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Dangerous Life of Frontier Women
We know a lot about migration patterns but not that much about the efforts of the frontier families trying to construct these communities. Poverty was a common economic denominator among back country inhabitants in the north, south, and middle regions of the Trans-Appalachian frontier. There are historians researching this area of our history with the one of the best works probably being completed by Elizabeth Perkins, with regard to the settlement of Kentucky. In Kentucky communities were centered around small fortified clusters of houses known as stations.
The “forting up” process afforded the families some protection from Indians. Over time the customary European distinction between the military and civilian population blurred out of necessity. There were hostile Indians in some areas, like in the Ohio valley. Different areas were not necessarily settled in the same way. Historians have studied social, economic and political development of the back country. There has been very little assessment of the life of women in the back country.
Frontier Back Country
As more Europeans arrivedin the United States in the late 1600’s and the early 1700’s, their new life was much different from their homelands. Everyone wanted to own land. Families were generally larger than in Europe. Therefore, as the population grew more land was necessary for farmers in order for their sons to inherit. Gradually the coastal areas expanded further inland into more uncharted territory.
Today when we think of the Frontier in the United States we usually think of the Old West with cowboys. Actually the first frontier was the land that ran roughly from Oneida County, New York south to Augusta, Georgia, with the western border being the Proclamation Line of 1763.
The frontier was broken down into three sections referred to as colonial back country: (a) the northern back country, encompassing the frontier regions of New England and upstate New York; (b) the middle region, which includes central and western Pennsylvania, as well as Kentucky and the Ohio River valley; and, (c) the southern frontier, comprised mainly of the back country areas of lower Virginia and the Carolina highlands
Appalachian Mountains and Indians
The Proclamation Line is an imaginary line running down the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. It acknowledged the Native Americans owned the lands on which they were then residing and white settlers in the area were to be removed. However, provision was made to allow some licensed individuals and entities to operate fur trading ventures in the proscribed area. This had a two fold purpose; one was to avoid war with the Indians because the British had not deployed enough soldiers to keep the peace. Secondly, they needed to concentrate on the colonial settlements on the seaboard where they could be active parts of the British mercantile system.
Almost from its inception, the proclamation was modified to suit the needs of influential people with interests in the American West. This included many high British officials as well as colonial leaders.
The Pilgrim Frontier & The Dutch Frontier
Lonely Life Style
The life of a frontier woman was difficult to say the least. Their social and economic network of female kin and friends was stripped away. The sporadic nature of many areas of the backcountry settlement made resumption of this female social infrastructure difficult and worked to increase dependency on husbands and fathers to define their social position.
Women had no legal rights at this time with one exception. A woman's husband couldn't sell the land without the signature of his wife. If he should die, his widow had the legal right to live on the land until her death although the land would be deeded to a son.
The living conditions were primitive and their daily routines reflected this condition. There existed a general division of labor, particularly in hunting communities, where women did the bulk of the work. Their duties included child-rearing, tending livestock, food production, household maintenance and even defense of the settlement in times of attack. There was no leisure time. Women and children were sometimes taken by Indians and lived their entire lives with the Indians after watching their husbands and sons killed.
It was a world full of all types of dangers with virtually no immediate help available. I’m not saying men had it easy as farming is not easy; neither is fighting Indians or hunting for food. The lifestyle of men is well documented.
I can’t imagine the loneliness of these women. Normally women enjoy each others company where they receive a lot of emotional support. I would assume most family members were close knit as there wasn't anyone else to lean on. I don't think many women would choose that tough lifestyle but circumstances beyond our control sometime guides our destiny. I wonder how this lifestyle of women being dependent on their husbands impacts the lives of women today?
I have studied genealogy for 20 years, and quite often the men might have 2 or 3 wives with children coming along about every other year, sometimes more often. I can see why the men often out-lived the women.
Having babies that frequently without medical help is risky at best. However, the men and women were brave souls who helped to shape the world we live in today.
The copyright, renewed in 2018, for this article is owned by Pamela Oglesby. Permission to republish this article in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
© 2009 Pamela Oglesby