Shirleen Davies

Going Back in Time: A Woman’s Life on the American Frontier


The period of western expansion and settlement challenged settlers in ways inconceivable to us today. It’s hard to believe, with all our modern conveniences and creature comforts, that our ancestors were ever so resourceful, determined, and resilient in the face of monumental difficulties.
When you start to do a little digging, it doesn’t take long to discover that women who traveled west—alone or with their families—had unprecedented responsibility on the frontier. By necessity, women did a great deal more physical labor on the frontier than we’re accustomed to today.


Most women on the frontier who took jobs to survive, worked in traditionally female roles such as teaching, nursing, and service work. However, these jobs made women’s labor integral to the growth of western communities.
The challenge of frontier life started with the journey. Women were responsible for preparing their families for the long, dangerous trip westward. One of the most important pieces of that puzzle was outfitting a wagon. Women hand-sewed wagon covers (often in groups as a social event) as well as clothes for the journey. These items were necessary to surviving harsh and varied climates which included burning heat in the plains and deserts, and freezing cold in the mountains. Wagons were stocked with the bare necessities, forcing tough choices when it came to leaving precious heirlooms behind. Families needed to be kept clean, fed, and clothed, but saving space and weight in the wagon made this a delicate balancing act between preparedness and minimalism.
When families reached the frontier, priorities shifted away from basic survival toward establishing sustainable lives in the new land. Women were vastly outnumbered by men. Some figures place it at three or four men for every woman. However, women still shouldered a great portion of the work.
Men worked jobs that drew them west in the first place, while women took charge of home management as well as assisting with farming and ranching chores. Unmarried women often cleaned rooms in hotels and boarding houses, worked in saloons, and assisted in medical clinics that benefited local families as well as the huge number of single men who lived in or passed through their towns. Providing laundry and seamstress services also gave women with no family a way to survive. Women as a whole often pooled time, skill, and capital to provide care for the entire town’s children, bachelors, transients, ill, and injured.

Women also shouldered the responsibility for orchestrating social and leisure time. Church boards and ladies’ groups were often a town’s most important asset in terms of creating a homey, enjoyable social life in frontier towns that were isolated and detached from the rest of the country.


Mining town life, however, drew a different type of woman. Many traveled from camp to camp, working in saloons and offering their favors in the sex trade. Brothels sprung up overnight in such camps and were extremely popular. Women who didn’t make it in this trade occasionally became outlaws. There are accounts of numerous females who became accomplished at robbing stagecoaches, banks, and unsuspecting newcomers to the west.


Many women were drawn westward for teaching opportunities. One of the reasons that so many women were able to get jobs in education is that one could get away with paying female teachers less than male teachers. Still, education jobs were considered valuable opportunities, enticing women to strike out for the western territory. Female educators did their best with little to no supplies, bare classrooms, overcrowding, and nothing more than the Bible for reading material. Schools also operated according to ranch and farming schedules, which meant some schools were in session for as few as three months out of the year. As a group, determined, altruistic female teachers were responsible for educating an entire generation of western Americans in basic academic and life skills.
Because there were so many more men, women were “in demand” among those who wanted to settle down in the west. This meant that unmarried women could afford to be picky, and many women held more social and financial capital than they could have in the east.
Participating in local politics became more common among women in the west. Tough, resourceful, enterprising women, earned the respect and admiration of the town’s men through their mettle and fortitude, proving themselves through their countless contributions to the economy of frontier towns. In some towns, women secured their rights earlier than their eastern sisters. Believe it or not, women in the western territories had the right to vote well before the 19th amendment, and well before most of their sisters on the eastern seaboard.


Unending work, hardships, and unparalleled opportunity awaited those women willing to make the sacrifices necessary for a life on the frontier. Could I have lived during the western expansion? Of course. Any of us could. Would I want to do it given present day conveniences and jobs? Hmmm…that’s a whole other question.
What would you do?

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