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A Note From Dakota about "Women of the Old West"

Dakota Livesay & Jake
Dakota Livesay and Jake

As publisher of Chronicle of the Old West the newspaper and host of two syndicated radio shows of the same name, I’ve always been intrigued with the roll women played in taming the west. That’s right, it was women who tamed the west. Although tradition says Samuel Colt’s 45 tamed the west. It wasn’t a pistol it was a petticoat.

The earliest pioneers, the 49’ers seeking gold and those coming out west seeking a new life following the Civil War were normally single men, or men who left their families back east while seeking their fortune.

Of every nine men, there was only one woman who went to California. Colorado’s 1860 census showed 32,654 men and only 1,577 women. Towns were built around the needs and desires of men. There were saloons, general stores, saloons, land offices, saloons and a hotel or two for the men to go when they weren’t working or at the saloons.

When a boomtown started up any women who showed up there were usually single. They arrived right behind the opening of the saloons. The women worked in the saloons dancing with the men, whether they were cowboys, miners or railroad workers. The women were normally of two types: Soiled Doves who shilled drinks and enticed the men into a small room, and those who simply danced with men for 25 cents a dance. In either case, the women shared the revenue with the proprietor of the saloon.

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As these women got married and families started coming west, the look of the frontier town started changing. Schools and churches were built. Men started going home in the evenings instead of the saloon. Moss-filled mattresses and buffalo robes were exchanged for feather beds. Curtains started decorating the windows of homes, and carpenters started building furniture instead of caskets. Laws were passed to control public drunkenness, and carrying guns in town. In other words, the West became tame.

But the woman’s life in the Old West wasn’t an easy one. The relocation to the west and starting a new life was an opportune time for a man. It was usually when he was young and strong. But for the woman it was during the worst time of her life cycle, when she was bearing and caring for children. And of the women who agreed to go west, few did it with enthusiasm.

The life of a frontier wife and mother was one of solitude and austerity. Normally, a trip to town to sell eggs and cream and shop, was the only time they were able to talk to other women about matters of domestic importance. They would inquire at the general store about dress materials and hats, admire them, comment on them and walk away with salt and flour.

Cooking for the frontier woman was a real chore. Often there wasn’t wood for the stove, so she would use hay, dried corncobs, or the most common fuel, buffalo chips. A newspaper reporter observed that wives handled the buffalo chips gingerly at first. They started by picking them up with two sticks, then a rag, and then their apron. Finally, they picked them up with their hands, and washed them afterwards. He concluded by saying, “And now? Now it is out of the bread, into the chips and back again – and not even a dust of the hands.”

Besides cleaning the house, washing clothes and cooking, the housewife also helped plow the fields, tote water and fuel, and grow a garden with vegetables for the table.

Often romance and courting was as scarce as women. In Oregon, a single man could get 320 acres. If he were married, he could get 640 acres. The story is told of a single man who went to a family with several daughters, and on the spot proposed to each daughter. Interestingly, one of the daughters accepted saying, “Sure, I’ll marry you; a farm like that looks good to me and so do you.”

This CD contains stories of fifteen frontier women. Some are well known. Others you’ve never heard about. One, we don’t even know her first name. But each is a hero in her own right, and well worth our learning more about.

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