LET'S REMINISCE: Women's roles on the frontier

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

My early impressions of the American frontier were shaped by reading Western novels and watching movies and TV shows, which usually portrayed women as either vixens or victims. But the reality was they played a variety of important roles.

Louisa Ann Swain of Laramie, WY, was the first woman in the U.S. to vote legally in a general election, in September 1870. The state was also ahead of the pack in granting women the right to sit on a jury, act as a justice of the peace and serve as a bailiff.

Admittedly, it wasn’t so much enlightened thinking that opened up these traditionally male roles as it was the desperate shortage of women. No white woman crossed the continent until 17-year-old Nancy Kelsey traveled with her husband from Missouri to California in 1841. Once there, as countless pioneer women subsequently discovered, the family’s survival often depended on her ability to manage without his help.

“Women can and must fend for themselves” was the essential message in the ‘”Little House on the Prairie” series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was brought up on a series of homesteads in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1870s. Independence was so natural to her that she refused to say “I obey” in her marriage vows, explaining, “even if I tried, I do not think I could obey anybody against my better judgment.”

Although the American frontier often represented incredible hardship and danger, for many women it also offered a unique kind of freedom. They could forge their own identities, seizing opportunities that would have been impossible for women in the more settled and urbanized parts of the country. This was especially true for women of color.

Colorado’s first Black settler was a former slave named Clara Brown, who won her freedom in 1856 and subsequently worked her way west to the gold-mining town of Central City. Recognizing a need in the market, she founded a successful laundry business catering to miners and their families. Some of her profits went to buy land and shares in mines; the rest she spent on philanthropy, earning her the nickname “Angel of the Rockies.” After the Civil War, Brown made it her mission to locate her lost family, ultimately finding a grown-up daughter, Eliza.

However, the flip of side of being able to “act like men” was that women had to be prepared to die like men, too. Myra Belle Shirley, aka Belle Starr, was a prolific Texas outlaw whose known associates included the notorious James brothers. Despite a long criminal career that mainly involved bootlegging and fencing stolen horses, Starr was convicted only once, resulting in a nine-month prison sentence in the Detroit House of Correction. Her luck finally ran out in 1889, two days before her 41st birthday. By now a widow for the third time, Belle was riding alone in Oklahoma when she was shot and killed in an ambush. The list of suspects included her own children, although the murder was never solved.

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.