The women who won the west

The women who won the west: Behind every great pioneer of the American prairies was a gutsy wife, sewing the tents, tending the children — and boiling acorns for dinner

  • Katie Hickman tells the stories of the women who made it possible for their men to be the great pioneers of the American West
  • UK-based author tells the traumatic stories of families journeys across the US
  • Olive Oatman and her sister Mary Ann were taken captive by the Yavapai tribe

HISTORY

BRAVE HEARTED: THE DRAMATIC STORY OF WOMEN OF THE AMERICAN WEST 

by Katie Hickman (Virago £25, 400pp) 

For thousands of Americans stuck in mid-19th-century poverty, the call to ‘Go West!’ was irresistible. From the 1830s, rumours reached them that if they’d only cross the prairies, plus a mountain or two, with their belongings, horses and a few oxen, they’d reach the land of milk and honey: the lush paradise of Oregon. 

When gold was discovered in the river at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, Oregon Fever changed overnight to Gold Fever, and the trickle westwards turned into a flood of half a million emigrants, an invasion that would break up the Native Americans’ hunter-gatherer ways of life for ever. 

Pity the women who had to do the packing! Katie Hickman is an expert on female discomfort; I’ll never forget the description in her previous book, She-Merchants, Buccaneers And Gentlewomen, of elegant Victorian ladies arriving in India after gruelling voyages and being carried across the dangerously rough surf of Madras Harbour on the ‘slippery backs’ of the half-naked porters. 

For thousands of Americans stuck in mid-19th-century poverty, the call to ‘Go West!’ was irresistible. But many of these women ended up in difficult situations so their husbands could succeed 

In her new book, Brave Hearted, she tells the stories of the women who made it possible for their men to be the great pioneers of the American West. Because, without the women, who was going to sew the tents, churn the milk, make the clothes and look after and feed the brood of tiny, tired, travel-sick children, plus an aged grandparent or two lying comatose on a feather-bed inside the wagon? 

Needless to say, the women, while doing all this, were often pregnant with yet another child. 

The journeys always started off well: wagon loaded, children excited, lovely spring morning, and off they set across the fields to their golden future. 

But it never took long for the weather to turn and for the whole thing to descend into an extended nightmare: dust storms, hail storms, buffalo stampedes, scorpions, quagmires, oxen bellowing, children crying, families falling out with each other, attacks by Native Americans, pistol shots going off, desperate thirst, nothing to eat but boiled acorns, snowstorms and eventually the enforced abandonment of the beloved wagon and no option but to trudge on with bleeding feet across the frozen wastes. 

Teenaged Olive Oatman (pictured) and her younger sister Mary Ann, on their way to the ‘promised land’, were taken captive by the Yavapai tribe after they had murdered the rest of the family 

Some of the tales are really traumatic, such as that of a group of several families who set out together for California in 1846. Their first mistake was to take the advice of a guide called Hastings who enthused about a short-cut, known as the Hastings Cut-Off. After fierce argument in the party, 87 of them did take the Hastings Cut-Off, and soon found themselves in absurdly steep canyons and then a waterless desert. 

Their cattle, crazed by thirst, stampeded off, never to be seen again. Unable to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains just before winter, they had to bed down in the snow for four months while everyone slowly starved to death. Twenty of the party were children under the age of five. One breakaway group of 17 tried to escape, but only seven survived, by cannibalising the ones who died. Of the 80 or more trapped in the snow that winter, only around half would live to see California. The arrival of a rescue party is one of the great cheering moments of this book.

Katie Hickman tells the stories of the women who made it possible for their men to be the great pioneers of the American West. UK-based author tells the traumatic stories of families journeys across the US

An even more traumatic story is of a pair of Christian missionaries, Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, who, early in the 1830s, set up camp near the Walla Walla River in Oregon. Their aim was to ‘civilise’ and convert the benighted Native Cayuse tribe, although Narcissa refused to have any of them in her house, complaining that they brought fleas in.

Meanwhile, a sweet family of emigrants called the Sagers were having a truly dreadful time on their journey westwards. Mr Sager died of illness, Mrs Sager died just after giving birth to her seventh baby and one of the children broke her leg badly on a wagon wheel. Arriving in Oregon, the orphans were taken in by Narcissa Whitman, whose house seemed like a paradise of calm to the children. 

Unfortunately, the Whitmans were loathed and distrusted by the Cayuse, who, one day in 1847, brutally massacred the couple along with two of the Sager children and seven other members of the household. 

This is a microcosm of the growing distrust between the whites and the Native Americans across the West. 

A pioneer family stood in front of Sod House in Kansas in 1880. It was often the women who made the journeys possible 

Hickman digs deep to find obscure but telling stories of what really happened to the West’s pioneering women. Teenaged Olive Oatman and her younger sister Mary Ann, on their way to the ‘promised land’, were taken captive by the Yavapai tribe after they had murdered the rest of the family. They were then sold on to the Mohave, for whom they worked as slaves. 

Poor Mary Ann died of starvation during a famine, but Olive’s life was saved by a kind Mohave woman who gave her gruel while others in the settlement were starving. When a band of whites came by, and she could have escaped, she chose not to leave. 

In this richly evocative book, Hickman takes us to the crux of women’s experiences in that fast- changing world, where opportunities for women were opening up in an often lawless atmosphere of greed, gambling, drinking and whoring. It was a rough ride, and the survivors were heroines, all of them. 

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