Home Alone: Women on the Great Plains

Barbara Bamberger-Scott
20 Min Read

“I had gone to bed one night, but could not sleep. My father was constantly in my mind. I seemed to feel that he was coming home, altho he had left only two days before, and his visits home occur only every two or three weeks, as it is so far, and he generally walks, as it is too expensive to hire a conveyance. So the idea of his coming directly back was too absurd for anything, but still the impression was that he was coming, and would be with me soon was so strong that I finally got up and started a fire. It was not so cold, but I was shivering for some cause.”

…These words come from the journal of young Mollie Dorsey, living in the grassy sea of Nebraska somewhere between Beatrice and Nebraska City. She began keeping her diary in 1857 at age 18, and as is often the case, her journal became a place of peace where she could express her true emotions.

With her father and her someday-to-be-husband Byron often away working as carpenters to build structures for the new town of Helena, Mollie and her mother were in charge of the care of the younger siblings. They were kept busy with home-making chores, but because of the daily tedium, Mollie often recounts that there was no reason to write for a week or more. Once, upon being given a cow and some chickens by her father on one of his short trips home she wrote: “We are happy, as far as it goes. Yes, well, happy anyhow. We might as well be.”

After getting settled on the homestead acreage secured by her father, Mollie honestly recounts that she has begun to look “a little rough”—that her main pastimes are picking berries and pulling off potato bugs. Once she could not write for two weeks because she had no ink. Occasionally, travelers came through and since the house was well located between two settlements, they found the Dorset homestead a good place to spend a night. They paid a bit to stay over at the family’s house, welcome income. But then, Mollie wrote, “it is a little hard on me,” as the burden fell on her to do all the cooking.

A rainy period was described as “disagreeable” as the family was stuck indoors, but Mollie sagely observed that this “is only a prelude to the winter that is coming.” Rain posed its own problems because their house had an unfinished roof and all the children had the flu. Mollie decided to “cure” her flu by ducking herself in the local, very cold stream. It worked! A brother nearly chopped his arm off and was treated by a man who happened by from a neighboring farm and had “some knowledge of stitching.”

Then Mollie’s mother began to brood: “My mother’s birthday 40 years old. I think she is a little blue today. I do try so hard to keep cheerful. I don’t know as it is hard work to keep myself so, but it is hard with her. She knows now that the children ought to be in school. We will have to do the teaching ourselves.” In the circumstances, we might imagine that “a little blue” is an understatement!

Once Mollie’s 19th birthday rolled around, she admitted to a lot of “moping” and felt she had aged many years in just the past few months. She tried to picture her future—would she be a happily married wife and mother, or “an abused, deserted one, with 8 or 9 small children crying for their daily bread?” Readers could reasonably ask how such dark ideas had crept into the thinking of an apparently well-adjusted, religious young lady.

Christmas came and despite the family cohesion with the grandparents now in residence on the next homestead, there were no presents (“nothing to be had”), and the little children were told Santa couldn’t come because the house had no chimney, only a stovepipe. “I wish I might write something nice tonight, but cannot.” New Year’s Eve, 1858, brings only “sober reflections.” Mollie began to complain of “neuralgia.”

Mollie’s outlook brightened considerably when she moved to Nebraska City, boarding with a female acquaintance. She concluded her diary in 1865 after she married her longtime sweetheart, Byron, and the couple had chased the gold rush west to Colorado. They and their children were settled in the far suburbs of Denver. Byron would later work for the US Mint. Mollie passed away in 1915.

Mollie’s frank observations of homestead life on the Great Plains are often cited as an example of the subtle workings of a mysterious disease known as “prairie fever.” In the lens of hindsight, it seems unsurprising that prairie fever arose among the early settlers, particularly among the women. Though everyone who encountered the plains with their panorama of grass unbroken by trees or other guideposts probably felt instinctive fear and awe, it was more often the womenfolk who were left as the only adults on the homestead, far out of contact with neighbors or travelers. Men went to the settled places to conduct business or find work, since many were completely unpracticed as farmers and would rely on the cash economy more than had been anticipated. So men had a social life of sorts, and their own forms of prairie fever could be to some extent vented with trading, carousing, fighting, and well…whatever entertainment was offered in the settlements.

