Life for a woman on the frontier was rugged, intense and repetitive. A wife was vital to the survival of the household – few single men tried to run a farm or a ranch.
It began with the journey out. Some women had little say in the matter of heading West: it might well have been their husband’s decision, made without consultation. Sometimes alone, sometimes in a wagon train, either way the family had to function as a unit. Children had to be well-disciplined; it was easy for a child to fall out of the wagon and be run over before anyone realised. When the wagon came to a river, the load might need to be lightened which meant a favourite item of furniture being discarded.
Once they reached their destination, the family lived in the wagon until the house was built. If the husband was skilled, he might manage it with his wife wielding an axe alongside him, but it was also common for neighbours to help each other. While this was going on, women had somehow to maintain their privacy and the rigid customary decorum in terms of washing and ‘going to the bathroom’.
Families naturally varied enormously in size and age. Very often the pioneer couple would already have children. If it was an older couple, they might be so lucky as to have a strapping son or two to help with housebuilding etc. Probably the hardest scenario for a woman was to have children under five in tow, as they would require a lot of her time and would be little help. On the other hand, such children would grow up with the prairie as their home and would adapt, as children do. This would be even more the case for children conceived and born in the new home.
A wife’s duties varied somewhat according to who there was available to help her, but she would have to supervise most things and her day was always packed. She was often the first to get up in the morning, when it wasn’t yet light. After washing and dressing in the dark, she would stoke the fire and make biscuits for all the family. Particularly if the man or men were going to be engaged in hard labour, she cooked a hearty breakfast to include deer meat, for example, and eggs from their own chickens. If there was no-one else to do it, she fetched water from the creek and milk from the ‘spring house’ which was a sort of primitive larder in the creek, designed to keep things cool. All the time she was doing these things, she was planning the meals for the day, to make sure food got used in the right order before it was spoilt and that nothing was wasted.
She had to milk the cow (assuming they had one), feed the chickens and gather eggs, make the beds, tidy up the house, and attend to her vegetable garden. There were always other chores to do that weren’t daily but were nonetheless regular: making butter and cheese, salting meat, curing hides, making soap and candles, making jams and preserves and anything that could be done in season or ahead of time to lighten the load on other days, and of course helping in the fields with planting or harvesting.
Washing was a mammoth chore, with clothes needing to be scrubbed on a washboard and spread to dry on the grass. It was usually done weekly, typically as the first job of the week obeying the ditty:
Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday,
… which was the routine followed by Laura Ingalls’ mother in ‘Little house in the big woods’.
Mending wasn’t typically allocated to a particular day but would be done by candlelight after the children had gone to bed. Clothes had to last because it was a rare treat to get hold of fabric, which then had to be made into clothes of course. Bedding had to be made, too – mattresses, ticks, blankets and quilts. As communities built, sewing and quilt-making became an opportunity for women’s social get-togethers, when childcare could be pooled as well. Whether ‘Rest on Sunday’ was followed would depend on how religious the family were, but they certainly needed and deserved one day a week of respite.
Pioneer women had to worry constantly about their men and their children, how to make ends meet and how to prepare enough food to satisfy appetites and keep everyone healthy. They would be no strangers to death from disease and accident. They had to piece every day together and never lose focus. Perhaps unexpectedly, however, diaries of the day suggest that many women found fulfilment in their busy lives and didn’t regret their choice, or their husband’s choice, to pursue the adventure of pioneer life.