Research Request: Fighting Frontier Women

In Texas, where I live, it is not uncommon for a man to speak of his wife as a crack shot, or even as a hot-headed gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger. Yet I have never detected a sense of obligation and responsibility which was attached to such boastings. What I mean is this: Suppose a man is away on business. While he is gone a burglar invades his home while his wife and children are there. If she hid, fired no shots, and in fact did not even make a peep: He would be fine with that as long as she was unhurt. If she ran, he’d be fine with that, too.

Afterwards, when nerves had settled, he or she might crack a joke that the burglars were “lucky” that she didn’t pump them full of lead. But in no way would the husband actually be disappointed in his wife because she fled and hid instead of fought. The reverse is not true.

Several times now someone has written in comments that frontier women were regularly expected to defend the homefront from Indians, bandits, and wild animals such as bobcats, cougars, and bears. I find the idea preposterous. It seems much more likely to me that frontier husbands either:

  1. Left their wives in trusted communities, i.e., near family, friends, or gov’t authorities.
  2. Expected their wives to flee/escape to safety.
  3. Foolishly hoped that danger never came.

So here is my request: Can anyone give me a historical account or source for the widespread notion that frontier men actually expected their wives to actually fight off dangerous marauders?

Advertisements

25 thoughts on “Research Request: Fighting Frontier Women

  1. I’m in Wyoming and have done some study and have some experience.

    At the local museum bookstore and that at the Bighorn Canyon there are several books concerning Wyoming, the equality state, but I thumbed through them (My book backlog is already deep). Also there were divorcees and widows that moved just north in Montana to eke out a living.

    It is not that they were “expected”, Women who came had to survive the bears, barbarians, and blizzards. I don’t know about the southwestern states, but the high plains are where it is better to look.

    If you visited the ranches here, you would know that you are 0/3 except directly in cities. Leave wives with relatives? While your cattle are stolen? Flee/escape? Get the horse and provide a target across the flat land?

    The museum has some photographs, one prominent one shows a couple with two children, both holding rifles, she with a rabbit and he with a coyote. I didn’t explore further, but even women today here are often packing and visiting the range, and going hunting is a family affair. The men might be alpha wolves, but the women are the alpha bitches in charge of the den and cubs. While I can’t prove the historical basis without more research, and NAWWALT, I have more than enough concurrent anecdotes to take the opposite view.

    The single pioneer women definitely knew how to defend themselves. When Married they were more than just backup, but the man was the primary warrior for the family given women had some trouble when pregnant or nursing.

    The Powell Homesteader Museum or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West might be good resources to ask for histories.

  2. I don’t know about it being a widespread notion that men would leave their wives to defend themselves if they honestly thought there was danger around. But if you’ve got a farm that’s several miles from the next farm and you had to go away for some task, you might not have someone to step in.

    I’m no expert on the frontier, but I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs, better known as the Little House books. Lots of interesting frontier stories there.

    – Pa goes to town to trade furs, leaving his family behind to fend for themselves. Ma and Laura go out one night to milk the cow and Ma sees what she thinks is the cow next to the gate and slaps it to get it to move. They make a hasty retreat to the house.

    – When the family moves to Indian Territory, Pa goes away often during the days, leaving his family. Once he reports of seeing a 50-wolf pack and states that he was glad he left the rifle with Ma to protect the children and horses. The wolves later surround the house, but Pa is home.

    – Another time, Pa goes hunting and two Indians come to the house. They have Ma make them cornbread and take all of Pa’s tobacco. Two different Indians come at a different time and steal things from the family while Ma and the girls are home alone. Later, Pa goes to town and leaves the family for four days. A family friend checks in on them every day, but there are rumors of the Indians being restless. Ma ends up sitting up all night with Pa’s pistol in her lap waiting for Pa’s return.

    – When the family moves to Plum Creek, grasshoppers destroy their crop. Pa walks several hundred miles to find work, leaving the family behind. There are neighbors, but the book doesn’t indicate how far away they are. Laura has to walk some distance to see if there is a letter from Pa.

  3. The answer to the question asked is no.

    I consider myself well read regarding frontier days and have long had an affinity for the subject. For frontier Texas and the Southern Plains generally I would recommend the works of Texan J. Frank Dobie, and David Dary of Kansas.

