A few weeks ago one of my brothers was watching a John Wayne movie. This particular film had the classic “young officer falls in love with pretty girl” in the plot and highlighted the role of women in Western military forts. (Sort of.)
That got me curious about the real women who lived at military forts during the 19th Century. And a little research revealed a few interesting facts. There were many respectable wives and daughters who journeyed west and lived at or near the military forts where their husbands or fathers served.
Today’s blog post shares five facts about these pioneer women civilizing the west.
- After the Civil War
Following the American Civil War (1861-1865), more women were allowed to travel with their husbands and lived at the western military outposts. Prior to the 1860’s, many western camps or forts simply didn’t have the lodgings for families to settle.
2. “Where Did You Say We Were Living?”
There were two main types of military establishments in the west. A camp was temporary (even though temporary could mean a few years.) A fort was a more permanent structure of some sort – usually built along an established trail. Camps and forts were established to help keep the peace (not as refuges for settlers, even though that did happen when native tribes got on the war path.)
A soldier’s wife traveled west by horseback, wagon, stagecoach, or ship – if the outpost was near the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific coast. Once she arrived, the type of fort she saw depended on the region. In wooded areas, the forts were typical built of – you guessed it – wood. In the desert regions, adobe bricks or stone were preferred construction materials.
3. So…What’s His Rank?
A woman’s role in a military fort or camp and the type of quarters she lived in depended on her husband’s rank and role in the army.
Officer’s wives usually had nicer rooms or houses. They could hire servants to help with the housework, cooking, and watching the children. An officer’s wife had the usual domestic duties of 19th Century women and the fun of helping to organize social gatherings and entertainments with the other officers’ wives for the enjoyment of the military unit, other civilians, and maybe the nearby settlers.
Wives of enlisted men typically had an actual job, aside from their own household duties. They could be employed by the military to do the soldiers’ laundry or work as hospital matrons. Or they could be employed as servants by the officers’ wives.
4. Military Housing – 19th Century Style
U.S. military forts in this era typically arranged their buildings around a parade ground; the structures usually included officers’ quarters, barracks, headquarters building, stables, and storerooms.
Where a lady lived depended on…her husband’s military rank. The family of the highest ranking officer got the nicest house/quarters and choice housing continued to have preference down through the chain of command.
However, there were occasions when everyone got to move. For example, if a captain and his lady had the nicest quarters and a colonel and his wife arrived, the captain’s family had to move to the second nicest quarters which displaced the first lieutenant, which displaced the second lieutenant, etc. etc.
5. A Civilizing Effect
Women and families at western military forts brought a civilizing presence to the outposts and the territories. Women organized schools, welcomed preachers and chaplains, and planned social events for the forts. Dances, picnics, concerts, and other entertainments provided welcome amusements at the often lonely locations. The women who lived in the military forts and camps had to follow strict protocol, but they also established and quietly demanded respect and societal protocol from the fort’s residents.
Living at military outposts in the west was challenging, but many women embraced the challenge, grateful to be with their husbands and keep their families together. As they went about their daily tasks or jobs, planned social events, and taught the next generation of Americans, they were successfully setting protocols and standards to transform the west and paving the tradition for military families in later decades.