Women Going West: A Few Beginning Thoughts

Last July I took a cross-country trip to Colorado. Driving through the wide-open spaces of desert, high desert, canyon lands, mountains, and high prairie, I tried to image what it might have been like for the pioneers coming into the Great American West in the 19th Century.

I had the luxury of traveling in an air-conditioned car, speeding along interstate highways or paved country roads and covering hundreds of miles in one day. That’s far different than how the real pioneers came. Their journey was usually made in covered wagon (or walking beside that wagon). There wasn’t air conditioning. There weren’t motels. After a long day of travel, a camp had to be made, supper cooked, clothes washed (if near a river), etc. etc.

Oh, and then the storms. Those magnificent thunderstorms that I love from the safety of the car or inside shelter. The pioneers had to weather the storm in the wagon, hoping their livestock didn’t run off…

Musings likes these prompted the Historical Theme of the Month for September, but I’m adding a twist. We’ll talk about experiences of pioneers going west – and we’ll focus on women’s history in the American west. Today, I’ll share my thoughts on the “terms” of the series and a little about a pioneer women in my own family.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, c. 1885

“Pioneer” and “West”

I suppose the adventurous souls crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Colonial Era could be called pioneers. (I’ve read history books using that definition.) But the Colonial Era westward expansion has different aspects than the wagon train journeys across the western plains. I’m not saying one is more important than the other; both are defining aspects in the settlement of the United States.

However, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll be focusing on the pioneers venturing beyond the Mississippi River in this series. The time frame will be roughly from the 1830’s to the 1890’s.

Not Just Wagon Trains

I usually think of the long wagon trains moving across the prairies and deserts, following famous trails to Oregon, Santa Fe, or some other destination. However, wagon trains weren’t the only way folks traveled into the western territories and states.

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How about by ship? That’s right – particularly during and after the California Gold Rush – lots of ships sailed around South America’s Cape Horn or took their passengers to the Isthmus of Panama. If a pioneer was going by way of Panama, he or she would sail to Central America, cross the isthmus – usually by horse or mule – then board another ship to sail up the west coast to California, Oregon, or Washington.

And don’t forget the trains! Railroad tracks pushed into the west, bringing pioneer passengers into the western states and territories. By 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed, and more and more tracks were laid, helping to link the western settlements for travel and commerce.

A Pioneer Woman In My Family

I will admit it. I really need to study my family history. And I’m not great with my genealogy or family tree for past generations. However, I do know of a pioneer woman in my ancestry.

Sarah Jayne Oliver journeyed to California by ship (I think she went all the way around Cape Horn) in the mid-1850’s. She made the trek to join her brother who likely caught gold fever, but seems to have become a teacher, and then got ill with a real sickness. Sarah experienced “wild” California and eventually brought her brother home to their east coast residence.

It’s quite a story and definitely one that I look forward to exploring. I’ve seen some of Sarah’s original letters and – once upon a time – tried transcribing one. (I should try again now that I’ve had more practice ready mid-19th Century script.) If you’re wondering, I wasn’t named for Sarah Jayne Oliver, but I do like that we share the same first name.

Coming Up…

Join us on the next few Fridays as we discuss historical details about women’s life and roles in the West. From campfire cooking to military forts, cowgirls, and the first state to give the girls the right to vote!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to Women Going West: A Few Beginning Thoughts

  1. tuffncuddly says:

    Hi Sarah this is Jeffrey I haven’t had time to write lately but I’ve definitely been reading your articles. I have to admit I’m very excited to see what you find out about your own family. To me it even makes it more special when you find a picture it’s almost like you feel you know the person somehow. So keep putting out great stuff and I’ll keep reading it and like I told you before I wish there was more female historians because you definitely put a entertaining aspect on history that I don’t think most men get yet. Keep up the great work!!!

  2. This is a compelling topic, which I’ve been researching for the last year or so. Here are two titles that would be a great place to start:

    — A Pioneer Woman’s Westward Journey (1849), http://www.wwnorton.com/college/history/archive/resources/documents/ch14_03.htm

    — A frontier lady: recollections of the gold rush and early California, by Sarah Royce; University of Nebraska Press, 1977, c1932. – Autry Museum Library

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