the boom. Once a “single” woman had acquired her land she was free to marry or re-marry whichever the case may be.  Her land could then be combined with her husband’s to create a larger property, rented out to a farmer for profit or sold (Wishart, 2004).

The women who were widowed after moving west with their families often faced the difficult decision of what would be best for the future. These women took on the day-to-day responsibilities of farm and ranch life and were surprisingly successful. A quote from Katie Adams, a Pioneer widow, reads, “I was just like a hired man.  I was right there, I even followed the plow”  (Peavey & Smith, 1996). To my memory this seems a lot different than the trials of the characters in Little House on the Prairie.

So what if you’re not a desperate housewife and manual labor doesn’t sound like your gig either?  Don’t worry, there were places on the prairie for women who aspired to greater things.

The last group of pioneer women includes those who had completed all of primary school or some college back east before migrating to the Midwest.  These women worked outside the home and were valuable to their community for a variety of reasons. 150 years ago, in the undeveloped west there was value to being an educated woman, sometimes, the women were more educated than the men.

Pioneer women worked commonly as teachers. In 1863 most teachers in the Midwest were women and the average pay was around $40 a month.  Often times, the pupils were only a few years behind the teachers in age and knowledge. Dee Brown, in the 1994 date book The American West, reports that specialty schools were not uncommon and included female academies where women would perfect sewing and manners.

Other jobs for women included writing for the newspaper. Newspapers were developed for the public recording of property transactions.  According to Brown’s 1994 The American West, news print and paper were in short supply and the women didn’t want to waste any empty space so they filled the empty areas with poems and human interest stories.  Brown (1994) also notes that many of the pioneer’s desired additional reading materials and that the pieces produced by women writers were frequently sought after as entertainment. 

Women then weren’t so different from women now, some focused on family life, others cut their own path in a man’s world, and still other’s preferred a life working indoors.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about the diversity of women on the prairie. Maybe your ancestors stayed home and battled snakes that came into their sod house from the walls, maybe they moved until they found a place that felt like home, or until they couldn’t move any more.  Maybe you have already traced your family history and you know that your great-grandmother ran the ranch after she lost her husband.  Or maybe, you’ve been lucky enough to find the writings of a relative and have been able to learn about the quiet strength and dedication of pioneer women.  The one’s who carved their own path, and made our part of the world what it is today. 

I like to think that all women have a little bit of that Pioneer Spirit left and that now, while we’re in college, and making the decision about which paths we will follow, which one’s we’ll ignore and which times we’ll have to cut the path ourselves, that we’ll remember the pioneer women before us, who survived against all odds, in a land that they helped to develop.  When they arrived they were met with barren land, and homes made from the earth, many of us have had a much easier start, but our pioneering spirit can still cause amazing developments and successes.   


Brown, D. (1994). The American west.  New York, NY:  Touchstone.

Luebbke, F. (2005). Nebraska: An illustrated history. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Peavey, L. & Smith, U. (1996). Pioneer women: the lives of the women on the frontier. Rowayton, CT:  Saraband, Inc.

Wishart, D. (2004) Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln, NE:  Center for Great Plains Studies.


Anonymous said...

I am interested in the photograph of the two women and child that appears in this post about pioneer women in Nebraska. Can you tell me if it is public domain? If not, do you have any information about the holder of copyright? I would appreciate a response at or phone 6060633-9546.
Thank you.
Nina Cornett

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading about these pioneer women. They've always fascinated me and it must have been great for you learning about your ancestors. Thanks for sharing all your research.