But for women, hard work was supposed to suffice as the antidote to insanity. The combination of alone-ness, fear and cultural isolation could lead to suicide. One “treatment,” which Mollie clearly decided on, rather like her dunking cure for the flu, was simply to get off the farm to a settlement, where, like the menfolk, she would have a social life and chances for income and advancement. Older women, younger ones with small children, and those lacking education were simply marooned, immobilized on a boundless ocean of grass. Added to the formula was the fact that many of the early Great Plains settlers came from foreign countries, facing not only prejudice from their American neighbors, but a lack of anyone apart from the close family with whom to converse.

The Great Plains are vast and desolate.

Author Willa Cather described the Nebraska plains as “the dark country” and “the end of the earth.” E.V. Smalley, writing in 1893, painted this bleak picture: “On every hand the treeless plain stretches away to the horizon line. In summer, it is checkered with grain fields or carpeted with grass and flowers, and it is inspiring in its color and vastness; but one mile of it is almost exactly like another, save where some watercourse nurtures a fringe of willows and cottonwoods. When the snow covers the ground the prospect is bleak and dispiriting. No brooks babble under icy armor. There is no bird life after the wild geese and ducks have passed on their way south. The silence of death rests on the vast landscape, save when it is swept by cruel winds…” (The Isolation of Life on Prairie Farms).

According to Wikipedia, symptoms of prairie fever or madness were revealed in “crying, slovenly dress, and withdrawal from social interactions.” Suicide, when it happened, was reportedly more common among women than men (though no true statistics exist). Sarah Sortum, on the website visitthepriarie.com, notes that her great grandmother gave up some of the valuable space in her homestead abode for a birdcage: “Judging from my own family stories, one strategy of the pioneer woman to combat these challenges was to employ the company of birds as companion animals. Using up little space or food, a bright cheery bird might have been a wife’s only distraction while spending weeks alone on her husband’s claim while he worked away to draw a wage.”

It’s worth remembering that leaving women at home was typical of our culture well into the twentieth century, and was regarded as a necessity in most pioneering initiatives in America. Consider the life of Rebecca Boone, whose famous hubby left her for four years to fight the Indians, and doubtless for many shorter but protracted periods to hunt and trade. Rebecca had five children, took on the care of six grandchildren, and was known to have the following jobs: community midwife, family doctor, leather tanner, sharpshooter, and linen-maker. This was a Woman! Yet no picture exists of Rebecca, much less a diary to let us know how it felt to be consigned to a small cabin in the forest with a huge brood of children and babies, called upon to defend herself and her children from any manner of intruder and cure everybody’s ailments.

So, with Rebecca as an example, we can postulate that if madness did not overtake her, a prairie woman might prove resourceful, brave, and highly skilled in her isolated circumstances.

Mollie, a city girl from Indianapolis, had at least the value of basic education, and many such women made observations about their situation for future generations. These were in the form of letters and journals, making educational reading for us modern homesteaders—and especially for those females along us who now choose, like some prairie women did, to live alone despite the dangers and deprivations.

Some recollections of women on the plains have been gathered in a treatise entitled There is Some Splendid Scenery” – Women’s Responses to the Great Plains Landscape by Julie Roy Jeffrey. In Jeffrey’s account we see that the dangers confronting women could be as simple and recognizable to us as rushing out to get the laundry off the line when a rainstorm suddenly blew up, to the more arcane and frightening possibilities: “Anna Ruppenthall, a Kansas settler of the 1870s, recalled that her ‘last act at night, after seeing that the children were all asleep, and all quiet among the livestock ‘ was to sweep the entire horizon for signs of flame.”

An added threat for women, of course, was childbirth. It was not uncommon for a woman to birth a child entirely without adult help, and it is a well-known fact that infants frequently died within a few hours or days of the event—and some women too. One historian noted that “in 1875 Leavenworth, nearly fifty percent of the 354 burials were those of infants and children” (Charles R. King). Of course, men might wish to assist, fearful not only for the loss of a new child but the loss of a wife and helpmate. But postponing a journey might simply be impossible and too, a due date is never certain, and was even less so in the nineteenth century. Also many men at the time considered childbirth to be the province of women, and their wives would not have wished a man to provide assistance.