    I can’t recall any stories that would fit the idea that frontier women were expected to essentially “fight like men” in the absence of their men. They were hardy, and had a lot of utility, but Hollywood has greatly distorted this notion as it compares to actual accounts from those days.

    The reality of most frontier accounts supports all three of your points together rather than any one of them particularly.

    1. On a micro scale the farmsteads and ranches were spread out enough to be out of sight of one another. To get enough “free land” to make it worth the effort (usually 160 acres) accounted for that. So on a day to day basis a woman would be essentially alone or with her children in running the place to include shooting (at) predatory animals if the man was away. On a macro scale most all of these people knew one another and had designated points to congregate for mutual defense, to include for women and children if most or all men were off on a cattle hunt, drive, posse, trading run, etc. Depending on what was known of the threat at the time they might put the women and children together there when they left, or just have it known where to go if the situation changed. Usually riders went out (boys too young to go with the men but old enough to fend for themselves a bit) to alert all and sundry of a change in the threat level so they could head for the designated “fort”.

    2. Running for safety was always the preferred method and ties directly to number 1. If there’s time get to the “fort”, if there isn’t get to the woods or brushline and stay low until the threat passes, then get to the fort. If it’s just too late then fire your one shot and get killed. There are even stories wherein it was too late to grab a weapon, the Indians were already on the doorstep. In some of these the woman gave them some food and any tobacco on hand and the Indians thanked her and left. It was a fluid environment.

    3. There was a sort of “hope” about this, but not borne of foolishness or ignorance. It stems from the great distances involved on the plains coupled with low population. People might not see anyone outside their immediate family for days on end, so there was a valid concept that the man might be able to leave the area for a time and the wife and children remain relatively safe. It was risk management and didn’t always work out. See the story of Cynthia Ann Parker of Texas as an example. Kidnapped by Comanches at the age of nine, and from the designated safety fort, she eventually became the mother of Quanah Parker, chief of the last Comanche band to come in to the reservation.

  4. According to an 1896 Washington Post article quoted here:

    https://truewestmagazine.com/the-arms-of-a-woman/

    “She can milk cows, mend a wire fence, wash dishes, throw a diamond hitch, sew a dress, and braid a good rope any top hand would want to throw, and she has to know how to shoot while doing all those things. Otherwise she runs the risk of being killed.” ~ G.E. Chapman

    I can’t find the original article, but I haven’t tried very hard, either.

    Most stories from the Old West are exaggerated, but it stands to reason that a man whose vocation required him to regularly leave his family on a 160 acre homestead in Wyoming would want a capable helpmate to keep his homestead running while he was away.

    However, we also see the seeds of a lot of our modern problems here.

    That “True West Magazine” article mentions a woman named Elinore Pruitt Stewart who appears to have been the prototype mommy blogger.

    http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/elinore-pruitt-stewart-writer-and-homesteader

    The article also mentions a writer named Chris Enss who specializes in this field. I haven’t read any of her books, but here’s her Amazon page.

    https://www.amazon.com/Chris-Enss/e/B001H6IQ8E

  5. @Oscar

    Most stories from the Old West are exaggerated, but it stands to reason that a man whose vocation required him to regularly leave his family on a 160 acre homestead in Wyoming would want a capable helpmate to keep his homestead running while he was away.

    But what would a frontiersman mean by capable? That’s the question.

    I think the fighting frontier woman was an American fantasy.

  6. @Cane

    I think the fighting frontier woman was an American fantasy.

    Without question. The feminist dream only exists in the idealized past and the near future, never in the present. As Lewis Carroll put it:

    The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday – but never jam to-day.

  7. Pingback: He Put Her Boots on Like Any Other Man | Things that We have Heard and Known

  8. I think the fighting frontier woman was an American fantasy.

    The first hand accounts of people that lived in that time and environment bear this out.

  9. @ Cane Caldo says:
    June 12, 2017 at 3:55 pm

    “But what would a frontiersman mean by capable? That’s the question.”

    I think the quote from the WaPo article from 1896 is probably about what he’d expect.

    “I think the fighting frontier woman was an American fantasy.”

