While women certainly haven’t had an easy time of it during the past several millennia, it’s also true that here in the good old United States they’ve had many more chances to make a go of it on their own than in virtually any other nation on earth.
For some reason, we tend to view the role of women during the nation’s frontier era as similar to that of the poor women who have suffered under the Taliban or other religious fundamentalists. But contra that conventional view of how women were oppressed here during the nation’s early years, the U.S., especially during frontier times, was a place where single women could, if not always thrive, at least make their own way.
And in fact, women were key ingredients in the settlement of the frontier as it moved west from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
From the 16th through the 19th Century frontier era, women were a requirement for successful settlement, and were most needed by the farmers of that time. It was not due to whim that when Abraham Lincoln’s birth mother died from disease (the dreaded ‘milk sick’) his father immediately sought another wife. On the Kentucky frontier of that era, it really did take a couple to make a household function. Husbands were expected to do the farming and other heavy manual labor, while wives were expected to take care of household tasks, and they were many, ranging from raising the kids to the backbreaking job of doing the wash to preserving and preparing food—jobs that, truth to tell, weren’t a whole lot easier than their husband’s.
It’s sometimes claimed that women couldn’t own property during the frontier era, but that’s simply not true. Here in Kendall County, for instance, 22 women obtained patents on 30 parcels of government land between 1836 and 1849. Granted, some of those women were buying the land for their husbands, but others were not. For instance, Emeline Towle purchased 80 acres in Fox Township in 1848, and it was for her own use. Her husband, Decolia Towle, had died in December 1847, and Emeline apparently decided to get out of Oswego where Decolia had been a successful businessman and innkeeper. Just a year later, Emeline married Roland McCloud, and probably moved back to be near her family in Kane County.
It’s likely 60 year-old Hannah Sweet purchased her 39 acres of Seward Township land in June of 1849 as an investment.
Other women likely purchased land either in conjunction with or on behalf of their husbands. Laura A. Caton, for instance, bought land in conjunction with her husband, polymath Judge John Dean Caton. The Catons put together one of the largest tracts of land in Kendall County, memorialized today in the name of Caton Farm Road.
Women were able to take over for their husbands as the frontier era ended, and were willing as well as able to become successful farmers and business owners in their own right. The 1850 Census of Kendall County, the county’s first, recorded a number of widows who were carrying on for their late husbands as heads of households. For instance, 38 year-old Maria Arnold took over for her husband, Levi, when he died in 1844. Arnold was one of the founders, with Lewis B. Judson, of Oswego, who ran the first store and post office in the village. After his death, Maria became a successful farmer. By 1850, her Oswego Township land and holdings were worth $6,000, a considerable sum for the era.
Meanwhile, Emeline Gaylord, 48, was overseeing a farming operation worth $2,400 in Lisbon Township while raising four children.
Over in Bristol Township, Ruth Kennedy was making the most of the 168 acres she purchased from the federal government in 1843. By 1850, the 60 year-old Kennedy and her three sons were running a farming operation worth $6,000, with Mrs. Kennedy heading up the business. Today, Kennedy Road is a reminder of the contributions she and her family made to Kendall County’s early history.
Not that it was easy being a woman, of course. Women had extremely limited job opportunities outside the home, and women weren’t allowed to vote in most elections until the second decade of the 20th Century. Oddly enough, however, even before women won the constitutional right to vote, they could hold elective office and vote in certain local elections. That’s why my shirt-tail relative, Emma Haines Inman, was able win election to the Oswego School District Board and even serve as the board’s president before passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote throughout the U.S.
But that was later. We’re mostly talking frontier life here, and it wasn’t easy. Disease and disaster were always just around the corner in those trying days.
During the horrible Winter of the Deep Snow in 1830-31, Bailey Hobson’s wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson, and their children nearly died when he was forced to travel to Indiana to find food for them. When he was delayed in returning home by that winter’s horrible weather, Mrs. Hobson was reduced to keeping their cabin warm by chopping firewood out of the ice after freezing rain and subsequent blizzards froze the landscape—and the family woodpile—solid.
The Hobsons’ tribulations weren’t unique. A walk through any pioneer cemetery in the county will tell tragic tales of disease and death that sometimes struck down entire families. From smallpox to diphtheria to typhoid to recurrent malaria, women and their families were always at risk.
It is to their credit, then, that so many pioneer women survived and prospered despite the dangers and hardships that most of them took in such graceful stride.