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Trade Paperback
240 pages
Apr 2004
Ambassador International

Women of the Frontier

by Billy Kennedy

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Admiration for women of true grit

    Human endurance on the American frontier in the 18th and early 19th century is perhaps beyond the comprehension and the imagination of those of us in live in the comfortable modern society of the early 21st century.

       The settlement of a vast wilderness and the creation of a civilisation in what today has become the most powerful, most democratic and free nation in the world is undoubtedly one of the epic stories in global history and, at every opportunity, there should be fulsome recognition of a courageous people who were not deterred by the personal hardships and tragedies that they faced.

       Settling the American frontier may have a romantic ring to it, perpetuated by the images created in the Hollywood western movies, but there was a starkness about life in the vast territories which the European immigrant settlers encountered in their long overland treks that was far from cosy and glamorous.

      Indeed, at a time when travel and accessibility was very difficult, and at times hazardous and extremely dangerous, it is incredible just how much territory was settled, and in such a short span of years.  Many trekked long journeys on foot, while the others managed to move on horseback, either alone or as part of a train of Conestoga wagons.

      Researching in the United States and at home in Northern Ireland for my books in the Scots-Irish Chronicles series, I have come across some incredible stories of men and women who lived through wars, famine, disease and drought and survived to secure a firm foothold on lands that was to be theirs and their families for generations and centuries to come.  The men were in the vanguard of the great march West, over a century and a half from the eastern seaboard states of New England through the Appalachian territories, and beyond the Mississippi River over the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean in the West and to Texas in the South.

    Women too were an integral part of the onward journey by the hardy settlers through dense forests and over mountains in the Appalachians to the great plains of the south and west and their contribution to the frontier settlements as the backbone of the home, the community and the church was far-reaching. I never cease to marvel at the extraordinary tenacity and the true grit of the wonderful womenfolk of the American frontier in facing the awesome and grinding challenges of largely hitherto uninhabited lands, variable climates and a dangerously hostile environment that resulted in many lost lives.

   They encountered a life of constant toil, home-making, child-minding and subservience that could not have been easy or even tolerable by the standards that we all come to expect today in our modern society. But with love and care they ensured that the family life became paramount and the values that uphold society prospered. The gallant women of the American frontier deserve our total admiration and our plaudits, and in this book it has been my privilege to recount for posterity the deeds and the actions of a number of these heroines.


Hardy women on the front line of American society


    Men invariably get the credit for extending the American nation and civilising the bleak wilderness that extended from the 18th century North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky frontier regions beyond the Mississippi River to the territories in the direction of the Pacific Ocean which, in the 19th century, became known as The West.

   The men were the ones who cleared the land, built the homes, grew the food in the fields, chased off the marauding Indian tribes with their long Kentucky rifles and set up townships where ordered, close-knit communities were established.

   The men folk were not, of course, the whole story on the frontier. When America was offering free land for those prepared to take it up in the 18th and 19th centuries it was not just men who arduously trekked across the Atlantic from Europe to seize the opportunity.

   Women too wanted to be in on the great American dream, and many staked claims for 100 acres of land and more and got it.

    Some of the women were unmarried and had to continually struggle for their rights in a male-dominated society, but they were characters with nerves of steel and a determination beyond belief as they ventured into the great unknown of the vast North American continent.

     They came of Scots-Irish, German, English, Dutch, Scandinavian and Scottish Highland descent - strong, self-reliant, resourceful, loyal and, in most cases, God-fearing.

    * Some married out on the frontier.

    * Most accompanied husbands and parents in the hazardous journey in wooden ships across the Atlantic.

    * Some were sisters whose parents or brothers persuaded them to make a claim for land too.

    * Some were daughters landed as children on American soil with their parents.

    * Some  became widows when their husbands were killed in the conflicts with the Indians or in the battles of the Revolutionary war.

    When many of these hardy women folk went to the New World in the early to mid-18th century, they had very few worldly possessions and with their families had to live on a very basic diet of pumpkins and potatoes until they and their husbands or fathers could grow grain and other foodstuffs.