As a female who has given birth in comfortable hygienic circumstances, I can imagine few scenarios so terrifying and depressing as enduring childbirth without the possibility of any assistance, and totally, completely, absolutely alone, in a tiny house made of dirt in the middle of a faceless, person-less terrain. Add to that the stark possibility of burying a newborn infant without ceremony in what must have seemed an alien land.

One psychological dilemma that women dealt with was the comparison of their Great Plains homesteads to their lives in the towns or cities they had come from. In the early years of the Homestead Acts, before the railroads had created routes and decreed towns along the lines, people suffered from lack of churches, town halls, markets, and other simple social gathering places. The requirement of the Acts was to “prove up” minimum-sized claims of 160 acres, and though land-hunger was doubtless a prime mover in uprooting town-dwellers and sending them west, the sheer size of the claims dictated that dwellings would be far, far from each other. As Mollie noted, “transportation” was often by foot; trips away for those who had to go were lengthy affairs.

Some people simply couldn’t cope, and went back to somewhere, wherever, “busted and disgusted”—the land proved up under the several Homestead Acts was about 10% of the total area in the US, a much smaller portion than the total area of the Great Plains plus Alaska.

If ambitious and literate women like Mollie could find a place to stay in a growing town, chances were good they could get work as teachers. Others became barmaids or washing ladies and still others followed the lure of the gold rushes. Perspectives could change depending on a woman’s circumstances. To women trapped at home, living at ground level, the landscape was dull, flat, featureless, desolate, uninviting. To those from the East, the open spaces could give a sense of relief at first view. To women passing through, the Plains might have charms that came both from the very act of passing and the fact that, as one woman wisely noted, the passer possessed a return ticket. Many homesteaders had no return ticket, no way out but acceptance… or madness.

Women on the Great Plains

One way of coping with the flat and monotonous view-scape once a house had been built was that which women have always employed: growing flowers. Yes, there were wildflowers among the grasses, but women like what they like, longing for certain colors and contours around and in the house. Such a positive goal could keep prairie fever at bay once achieved, proving that the land could be conquered one bloom at a time. Owing to the lack of water, producing a flowerbed could take months of watering a straw coating night after night, but the results were always worth the trouble.

Mary Dodge Woodward was one who succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of raising pansies and peonies around her Dakota homestead. As Ms. Jeffrey notes, “Even though one can view some of these gardening efforts as pathetic, for it was often hard, as Woodward found, to succeed with flowers, one can also see them as signs of female determination to make a small mark on the landscape, to carve out a piece of land that was colorful, pretty, and an appropriate setting for a home.” One woman made use of her flowers to produce paintings and quilts with a floral theme; her self-administered therapy was clearly her antidote to the perils of the lone prairie, allowing a talent to blossom.

Prairie fever gradually disappeared as women (and men) got their hands on the basic tools of contact: wagons and horses, roads, and places to go beyond the farming lands. This good news on the mental health front was accompanied by these happy facts:

1) Showing a gradual change in society’s expectations and an amelioration of the general conditions on the Plains with the growth of towns, roads and railroads, between 1900 and 1920 there was a great upsurge in homestead claims by independent single women;

2) Though this change was longer in coming, it is no longer expected that women will always and only stay at home while spouses/partners work outside the home;

3) There has been a slight increase recently in the very small (less than 2%) number of US women who have babies at home, and this is generally due to an increase/improvement in midwife services, so that, according to the CDC (Center for Disease Control) “it looks like low-risk women are being selected as good candidates for home births. And that’s a good thing.”

4) Women still plant flowers.

“Prairie fever” has been the subject of one rather absurd movie by that name, and is alluded to often in the fictional works of Willa Cather (My Antonia, O Pioneers! ) and discussed in many nonfiction articles and essays well worth reading—on a lonely night while the wind howls outside the cabin.

Check out another pioneer woman: Matilda Jackson: Making a Home on the Last Frontier

Hooch and Hell Raisin’: Women Bootleggers

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