    I agree. Although, given that women today (who are far less capable than their frontier counterparts) do use guns to defend themselves and their families, it’s reasonable to think that women on the frontier also used guns to defend themselves and their families.

  10. lol the “bad-ass independent western cow-girl crack shooting gal” trope is total nonsense, and very subversive. It’s deviously subversive in that it gets otherwise conservatively minded men’s panties in a bunch lol, men who love talking about how “tough” their daughter is and how “badass, you don’t wanna mess with her when she’s angry” their wives are. It’s essentially the feminist-gate-way drug for mid-westerners and other fly-over conservatives.

  11. @ Dalrock-
    True. So the question: If those women in the 1860s were so “strong,” how were they disarmed and forced to live under Der Patriarchy (Lozolol) and then have the need to be liberated by second wavers in the 1970s? Doesn’t add up, your Carroll quote is accurate.

  12. I don’t know if I buy you theory. But I do know a historian (CIvil War period) and I’ll ask him.

  13. I’m no frontier specialist, but immersed in South Carolina history of the 1860’s and ’70’s, and during the latter period (the height of the “Wild West”) the homicide rate of the Wild Southeast under Reconstruction made Tombstone look like a pleasant suburb.

    A hundred years earlier, when our state WAS frontier, an individual home might be built as a small fortress, but the stories which came down from the Revolution and the Indian Wars emphasized heroines delivering messages or warnings, or loading-and-passing the muzzle-loading weapons of the time to the shooters.

    During the war in the 1860’s, it was remarked as a sign of the times that a man’s parting gift to his wife or sweetheart was commonly a pistol – since he would not be around to protect her, self-protection became an imperative. We rarely hear of the use of these weapons but their presence did not go unremarked – a Yank invader could presume there was a derringer or a small revolver under that skirt. Deterrence.

    And another thing, for educated people were familiar with Roman stories and Roman heroines…so there was the implication that a woman might choose suicide over rape.

    An account by a member of Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry spoke admiringly of a lady – when the Rebs burst in to find an assault-in-progress, her attacker tried to use her as a human shield but she began shouting, “Shoot THROUGH ME and KILL HIM!” (The narrator doesn’t finish the story, frustratingly, but if you’re familiar with the reputation of Wheeler’s boys, they probably didn’t take the bummer prisoner.)

    During Reconstruction every man in South Carolina went armed – this is well-documented and emphasized. Did the women continue carrying the concealed pistols? Absolutely, in my opinion, but this is NOT well-documented – and indeed, discretion being the whole point, that’s appropriate. His weapon was commonly a statement as well as a potential problem-solver; hers was a last resort.

    During the late stages of the War, the town of LaGrange, Georgia, had an armed all-female militia unit which drilled with weapons and which mustered in the street apparently ready to fight when the Federals arrived. The Yank in command, a gentleman and a diplomat, sent a messenger under a white flag to tell them that their homes would not be burned and that (as I recall) “they could surely do more damage with their eyes than with their old squirrel-rifles”.) Reassured, they stood down. LaGrange was not burned, but in a touch suitable for the worst of novels, the Federal in command later married one of the members of the “Nancy Harts” girl militia unit.

  14. @Joe Long

    LaGrange, Georgia, had an armed all-female militia unit which drilled with weapons and which mustered in the street apparently ready to fight when the Federals arrived. The Yank in command, a gentleman and a diplomat, sent a messenger under a white flag to tell them that their homes would not be burned and that (as I recall) “they could surely do more damage with their eyes than with their old squirrel-rifles”.) Reassured, they stood down…

    …the Federal in command later married one of the members of the “Nancy Harts” girl militia unit.

    Hilarious, and a brilliant neg. After they presented their fierce and solemn display of martial power (“Take me seriously!”), he suggested they instead bat their eyelashes. This caused a full turnaround from a group of would-be kickass militia babes, to a reversion into feminine wiles and intra-sexual competition to see which one could win the interloping alpha.

  15. I just keeps getting better. I did a search on the all woman militia, and found this page: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/nancy-harts-militia

    The women began their military training using William J. Hardee’s Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics (1861) and met twice a week for drilling and target practice. The leaders offered prizes to the best markswomen, and after several mishaps, including shooting a hornet’s nest and a cow, the women became expert shots.

