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Pioneer Women on the
Illinois Frontier

Kristina Blatchford
Carbondale Community High School, Carbondale

The opening of the Northwest Territory in the late eighteenth century signaled the arrival of the first pioneers hoping to farm the rich new land of Illinois. Most historical accounts give men credit for taming the wilderness and putting it to the plow. A long list of adjectives associated with the conquering male is generally used by historians to characterize the conquest of the wild frontier. Often forgotten are the other heroes, the wives of the men who went west. The support system provided to the men by women was a crucial factor in ensuring the survival of the new life in Illinois. Historian Emerson Hough describes the image of the pioneer mother as the "sad-faced woman, sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following her lord where he might lead." Despite little input into the decision to leave their former homes, those brave women were asked to take on a crushing physical and emotional workload in order for the family to survive.

Men often chose a stout, big wife able to work hard in the fields and in the home. Men believed a woman was needed to cook, sew, clean, have children, and help out with the farm. Elizabeth Farnham, in Life in Prairie Land, quotes a man's preference for a wife, "I reckon women are some like horses and oxen, the biggest can do the most work, and that's what I want one for." Newly married women were quickly thrown into a situation where they were tested to the extreme. The women would help plow, plant, and harvest. They helped their husbands clear the land and build their home. The best location was forest land, for it had the best soil. That meant trees had to be cleared off the land. Often, husband and wife girdled the trees, then after a year or two, they burned them. Logs from some trees were used to construct a house, which often had dirt floors. The cabin walls were chinked with mud to keep out the wind. It was those crude structures that the pioneer wife worked to turn into a home.

Women had the tedious jobs of clothing the family and making soap and candles. Women made the clothing out of flax and wool. Flax was used for sacking, canvas, and men's work shirts. The purest fibers were used for the women's and children's clothes. Women had to card their own wool because there were not any carding mills. Women carded their wool into slivers by dragging bits of it between two flat, wooden cards studded with short wire teeth. It was then spun into yarn. Women dyed all of the fabric used for the family's clothing. The most common color was butternut, a permanent brown-yellow made by boiling the inner bark of the white walnut tree. In order to prevent shrinking, and to thicken the material, women "fulled" cloth by saturating it with hot soapsuds, stomping on it barefoot,


rinsing it, and drying it outside in the shade. The women had to launder all of the family's clothes. Rainwater was saved in a trough, or water was carried in pails from a stream. Water was mixed with wood ashes so that the soap would make suds. The wet clothes were beat with a club to remove remaining dirt. To make soap, another tedious chore, women saved any kind of fat and boiled it with woodash lye. This mixture was stirred in one direction. The end product was harsh and slimy and could be hardened, if desired, with salt. Candle making was equally difficult and could take three to four hours at a time. Candles had to be hand-dipped; if she stopped in the process, the candles would harden too much and break.

Gathering the family's fuel and water supply were additional daily chores for pioneer women. Women scoured the land for anything burnable for the family's fuel supply. If firewood was not available, she relied on dried twigs, tufts of grass, hay twists, old corn cobs, woody sunflower stalks, and cow chips. Getting the family's daily water supply was also a regular part of household chores. That meant ladling rainwater from an outdoor cistern or drawing bucket after bucket from a nearby well. Often wooden buckets or barrels were carried a mile or more from the nearest stream.

The heavy burden of manual labor was difficult enough to manage in excellent health, but the farm wife was frequently sick herself without the alternative of rest. Doctors were scarce and hospitals were non-existent; hence, women were doctors to their family. Pioneer families were weakened by poor nutrition and substandard living conditions and were susceptible to illnesses of all sorts. The women had to keep their family healthy. Mothers taught their children to take quinine. Women took care of their families when they were infected by the ague, cholera, malaria, smallpox, pneumonia, and pleurisy. Women were subjected to illness more than anyone else in their family because they were overworked, and "they were the ones who worked

Woman doing laundry
Pioneer women worked long days, often in crude living conditions. This woodcut depicts the arduous task of doing the family laundry, just one of the many chores delegated to the women in the household.
in the kitchens in the hottest weather, who breathed in the smoke and soot and who alternated between too much or too little heat," noted historian Elizabeth Farnham. If there was not enough food to go around, the woman often took the short portion. Given those conditions, it is not surprising that Illinois pioneer women were often described by travelers as pale, emaciated, depressed, and shivering with ague—the frontier fever.

The pioneer woman did find pleasure on the Illinois frontier, and the greatest among these was her children. She raised her children properly and educated them. Though it was often difficult to care for the children while keeping up with her many other chores, the pioneer mother was very proud of her children. As one mother said, "I could see so many bright openings for them." Children were particularly valued in the frontier family, with their laughter, energy, companionship, and contribution to the family's labor. Altogether, children provided the pioneer mother with a comforting source of family continuity and security.

While historians frequently paint a picture of the frontier as being a man's world, much credit must be given to the pioneer woman. Historians Riegel and Athearn note:

Laboring to the limit of her strength, in every waking hour, she was perpetually tired, and the fatigue was not lessened by a succession of children, born usually without the benefit of a doctor. Her entire life was spent in a bare shack. For months she might not even see her closest neighbor. Little wonder that many a pioneer wife sat down and cried bitterly at the memory of her lost girlhood spent in the east.

That passage demonstrates the physical challenges of a pioneer woman's life as a partner with her husband, not just as a minor helper. She guaranteed the family's cohesiveness by providing the nurturing that only a gentle, understanding, selfless, mother and wife could. Without the steady help of the women on the early Illinois farm, an agricultural existence would not have been possible for the pioneers.—[From Elizabeth Farnham, Life in Prairie Land; Elizabeth Dowell Hill, Illinois Women—Stories of the Pioneer Mothers of Illinois; Emerson Hough, Passing of the Frontier; Robert E. Riegel and Robert G. Athearn, America Moves West; Joanna L. Stratton, Pioneer Women; Christina Holmes Tillson, A Woman's Story of Pioneer Illinois; Edwin Tunis, Frontier Living.]


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