     Indeed, the very early 18th century settlers had little more than wild fruits, berries, game and fish to live on. And they made a primitive porridge out of Indian corn.

     Life for women on the American frontier was continuously one of toil and danger, facing drudgery, and, in many cases, illness brought on early in middle age by years of physical and mental fatigue.

     But their experiences did create very strong, independent and resourceful personalities, and the tough characteristics and survival inheritances that they brought with them from the  Old World  did equip them for the perils which they faced, and allowed them to turn adversity into situations that were ultimately beneficial to their calling in life.

     Women of the 18th century period on the American frontier were conditioned to lives of constant labor, and they certainly lived up to the designation of Janes-of-all trades, as they coped with the perennial chores of the home, and on the farm lands that they cultivated.

    The earliest of the European immigrant settlers in colonial American of the 16th century were male. Very few women ventured across the Atlantic on the exploratory trips into Virginia and the other eastern seaboard regions. It was considered much too dangerous a place for women.

   Even by 1625, men in Virginia outnumbered women seven to one which made it very difficult for the males to find partners for marriage. However, by the 18th century, the large influx of European settlers in the eastern seaboard and Appalachian regions happily resulted in a more even spread of the sexes.

     The 18th century settlers, particularly of a Scots-Irish hue, brought their own flax seeds to plant and grow for linen-making in the one-room log cabin homes. There was the complex, laborious process of preparation, bleaching, spinning and weaving and the women were in the forefront of this work.

    During harvest time and threshing day - normally a popular neighbourhood event in frontier communities - women and the older girls in the family helped out in the fields when they could, but they also had to prepare in the household for both the noon-day and the evening meals.

    In many of the early American frontier settlements, clothes worn by all of the family were home-made, with deerskin and leather breaches generally the garb of the men and the boys, and when woolen and linsey yarn was not available, the women and girls had to use the same materials as the males.

   The linsey gown was spun and dyed and fashioned together by the women themselves and for head gear they worn sunbonnets.

     The Scots-Irish of the Carolina backcountry wore clothes in a style that was different from the English settlers in the region, with some Anglican missionaries claiming the garb of the women was scandalously revealing.

     For most of the time in the very mild South Carolina climate the men wore only a thin shirt and a pair of breeches or trousers and very often they went about barelegged and barefooted. Some of the young women, also bareheaded, barelegged and barefooted, wore only a thin shift and petticoat in the warm summer and autumn climes.

    Married women, however, dressed more modestly in long, homespun dresses, with woolen shawls draped across their head and shoulders. Elderly women wore heavy hooded bonnets and coarse shoes.

    Descriptions, however, of how the settlers dressed varied from region to region, and depended on the prosperity or otherwise of a region.

    For Sunday-go-to-Meeting  garb, the clothes had a distinctive look, as an accurate historical recollection of dress from the 1770s-1780s Charlotte-Waxhaws Scots-Irish settlements of the Carolina backcountry reveals.

     The old country folk were dressed with their usual neatness, especially the women, whose braw garments brought from Ireland were carefully preserved, most merely from thrift, but as a memorial of the green isle of their birth.

       They wore fur hats, with narrow rims and large feathers - their hair neatly braided, hanging over their shoulders, or fastened by the black ribbon bound around their heads. The handsome dress of silk or chintze - a mixture of wool and flax - or of Irish calico, fitted each wearer with marvelous neatness, and the collar or ruffles of linen white as snow, with the high-heeled shoes, completed their attire.

     It was always a mystery to the dames who had spent their lives or many years in the country, how the gowns of the late-comers could be made to fit so admirably. Their own, in spite of every effort, showing a sad deficiency in this respect.

     The secret of the difference probably lay in the circumstance that the females from the old country wore stays well fortified  with whale bone.

     The men on their part, appeared not less adorned in their coats of fine broadcloth, with their breeches, large knee buckles of pure silver and hose of various colors. They wore shoes fastened with a large strap  secured with a buckle or white topped boots leaving exposed three or four inches of the hose from the knee downward,

     It must be acknowledged that this people, so strict in their religious opinions, were somewhat remarkable in their fondness for dress. They considered it highly irreverent to appear at church not clad in their best attire, and though when engaged in labor during the week, they conformed to the custom of their neighbors, wearing the coarse homespun of their own manufacture.