  16. @Joe

    Welcome.

    @Dalrock

    More from your link:

    Although the Nancy Harts organized as a military unit, they served primarily as nurses. […]

    As the Union troops approached LaGrange from West Point, the local Confederate cavalrymen fled, and the Nancy Harts stepped in to protect the town.
    On April 17 the Nancy Harts marched to the campus of LaGrange Female College (later LaGrange College) on the edge of town to meet the enemy forces. When the Union cavalry arrived in LaGrange, the women peacefully surrendered the the town to Union colonel Oscar H. LaGrange (coincidentally named) and organized an effort to feed both the Union and Confederate soldiers. In return, the Union troops destroyed facilities in LaGrange that were helpful to the Confederate war effort, including factories, stores, and railroad tracks, but spared most private homes and property.

    Basically, a different version of frontier women placating Injuns with some coffee and tobacco.

  17. Cane, this Nancy Harts Militia story is a gold mine, and right on topic. There is too much to do justice, so I’ll just drop some links and a few quotes. But there is much more here.

    http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nancyharts.html
    About the namesake:

    While much about her life is speculative, most sources hold that Mrs. Hart was 6-feet tall and a tough, determined settler. She was supposedly called “War Woman” by the American Indians of the area and legend holds that she took part in the Battle of Kettle Creek on February 14, 1779.

    Her most famous act of valor occurred when some opposing soldiers came to her house and asked her to cook them dinner. She stacked their rifles and fed them dinner, and gave them wine. After getting them drunk she eventually shot two of them and held the other three at gunpoint until the menfolk returned and hanged them.
    See: http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/nancy-hart-ca-1735-1830
    And: http://www.adventurewoman.com/military7.php

    Both links portray her as a very ugly woman, both physically and otherwise. The second link opens with:

    “Poor Nancy, she was a honey of a Patriot, but the devil of a wife.”
    A Neighbor

    Getting back to the all girl militia, The Civil War Monitor describes their fierce appearance, with flowered hats and ruffled skirts:

    The Nancy Harts did not have uniforms, as all the gray cloth and brass buttons available were bestowed upon their fathers and brothers; but in feminine dress of ruffled skirts and flowered or feathered heats, their hearts beat in unison to the captain’s command as they boldly marched, “Hep, hep, hep,” to the time of the battered drum, guns on their shoulders, banners flying, ready and anxious for combat or to be called to field duty.

    And when they were finally called into action when enemy troops suddenly appeared, the Nancy Harts Militia swung into action and bravely cooked them dinner:

    Even more surprising was the fact that this female unit actually faced Union troops in military “action.” In April of 1865, Major General James H. Wilson led a Union raid throughout west Georgia. As Wilson’s raiders neared LaGrange, the Nancy Harts stepped forward to protect the town. On April 17th, the Nancies marched to the edge of town to meet the enemy forces. Once there, they peacefully surrendered the town to Union colonel Oscar H. LaGrange (ironically named) and organized efforts to feed the invading soldiers. In return, the Union troops spared most of the private homes and property in LaGrange—although they did destroy any facilities vital to the Confederate war effort or economy.

    Quotes immediately above from: http://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blogs/the-girl-soldiers-of-nancy-harts-militia

    This is backed up by account at exploresouthernhistory:

    The Union troops did considerable damage to the tannery, railroad and other facilities in LaGrange, but the Union colonel kept his word to the Nancy Harts and spared the private residences of the city. They hosted a dinner for him that evening as a show of their gratitude.

  18. Pingback: Go to the Mattresses, Female Edition | Things that We have Heard and Known

  19. “In 1957 the Georgia Historical Commission placed a historical marker commemorating the women’s service in front of the LaGrange courthouse, and four years later a group of LaGrange women staged a reenactment of the Nancy Harts’ activity for the Civil War centennial, “

    Must’ve been quite a show.

  20. @ Dalrock

    “She stacked their rifles and fed them dinner, and gave them wine. After getting them drunk she eventually shot two of them and held the other three at gunpoint until the menfolk returned and hanged them.”

    So, she pulled a Jael.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s