Dawn of the Nineteenth Century

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

She is eventually ruined by Boone's impulsive, self-absorbed actions. This ruin is analogous to the ruin of the west: she accepted Boone and served his need, but the man's own stewardship destroyed the object of his love. Of these three perspectives on western history, Summers' interpretation would probably be the most accurate. Teal Eye is just as concerned as Boone with the immediate circumstances, but believes that the correct path is adherence to custom. This skews her understanding of both American Indian history and western society. Overall, Summers' history would be rife with a feeling of loss -- and rightfully so -- but would also possess a better understanding of how the west was lost than the other characters would be able to comprehend.

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey forms a coherent picture of the female experience concerning the arduous and dangerous experience of travel through the American wilderness. The book dramatically wrenches the perceived image of these dusty, devoted women out of the ambiguous past and positions the female perspective alongside the traditional male understanding of the west. The major aim of the book is to establish that the way women regarded the west was fundamentally different from their male counterparts, but in ways that might not be altogether obvious. Most glaringly, women tended to see the American wilderness through far less adversarial eyes than did males. Whereas men tended to view the west as the setting for the expression of their ultimate freedom from society or other individuals, women saw it more as an extension of their marital or motherly duties. The vast cataloging of work and responsibilities is, perhaps, the most common theme throughout the book, and reflects the nineteenth century's prevalent values by placing these "virtuous" women in a harsh and untamed land. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey, clearly, is intended to juxtapose the more conventional accounts of the west from men by thrusting this relatively unexplored perspective into the historical record.

Schlissel explains that there were generally two paramount concerns for people willing to brave the American wilderness: "The two patterns were strongly felt by frontiers-people: the one, the desire to keep the family together, to keep with kin; the other, to respond to the impulses of the road, to take the chance of the moment and move with freedom." (Schlissel, 96). Both of these patterns became essential to survival, but they also reflected the underlying moral philosophy of the time. God, family, and country were the three abstract pulls of many Americans; all three reinforced the notion of unity and conformity to the social customs surrounding the family. Accordingly, as Charlotte Pengra recounts, the relationships between husband and wife became most important and most close in times of need -- when these immediate moments of action were required (Schlissel, 97). "When Charlotte fell ill with dysentery, she notes that her husband cared for her. . . . Similarly, when dysentery laid her husband low, Charlotte became the teamster of the family." (Schlissel, 97). This reveals one of the important elements of the book: the hardships of the travel were usually felt with reference to the familial structure. The female sphere, as it roamed through the west, was intrinsically tied to the family; it was rather common for men to travel alone, but almost unheard of for women to go west outside of marriage (Schlissel, 12-13). Even within the bonds of marriage, however, men experienced higher levels of freedom than did the women. Schlissel writes that "marriage was the social norm accepted by both men and women, although within the structure of marriage men were considerably more free." (Schlissel, 12-13). So when Charlotte Pengra's husband falls ill, the loss of his role within the family is far more significant to Charlotte than the mere emotional attachment between the two.

The family unit formed the foundation of most women's conception of the journey westward: "Strategies of family planning seemed to depend upon each particular family's vision of itself and its future. As long as emigration was a primary intention, large numbers of children provided the model for family formation." (Schlissel, 151). Thus, conformity to these social norms became the tool that allowed females to cross the wilderness. It should not be surprising, therefore, that, "For ten women (10%) [in one particular party] the overland journey was a honeymoon, began within hours or weeks of the wedding ceremony." (Schlissel, 150). The difficult life that would follow required these established forms of interpersonal devotion to make success more likely.

Through many of the women's eyes, the Indians were primarily trading partners and not perceived as a significant threat to their journey. One women recounts the arrogance men showed in her party regarding Indians and how it cost him: "There was a white man who boasted that he would kill the first Indian he saw, he soon had opportunity of fulfilling his boast as they saw a squaw and he shot her as he would a wild animal and the Indians came on and demanded the fellow to be given up and they had to do it and the Indians skinned him alive." (Schlissel, 118-19). This illustrates a contrasting view of the Indians between the men and women traveling west; men saw them as adversarial opponents to be defeated and women commonly regarded them as threats to the family who should not be provoked. Nancy Hunt writes, "We always treated the Indians well and with respect, and they never molested us at any time." (Schlissel, 119). This statement is important because it suggests the possibility of trouble with the Indians, and the manner by which Mrs. Hunt thought this trouble should be handled. Whereas the freedom-seeking men sought to trample the Indians, the women acted to preserve the familial enterprise.

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey is successful in generating a picture of life in the American wilderness in the nineteenth century and from a point-of-view that is simultaneously accurate and distinctive. The female point-of-view is one largely overwritten by men in history,…