    On the Sabbath it was touching to see how much of decent pride there was in the exhibition of the fine clothes brought from beyond the seas.

    On the American frontier, the more adult women were lumbered with the task of carrying, over a considerable distance from the river creek to the log cabin home, heavy pails of water. The family laundry had to be done by hand at the stream, in all weathers on an almost daily basis and fresh water in wooden buckets from the wells had to be borne to the log cabins.

    Women scoured the land for anything burnable on the home fire and, if firewood was not available, they were forced to rely on dried twigs, tufts of grass and old corn cobs.

    Garden crops which added to a staple diet were attended to by the women and they also produced a variety of food, clothing and household utensils to sell locally in the market places for very necessary income.

     Teenage girls and the older children had to assist with the work in the fields, dropping seed corn and gathering flax, which they later hatchelled, spun and wove. They were adept at the loom and with the needle in the cottage industries that abounded in the backcountry settlements

    Care of the vegetable garden and the dairying was also a women s chore as well as looking after poultry, and they also engaged in the making of sugar from maple sap.

    On a more business footing, there were women on the frontier who enterprisingly and with considerable courage ran village shops and wayside taverns. And, of course, midwifery and nursing had to be an inevitable calling for some of the women in the various localities.

    Child-birthing, with only the most basic facilities and medical help in the wilds of the frontier, was a risky operation for both the mother and the child. But the women of the settlements could always be relied upon to help each other and before and during a birth the necessary precautions, within the very limited means available to protect life, were taken.

     Infant mortality was significantly higher on the 18th century American frontier than on the more settled eastern seaboard communities, with no hospitals and few if any doctors, but remarkably the majority of children born in the white settlements survived.

     Very often, the mothers were doctors to their own children and the women took care, if they were not stricken down themselves, of other members of the family when they were infected by smallpox, malaria, pneumonia, cholera, pleurisy and ague (the frontier fever).

     It was generally accepted in the early American settlement years that the proper place for a woman of good family and respectability was at home, but to survive in frontier communities everyone had to be adaptable, even the female members of the family.

    They all had to work and work hard, and it was accepted that a high degree of managerial skills marked out the women of the frontier!

   The work extended, in many instances to tending the livestock and slaughtering of even the largest of animals. British travelers in the 18th century American backcountry were shocked to see females fell animals with an axe and engage in the hard labour of forest and land clearing.

   It was noted that backcountry women were not only up to their elbows in housewifery, but were busy with what other white ethnic cultures took to be man s work.

   Women had few if any legal rights in 18th century American frontier society and marriage was considered a practical social and economic necessity in the harsh and far from accommodating environment for female rights.

   Indeed, the conservative view, prevalent mainly in the Southern states, was that the woman s place was in the home, under-written by the Old Testament Biblical philosophy which scrupulously upheld the traditional concept of male supremacy in the family and in the wider community.

    However, the legal and social conditions of women in some states did improve considerably by the mid-19th century, permitting them to sue in courts, make contracts, exercise full control over their personal affairs and retain custody of their children in a matrimonial dispute.

    When a husband was missing from home for a long period while engaged in militia battles and presumed dead, the wives were permitted to re-marry. If the husband did re-appear and there was existential bigamy, the wife was permitted to choose between spouses.

    Conditions were no different for women in the north, particularly in the North-West Territory where the new lands of Illinois were being open up in the late 18th century.

    It was said, however, that the support system provided to the men by the resolute and fiercely loyal women was a crucial factor in ensuring the survival of the new life in the raw settlements of Illinois.

     Women may not have enjoyed equal rights to men in holding civic office, but there share of the work load in sustaining a home was at least on a par.

     In 1896, eminent Scotch-Irish historian the Rev Dr Henry C. McCook, of Philadelphia, describing those early frontier women s efforts, said they had to be physician and surgeon, as well as attending to all their own work.

     The onerous duties and burdens of home-making, and child-caring, he said, largely fell on their shoulders.

