From single threads great tapestries are made. And from the individual lives of ordinary women a rich picture of life in the West can be woven.
By now, studies of the women of the West are no longer groundbreaking. Women's history was largely ignored for a long time, but the last couple of decades have rectified that, bringing forth a wealth of important materials and new insights.We have learned that Western women were more than the stereotypical madonnas of the plains or soiled doves of the back streets. We have learned that women came in all shapes and sizes and colors. Some made important contributions, others lived out their lives in relative obscurity.
But just because women's studies have more attention in history books, it doesn't mean there aren't new things to learn. We are constantly benefiting from new looks at these old lives, finding new details that help fill in the design of the tapestry.
"Those of us attempting to construct a realistic history of westering women must honor the shapes of the lives we chronicle," write Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith in "Pioneer Women," "and since the stories of women's lives tend to be stories of dailiness, rather than stories of singular events, the stories in this book differ in tone and emphasis from the heroic sagas of westering men found in more traditional histories."
The authors draw heavily on diaries and journals. "The history these women tell is, indeed, the history they lived; their own words remain our best means of gaining a clear picture of what their lives were like."
Ordinary lives, they say, "have a drama all their own, if one only senses the tension underlying their struggles against hunger and cold, illness and ignorance, prejudice and violence. And the primary actors in these day-to-day scenes were often women, women who by and large accepted the struggle and deprivation as just another job to be done."
Pioneer women were the molders and shapers of Western society, note the authors, "slowly but surely exerting their influence on the cities, towns and communities in which they lived." And, they note, these community builders "were as varied in their attitudes, backgrounds, training and methodology as were those of the East."
Mattie Shipley Culver, whose life story is told in "Mattie: A Woman's Journey West" by Nan Weber, was one of those women who came from the East in search of a better life in the West. But Mattie did not leave behind any journals or diaries that told her experience, and it had to be pieced together from other materials and records. All that Weber knew, when she started her quest, was that Mattie was buried in 1889, at the age of 32, between Nez Perce Creek and the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park. Her marked grave is still there. But who was this woman?
Eventually Weber was able to trace her from her childhood in industrial New England and work in the New York textile industry to her role as the wife of a winter caretaker in the park. And in that life journey, Weber found elements of an everywoman. "Mattie may have lived only a short time, but her spirit lives on in Yellowstone today. And while her life may appear tragic to some, it was also full of happiness, friendship, bravery and beauty."
Mattie's story is one of both hope and despair, says Weber, and a reminder that each of us is part of a bigger picture.
- NOVEL APPROACH: Some of the details of Amanda Barnes Smith's life were also sketchy, so Paul Hodson chose to do a historic novel, "Never Forsake," to detail the life of his great-grandmother. But he carefully corroborates the history involved. Amanda survived the 1838 Haun's Mill Massacre, a tragedy precipitated by Missouri Gov. Boggs' "extermination order" against members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her husband and one son were killed and another son suffered severe injury.
After the massacre, Joseph Smith asked Amanda to prepare an affidavit detailing the events, and that has been widely quoted in church history. It is the most poignant part of the book, but this account helps put it and Amanda's life in context. Above all, it shows a woman who was sustained throughout a life of hardship by her unwavering faith.
- THE SAME FAITH was woven through the life of Patty Bartlett Sessions, a Mormon midwife who lived from 1795 to 1892. One of the early converts to the church, she was an eyewitness to much of the history of this period.
Her diaries begin in 1846, as she and her family left Nauvoo with outcast members of the church. "Beginning a diary signifies faith that one's life is going somewhere for some reason," writes Donna Toland Smart. "When Patty Sessions began her trail diary, she knew she was on the move to an unknown destination. She had faith in God's intervention in the affairs of the church that held her unswerving allegiance."
Patty's diaries continued almost without interruption for nearly 40 years, until 1888, when she noted "it is now Friday the 4th" and put down her pen as if for a temporary pause.
"The wonder of Patty's diaries," writes Smart, "is that, despite an extremely busy and often harried life, she wrote daily, except during one period of serious illness. She clung to this habit with resourcefulness and faithfulness until circumstances, probably infirmity from old age, prevented her continuing."
Patty's foremost legacy came through her role as a midwife, notes Smart, but her diaries also reveals rich detail about the common events of life on the frontier. There is ample evidence of her business acumen, of her work ethic, of her devotion to her faith, but also of daily life.
"Phebe Olive and Tripps wife here had peas & potatoes for supper," she wrote in 1854. And in 1863: "Got my web out for blanket & undergarments 28 yds," she wrote in 1863, "I do feel thankful to my heavenly Father that he gives me health and strength and a disposition to work and make cloth and other things for my comfort new in the sixty ninth year of my age. And I also feel thankful that I had a mother that put me to work when I was young and learned me how."
- IN SUMMING UP what we learn from the diaries and records of women such as Patty Sessions, Smart quotes a 1996 commencement address given at Westminster College by syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer: "If you don't know history . . . you are a prisoner of your time and place; you don't know what came before, so you can never know what will come next. You've lost the knowledge of the origins of things. You're frozen in `me,' and most often in `now,' when it should be `we' and `forever.' "
It's the same feeling expressed by Nan Weber. "When people ask why I've spent so much time and effort on this endeavor, I remind them how much we can learn from the past and its people: Daily behavior matters; I care about the consequences of actions, of choices; each of us is responsible for our actions, and people and nature are not separate from each other; life can be good even after major disruptions, looking for happiness is a part of life, and even after death, a life can hold meaning for those who follow."
Women of West
Recent books about women of the West include:
- MATTIE: A Woman's Journey West, by Nan Weber, Homestead Publishing, 127 pp., $14.95 paper.
- MORMON MIDWIFE: The 1846-1888 Diaries of Patty Bartlett Sessions, edited by Donna Toland Smart, Utah State University Press, 448 pp., $29.95.
- NEVER FORSAKE: The Story of Amanda Barnes Smith Legacy of the Haun's Mill Massacre, by Paul W. Hodson, Keeban Publications, 256 pp., $22.95.
- PIONEER WOMEN: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, University of Oklahoma Press, 144 pages, 175 illustrations, $17.95 paper.
- THE SILVER QUEEN: Her Royal Highness Suzanne Bransford Emery Holmes Delitch Engalitcheff, Utah State University Press, 188 pp., $19.95 paper, $34.95 cloth.