Today’s blog post ventures into some overview history of pioneer women. We’ll start with a reminder of women’s roles and work in the mid-19th Century, then delve into the details of cooking and quilting in the west. In conclusion, we’ll explore some different types of homes built in the west.
During the 19th Century, “spheres of influence” outlined roles for men and women. Men ideally conquered the land, ran the shops, herded the cattle, and fought off the bad guys. Women ideally managed the household, oversaw/did the cooking, sewing, and cleaning, and looked after the children.
Out in the west, women had their “traditional” work with added responsibilities. A woman might have ended up taking “men’s work” to ensure the success of the homestead or to take over the chores if her husband was sick or dead. So…out in the west, a woman had “her work” but it could be exponentially harder depending on the location, weather, and other circumstances, and she might have added duties depending on the situation.
In the east, many women cooked on nice burn/coal burning stoves or on hearths. Out west – at least during the wagon journey and the months of building a homestead – a lady usually didn’t have those luxuries. Nope. Cooking happened over an open fire. (Ever done that in the middle of summer in five layers of clothing?) Hopefully, the men or boys gathered the wood or buffalo chips and hauled the water.
Western cooking had additional challenges. Supplies? Those were what the family brought with them, traded for, or gathered/hunted along the way. There was the option to just “run down to the general store” to pick-up the needed ingredient for dinner. Women became skilled at improvising and using what was available to make large meals for their families.
Their cooking implements included large pots, sometimes a spit, Dutch ovens, and an array of utensils. (If all goes as planned, yours truly will be doing some Dutch oven cooking on her own camping adventure about the time this post is published!)
Some women made quilts while travelling west. Others made some new hand-pieced blankets once they were settled. Quilts were works of art and sometimes one of the few (or only) records left by pioneer women. Sometimes their quilts are the clues for historians to search for their stories.
Why quilt? Practical reason: make a warm and pretty covering for a bed. It was economical since it used scraps of fabric from clothes making or other projects. And it had a social aspect; women sometimes pieced their quilts together and frequently organized quilting parties to finish the bedspreads.
In fledgling communities where homesteads might be miles apart, quilting or the sharing of other chores brought women together, giving them a chance to encourage each other, gossip, and socialize. Quilts were a useful object, ideally crafted in a social setting and the ones that survive are created art, linking historians to the past some sometimes revealing valuable clues about women’s lives in the west.
There were a variety of homes build on the western homesteads. Sod shanties were literally built from strips of prairie grass and dirt, cut from the ground as the land was plowed and prepared. A dugout was just what it sounds like – a shelter or room dug out of a creek bank or small knoll.
If a town was nearby and the family could afford lumber on the prairie, a lady might get a small shanty home – with a promise of improvement and enlargement when the crops or cattle brought a profit. In a forested region, felled trees could be used to make a cabin.
Oftentimes, a family would live in their wagon or use the wagon cover to make a tent until a more permanent shelter could be constructed.
Whatever the type of house, most women tried to make a home in the western wilderness. Their journals, quilts, or household items tell us a story of domestic life in challenging places and situations and how these brave women stepped outside the “traditional” roles on occasion to defend their homesteads and help their families win the battle for survival in the west.