     McCook, in Scotch-Irish Women Pioneers, wrote:  There was neither bedstead, nor stool, nor chair, nor bucket, nor domestic comfort. But such as could be carried on pack horses and the Conestoga wagon through the wilderness. Two rough boxes, one attached to the other served as the table, two kegs for seats and so on.

     Having committed themselves to God in family worship they spread their bed on the floor and slept soundly until morning. Some times they had no bread for weeks together, but they had plenty of pumpkins and potatoes and all the necessities of life.

    The earliest settlers, of course, did not have the luxuries of pumpkins and potatoes, to begin their culinary duties therewith. They had in sooth to invent a cuisine. Everything must be found anew.

     The wild fruits, wild berries and wild game and the fish of the New World were utilised. Indian corn was a new cereal to these Ulster housewives, but it had to be wrought into the primitive menu, mush and milk!

    It was a novel sort of porridge for our granddames but they learned to make it. Cooking was not the only sphere that solicited her faculty. The pioneer woman had to invent a pharmacopoeia.

    Wounds and sickness came, and must be cared for. The forest was full of healing herbs - and, perhaps, our octogenarian members still have recollection of ginseng and snakeroot teas and slippery elm poultices, and the like.

    The frontier woman had to be physician and surgeon, trained in nursing and apothecary, all in one, and often supplied the patient, too in her own person. In times of personal sickness and during the illness of children, the strain upon women thus situated must have been intense.

      Such a life, indeed, developed self-reliance; fertility of resources, strong and independent characters, but many fell under the grievous strain and thus became veritable martyrs

    In these humble log huts began the work of home building, constructing that prime factor of all strong and good social order, the family. The family is the unity of society, the true basis of the best civilisation and the family pioneer family building woman was the chief architect.

    The husband indeed must fend and fight for wife and weans, for steading and glebe; he must shoot game, and chop down trees and clear up fields and plant grain, but the duty and burden of home-making must fall upon the wife and mother. And well our Scotch-Irish pioneers did their work.

    Often, the frontier women had to work in the fields barefoot when moccasins were not available and, when it came to building the log cabins and churches, they helped their men-folk make a clearing in the forest by cutting down the trees.

     An example of this challenge was the immigrant women from Co Antrim in the north of Ireland who helped their men-folk build Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church at Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the early 1750s.

    These women of Ulster extraction did 10-mile trips on horseback, through hostile Indian country to carry sand used for lyme in the church s construction.

     During the 18th century years of American settlement, women were traditionally kept in the background of church life, with the preaching, teaching and decision-making essentially a male preserve.

    Female clerics were unheard of and frowned upon by the church establishments in every denomination.

    Increasingly, however, by the 19th century, women in the American backcountry territories were given an active role in church-support agencies providing financial backing for mission work, at home and abroad. But the pulpit remained out of bounds for females in most American churches until the mid-20th century and even today this view holds sway with some congregations in Appalachian backcountry regions.

     Many frontier women had to survive stark loneliness and for months and even years they bore the burden of looking after the household chores and the constant care of the children.

    The loneliness and mental anguish for the women was most acute, when the men were away for long periods, either working the land from dawn to dusk, hunting in the forests, on business and trading commitments or soldiering far from their homes in the locally-recruited militia units in the battles of the Revolutionary War and in the expeditions conducted against hostile Indian tribes.

     Stout means of defense was a very necessary requirement on the frontier forts and townships, and very often the women fought alongside the men when they were in a tight spot.

     Brandishing a long Kentucky rifle with accuracy and determination at a stockade under siege from Indians was not solely confined to males and the tales of legendary heroines gallantly defending their home or fort and children are an integral part of frontier folklore.

     On the frontier, the white European settlers faced cold and bitter winters and hot, dust bowl summers, swarms of crickets, insects of all descriptions, the wildest of animals, and tornadoes which often ripped through their wooden homes apart, and left them vulnerable.

