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The role of pioneer women

January 30, 2012
By Ellayne Conyers , Marshall Independent

Part I

Again I quote from the Grace Rollag Papers, from the Minnesota Historical Society, that describe the important role that women played in the settlement of the west.

Most of the information that has been written about settlement does not even mention how important the women were - they deal only with the entrepreneural nature of the men who went out and tamed the land and built industry and developed society.

Certainly these achievements were worthy of praise and honor, but let us not forget that women were there, beside their men, helping and encouraging as well as providing the essentials of everyday life, as well as baring children who grew into workers and finally taking over the fruits of their father's labor.

"Whether married or single, native-born or immigrant, women were prized members of the frontier community. A man who came with a wife had a double advantage - he had the use of her physical labor to help achieve economic success, and he had the use of her social skills to build a civilized life. Those who had no wife learned soon enough to get one. 'It is the females that can improve your condition and make a home, and them alone,' a single man was told.

A woman's primary role was as a manufacturer. If she had been well trained, she took the place of both a factory and a store. She had the skills to turn the raw materials that men produced into usable products. For this reason choosing a marriage partner was as much an economic decision as an emotional one. A man who proposed to a woman who was pretty and fun to be with, but who could not preserve food or sew clothes would soon find himself in deep trouble. Similarly, a woman who accepted a man who had few skills for earning a living would soon regret her decision. 'For the typical frontier couple,' historian Glenda Riley says, 'their weeding day marked not only the beginning of a shared life but the beginning of a shared business venture as well.' A young man from Nebraska explain that what he looked for in a wife in this letter to his mother:

You wanted to know when I was going to get married. Just as quick as I can get money ahead to get a cow and to get married. I want to before I commence shucking corn if I can to Aunt Jennie's oldest girl. She is a good girl and knows how to workA fellow can't do good on a place when he has everything to do both indoors and outShe says if we marry right away, she is going to do the work in the house and shuck down the row when I am gathering corn, but I will be glad enough to get rid of the housework

What exactly were these skills that made a woman so valuable? Food preparation was probably the most important one. All a farmer's hard work would go to waste if his wife did not know how to preserve the potatoes, onions, and carrots he planted, or salt down the meat he butchered, or turn his raw wheat and corn into bread, mush, and biscuits. Although the cult of domesticity said that men labored outside while women worked inside, frontier women could not afford this luxury. Men plowed, sowed, and harvested, while women weeded the vegetable patch, dug potatoes, harvested wild nuts and berries, picked wild and domestic herbs, collected eggs, gathered honey and maple syrup, and often milked the cow. Then they started processing these raw materials. Vegetables were cleaned and stored (a cellar provided the only refrigeration), nuts cracked, wheat ground, the milk set out to separate into milk and cream, and the cream churned into butter. After all this work was done the actual preparation of meals could begin - over an open fireplace.

Recipe books were scare. A woman needed to store countless recipes in her head because even when she had a book it only gave the briefest descriptions. Notice in these recipes from Maria Child's 'The Frugal Housewife' how much knowledge is taken for granted. Could you follow these recipes successfully?


Strew fine salt over it an hour before it is put down. It should not be cut entirely open: fill it up plump with thick slices of buttered bread, salt, sweet marjoram and sage. Spit it with the head next the point of the spit; take off the joints of the leg and boil them with sauce. The upper part of the legs must be braced down with skewers. Shake on flour. Put a little water in the dripping-pan and stir it often.

When the eyes drop out of the pig it is half done. When it is nearly done, baste it with butter. Cut off the head, split it open between the eyes. Take out the brains, and chop them fine with the liver and some sweet-marjoram and sage; put this into melted butter, and when it had boiled a few minutes, added to the gravy in the dripping-pan.

When your pig is cut open, lay it with the back to the edge of the dish - half a head to be placed at each end. A good-sized pig needs to be roasted three hours.

(Continued next week.)



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