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White Settler Women

Excerpts from a travel journal that illustrate what life was like for the earliest women settlers in the western territories.

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Monday, November 30, 1818:
He inquired respecting the country we had crossed, what were the streams, the kind of wood, and the game. All this was done with a view either of learning from us, or of judging for himself whether it was a region for hunting, and what animals it abounded with. . . . His wife seemed to take a very great interest in this piece of information, and was even more particular than he in inquiries respecting the freshness of the signs we had seen. . . .
He asked where we had walked. He wanted to know whether he should go hunting in that area. . . . His wife was paid close attention and asked very particular questions. . . .
In the course of the evening I tried to engage our hostess and her daughters in small-talk, such as passes current in any social corner; but, for the first time, found I should not recommend myself in that way. They could only talk of bears, hunting, and the like. The rude pursuits, and the coarse enjoyments of the hunter state, were all they knew. All evening, I tried to talk with his wife and daughters about the usual topics that entertain women in the eastern states. But to my surprise, they were not interested in those subjects. They were only interested in talking about hunting. It was all they knew.

Schoolcraft, H. and Milton D. Rafferty. Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal, 1818-1819 (University of Arkansas Press: 1996).

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Wednesday, December 9, 1818:
At the distance of seven miles we came unexpectedly into a small opening in the midst of one of the most gloomy thickets of cane we had yet encountered. Here, in a small camp, tight only at top, we found a family who had two weeks before emigrated from the lower parts of the white river. They had brought their furniture and effects, such as it was, partly in a canoe up the river, and partly on pack-horses through the woods.
We arrived at a gloomy woods high on a hill and were surprised to find a family living there. They had moved there only two weeks ago. They had all their measly possessions. They had brought them up by canoe and horseback.
Nothing could present a more striking picture of the hardships encountered by the backwoods settler, than this poor, friendless, and forlorn family. The woman and her little children were a touching group of human distress, and in contemplating their forlorn situation we for a while forgot our own deprivations and fatigues. They were short of provisions, the husband being out in search of game, and after obtaining such information as the woman was able to give, respecting the next settlement, we continued our journey. . .
The family was a shocking picture of how hard life is for settlers in these parts. They were lonely and miserable. The women and children were so sad that they made us forget our own troubles. They did not have enough food, so the husband was out hunting. We asked for directions and then continued on our way.

Schoolcraft, H. and Milton D. Rafferty. Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal, 1818-1819 (University of Arkansas Press: 1996).

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The women are observed to have few children, and of those, being deprived of the benefit of medical aid, an unusual number die in their infancy. This is probably owing wholly to adventurous causes, and may be explained on the same principles as a similar circumstance in savage life, the female being frequently exposed to the inclemency of the weather, always to unusual hardships and fatigues, doing in many instances the man’s work, living in camps on the wet ground, without shoes, etc. Mrs. H. tells me, she has not lived in a cabin which had a floor to it for several years; that during that time they have changed their abode several times, and that she has lost four children, all who died before their reached their second year. The girls are brought up with little care, and inured to servile employments. They have ruddy complexions, but, in other respects, are rather gross, as they live chiefly on animal food. Being deprived of all the advantages of dress, possessed by our fair country-women in the east, they are by no means calculated to inspire admiration, but on the contrary disgust; their whole wardrobe, until the age of twelve, consisting of one greasy buckskin frock, which is renewed whenever worn out. Women settlers don’t have many babies, and many of their babies die young. This is probably because life is so hard for women settlers. They are exposed to bad weather, they have to do men’s work, they live in rough camps, and they don’t have basic necessities like shoes. One woman told me that she hasn’t had a floor in any of her homes for many years. She lost four babies before they reached the age of two. In these conditions, little girls don’t get much care and attention. They are taught to serve men. They are not pretty, probably because they eat mostly meat. They don’t wear pretty clothes like girls in the eastern states. Their clothing is disgusting. Girls under twelve wear greasy deer skin smocks.

Schoolcraft, H. and Milton D. Rafferty. Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks: Schoolcraft’s Ozark Journal, 1818-1819 (University of Arkansas Press: 1996).

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Background

In the early years of the new nation, the U.S. government faced a population crisis. The number of American citizens was rapidly outgrowing the land available in the original 13 states. Since the American economy was based on agriculture, this meant that younger generations of white Americans did not have the means to support themselves or their families. To solve this problem, Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the new nation. U.S. citizens immediately began moving into the territory, ignoring the rights of the Indigenous communities that had lived on the land for centuries. The first settlers lived incredibly challenging lives far removed from the supportive communities that existed in the east. Even so, thousands were willing to take the chance to provide for themselves and their families.

About the Resources

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft set out to explore the new settlements in the Louisiana territory on foot in 1818. He hoped to publish his impressions of the new territory and become a successful travel writer. He explored the Ozarks in 1818 and 1819 and the Upper Great Lakes Region in 1820-1821.

Before traveling west, Henry spent his whole life living in comfort in Watervliet, New York. He found his journey very challenging, and his journal is full of accounts of the hardships he faced. He was shocked by the lives of the white settlers he encountered along the way. Instead of acknowledging the circumstances that made their lives so different from those of Americans back east, Henry judged them for failing to live up to his standards. These three excerpts provide valuable information about what the lives of white women settlers were like in this early period. But they also reveal how women who failed to live up to Federal period standards of womanhood were judged harshly for their perceived failings.

Vocabulary

  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.
  • Louisiana Purchase: The treaty signed by Thomas Jefferson that acquired the Louisiana Territory from France.
  • Ozarks: A mountainous geographic region of the United States that covers parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Discussion Questions

  • What challenges did women settlers face in the Federal period?
  • Why might women in western settlements only be interested in “rude pursuits” like hunting and trapping?
  • What do these passages reveal about the lives of the first U.S. settlers to move west?
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Suggested Activities

  • Teach these excerpts together with Washington’s Captives, Seminole Wars, and The Second Middle Passage for a larger lesson about how race affected women’s experiences of U.S. westward expansion.
  • To help students better understand Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s standards for American women, read Republican Motherhood and Educating American Women. Then ask students to write a rebuttal to Henry explaining why his critique of the women he encountered was unreasonable.
  • Life in the western territories was incredibly challenging for white women settlers, but it also afforded unique opportunities to break out of social constructs that dominated the more settled parts of the country. To learn more, read Life Story: Charity and Sylvia.
  • Combine this resource with Observations of the New Nation for a larger lesson about early travelers’ impressions of the early United States.

Themes

AMERICAN CULTURE; IMMIGRATION, MIGRATION, AND SETTLEMENT

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