    The Rev Henry C. McCook, vividly describing the character and work ethic of the frontier women, said:  Stalwart of frame, no doubt they were, with muscles hardened under the strain of toil, hale and hearty, vigorous and strong, able to wield the axe against the trunk of a forest monarch or the head of an intruding savage; to aid their husbands and fathers to plow and plant, to reap and mow, to rake and bind and gather.

     They could wield the scutching knife or hackling comb upon flaxen stocks and fibres, as well as the rod of rebuke upon the back of a refractory child. They could work the treadle of a little spinning wheel, or swing the circumference of the great one. They could brew and bake, make and mend, sweep and scrub, rock the cradle and rule the household.

    John Anderson, son of a late 18th century Scots-Irish settler in the Holston River  region of East Tennessee, colloquially detailed some customs of the early pioneer families.

     Anderson recalled:  Their manner and dress was generally pleasant and agreeable to themselves. Strict degree of temperance prevailed throughout this newly settled part of the country.

     At the time, the dress of the women was hunting shirts and often leather britches and mockquesons (sic) and when they went abroad they often neatly fringed with various colors and the sleeves neatly plaited.

     The women dressed commonly in a short gown and other clothes were plain and loose. No lacing was seen in that day. They appeared in a general way to enjoy fine health and great strength and many of them were beautiful. Their marriages were performed by Presbyterian ministers, whose fee was merely that which was commonly offered them.

     The people of that that time appeared clean and neat in their houses. Their table was most frequently furnished with cornbread, meat, butter and milk. There was no coffee or tea made in those days except of a domestic kind. There were few or no doctors as there was but little business for them, and not sufficient money to pay them, for their attendance.

     There were little courts of justice in the country for some considerable length of time, but very few disputes and, of course, no law suits. They in a general way appeared cheerful and happy when they were not disturbed by Indians.

     Many frontier women were married in their early teens and had families running into double figures by the time they were 30. Some never reached middle age, worn out with the incessant struggle to keep the family intact and make ends meet as their husbands worked for long hours and little financial return on the bleak and highly dangerous frontier lands.

    Very often, it was difficult to distinguish between a young mother and her teenage daughters in physical attributes and looks, such was the short age span between them.   

    There were always fewer women than men, of course, on the American frontier and this resulted in very short courtships and hurried marriages, nearly always conducted by a church ceremony.

    Arranged marriages for the benefit of land and property acquirements were not an uncommon feature of the frontier, such was the need, and perhaps greed to add to one s estate.

    No women regardless of their looks or society ranking were single for too long and spinsters were a very rare species in most communities. The husbands were nearly always older than their wives, very often 20 and 30 years separating them. Bachelors were much more common than spinsters in frontier communities.

    Widows, just bereaved, had never too long to wait before again being  spoken for , thus the large number of frontiersmen who are recorded as having several wives due to the deaths of spouses.

    Having the companionship and care of a dedicated and loving wife was a very necessary requirement for men aspiring to prosperity on the American frontier, but some males had to fend for themselves as bachelors and widowers and for them it was a very lonely existence.

     The Rev Charles Woodmason, an outspoken itinerant Anglican preacher who held  a patronising High Church view of the non-conformist immigrants, made an interesting observation of Scots-Irish frontier settlements in the Carolinas during a tour of the Appalachian backcountry in the 1760s.

    Woodmason said:  There is not a cabin but has ten or twelve children in it. When the boys are 18 and the girls 14 they marry - so that in many cabins you will see children - and the mother looking as young as the daughter.

     Living in the bleak frontier environment, the Scots-Irish women in particular, were strong characters - self-reliant, resourceful and loyal. Devout, patient and cheerful in the midst of difficulties, they pursued with vigour the even tenor of their ways, performing with efficient diligence the duties that lay nearest them.

     The elders in the church, politics and in civic society were the men, and they were the ones who took the ultimate decisions that directly affected their communities. However, the women did have considerable influence in many aspects of American frontier life, essentially in the home, in the rearing of children and in maintaining decent upright  standards of life.

     The contribution of the frontier women in the making of the United States of America in the 18th and early 19th century was immense and only now is it being fully recognised in this more equitable modern society where male and female rights in most instances are equal, and more readily taken for granted.