Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pioneer Women, Voices from the Kansas Frontier

Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier Since I've been so busy catching up with yard work, I feel like I've been reading this old book forever, but it was so good it was worth the time. It was published in 1981, authored by Joanna L. Stratton, with an introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

Stratton used a collection of journals and letters from women who homesteaded in Kansas prior to the Civil War, and some memoirs from their daughters to tell what their life on the homestead was like. That's what makes the book so fascinating. As Stratton writes, "This is an unusual history of the frontier, for it is written through the eyes and the words of the women who lived it." One limitation is that these memoirs were written only by white homesteading women simply because the experiences of Indian and black women of the time, as well as the saloon girls and other marginal residents, were not recorded anywhere. It is also the story of those who stayed, rather than including those who returned east for whatever reason.

And there were plenty of reasons. Crop failure due to weather or locusts or stampedes. Hungry wolves lunging at the door and windows lured by the smell of food in the cabin or dugout or soddy. Horrible loneliness, especially when the husband had to go away for supplies or work and the wife was left alone or with small children, and the closest neighbors were a mile or more away. Curious Indians who walked in unannounced and looked at everything, sometimes taking food. They didn't have any concept of ownership so they didn't know they were doing anything wrong.

Their days were filled with hard work that I doubt many of us would stand. For instance, the cover photo shows a woman with a wheelbarrow full of buffalo chips (hardened manure) that they burned for cooking and heating since there were so few trees on the prairie. Water had to be hauled from streams, animals cared for, and in all kinds of weather. Childbirth alone in a sod house was a normal event.

Despite the distance between homes, people helped each other. They joined together particularly during the time known as "Bleeding Kansas" when proslavery folks and abolitionists fought violent battles, and Quantrill's Raiders made incursions into Kansas from Missouri, drinking and killing indiscriminately. That terrifying time made the earlier years look easy by comparison.

This book is such an eye-opener about the life of those women and children it makes me wonder how anyone survived without going crazy. I'm in awe of their courage and stamina. This is good reading and I recommend it.


  1. About a year ago both Margot and I read a book about frontier life up in Canada (Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell) and it had a lot of details about what they had to do to survive. I don't think I could even survive another BOOK about it, much less the real thing! And to think I complain when it's time to change the sheets! :--)

  2. Barbara, thanks so much for bringing this one to my attention. I am always one the lookout for good non-fiction, particularly memoirs, and I'm definitely going to go seek this one out.

  3. Jill and Tina, Thanks for your comments. I do hope you'll find it, Tina. The memories of these women are awe-inspiring. Jill, I'm like you as far as chores are concerned. If I had to work that hard, I think I would have been dead long ago - or stark raving mad after I had to shoot a wolf that was crashing through the door.

  4. Barbara, your review makes me think you may enjoy a book on a similar topic by my good friend Shannon D. Smith. We grew up next door to each other in western Nebraska and she is an expert on women of the west. Here's a link to her book on Amazon:

  5. Todd, Thank you for the suggestion. Nebraska seems to be where many young women who attended Monticello Female Seminary in Ill. went to become frontier teachers. I'll look up your friend's book for sure.

  6. Sorry I'm late to the party here. I thoroughly enjoyed your review of this book. I like reading about this time period. I don't know what they says about me - and you. Maybe we have a recessive pioneer gene? What appeals to me about Pioneer Women is that this is first person accounts which makes it so authentic. I really want to read this one. Thanks Barbara for the recommendation.