Wagon trail women

Part I

March, being Women’s History Month, is a good time to take a look at the trials and tribulations women suffered, and mostly lived through, during the settling of the West. Even though women’s lives today are filled with an overload of duties to perform (with many women having earned the title “Super Mom”), we can’t help but be thankful that our lives are not as gruesome and demanding as many of our forbears’ lives were.

Between 1840 and 1869, 350,000 people flowed through the South Pass gateway to the West. Tens of thousands of them were women. Late each spring caravans of wagons would begin the trek that could last up to six months in order to travel about 2,000 miles. Because of the heavy loads pulled by oxen, they could only travel between 15-20 miles per day.

It was hard, especially for women, to leave their parents, family and friends behind, never sure if they would ever see them again. They also had to leave the comforts and familiarity of home for the unknowns of rugged traveling and sometimes hard and uninhabitable destinations. Space in the wagons was limited and was devoted to necessities such as weapons, tools, basic clothing, cooking utensils, medicines and staple foods like flour, molasses and sugar. Knowing that they must take only the most necessary items, women went to great lengths to take along things they felt were essential, such as seeds from flowers, trinkets, a favorite book, daguerreotypes, a clock and a mirror. A woman’s role on the trail was not a great deal different from her role in the home – but it did involve more work, under the most primitive circumstances, with little time for socializing or rest.

Not much though went into the needs of women. A layover of one day only was given for a woman to give birth to a baby. Labor pains or weakness after childbirth was no excuse for stopping. It was rare for a doctor to accompany a wagon train, so other women assisted in the childbirth. If the baby died it was wrapped in a rough box made from the wagon and buried along the trial. If the mother died, she and her baby were buried together.

There were a lot of illnesses such as fever, dysentery, diarrhea and cholera. The only treatments were home remedies brought along for that purpose, but many illnesses were fatal. Deaths also occurred from wagon accidents, drowning while crossing rivers, or children falling out of the wagons and being run over by the wagon wheels. These tragedies took their toll on the human spirit.

(to be continued)