Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Pioneer Women

On occasion we have had to be very self-reliant here, most notably in recent years when we had no central heating at all during one of the coldest winters for years (2010/11) when we had a foot of snow on the ground, and then it rained and froze into a total skating rink outside - you couldn't stand up and even the M4 was closed.  We had to up our fuel supplies and were down scavenging along by the river, which had brought several mature trees onto the bank our side, but which needed cutting up and moving.  They always say that wood warms you three times - cutting it and carrying it, splitting it and then burning it.  You would be surprised what you can manage when you have to, although we were blardy annoyed to have chopped and carried half a very large oak tree, only to return and find someone else with a bigger chainsaw and a pickup had taken the rest!

Then - last year was it? - we were without a phone for 2 months when BT said that they couldn't possibly repair our phone line as it needed a new pole (duly put in) and then they said they couldn't possibly get the line across the river to that new pole because "it was too dangerous" and we would have to wait until April.  Undaunted, we managed to tie a line to a suitable stake and swing that across to the opposite bank - although it involved both of us standing on rocks at the edge of and in the river to do so.

This week I found a 2nd hand book entitled "Pioneer Women - voices from the Kansas Frontier"* by Joanna L Stratton (get your own copy for just 1p from Amazon!).  Having just dipped into it so far, I now realize how tough these women were, and what they had to cope with, both physically and emotionally, in the middle of the Prairies, and with their menfolk frequently away for weeks or months on end.

With my interest in quilting, I knew that trees would often be used as the inspiration for various quilting patterns and that living in the prairie made folk long for the sight of a tree.  Here is one example of that longing (and the loneliness of the prairie too) :-

'That loneliness, usually borne with dignity and silence, could at times express itself in unexpected ways.  Mary Ferguson Darrah recalled a time when "Mr Hilton, a pioneer, told his wife that he was going to Little River for wood.  She asked to go with him . . .  She hadn't seen a tree for two years, and when they arrived at Little River she put her arms around a tree and hugged it until she was hysterical."  *

'Nightfall, blanketing the prairie in a dense, boundless blackness, brough an even keener sense of solitude to the pioneer home.  The profound silence was broken only by the occasional chirr of a cricket or the gentle swish of the tall prairie grass - or by the call of the wild.  For it was during the black nights that the howl of the coyote and the wolf spread terror throughout every frontier homestead.  Often roaming the plains in packs, these rapacious animals would attack without provocation or mercy.

In the summer of 1872 and '73," recalled S N Horsington, "the gray wolves and coyotes were very numerous.  It was not safe to go out across the prairies without a weapon of some kind.  My mother was a nurse and doctor combined.  In early girlhood she used to help her brother mix his medicines, and after she came to Kansas people came for miles for her to doctor their families.

A man by the name of Johnson had filed on a claim just west of us, and had built a sod house.  He and his wife lived there two years, when he went to Salina to secure work.  He was gone two or three months, and wrote home once or twice, but his wife grew very homesick for her folks in the East, and would come over to our house to visit mother.

Mother tried to cheer her up, but she continued to worry until she got bed fast with the fever.  At night she was frightened because the wolves would scratch on the door, on the sod, and on the windows, so my mother and I started to sit up nights with her.  I would bring my revolver and ammunition and axe, and some good-sized clubs.

The odor from the sick woman seemed to attract the wolves, and they grew bolder and bolder.  I would step out, fire off the revolver, and they would settle back for a while, then they would start a new attack.  I shot one through the window and I found him lying dead in the morning.

Finally the woman died, and mother laid her out.  Father took some wide boards that we had in our loft and made a coffin for her.  Mother made a pillow and trimmed it with black cloth, and we also painted the coffin black.

After that the wolves were more determined than ever to get in.  One got his head in between the door casing and as he was trying to wriggle through, mother struck him in the head with an axe and killed him.  I shot one coming through the window.  After that they quieted down for about half an hour, when they came back again.  I stepped out and fired at two of them but I only wounded one.  Their howling was awful.  We fought these wolves five nights in succession, during which time we killed and wounded four gray wolves and two coyotes.

When Mr Johnson arrived home and found his wife dead and his house badly torn down by wolves, he fainted away . . .  After the funeral he sold out and moved away."

And to think they want to reintroduce wolves here (well in Scotland)!


  1. Sounds like you have overcome some modern day pioneering challanges, we have had a few small ones in the short time we have been here and it is left to me to deal with them as they never seem to happen when hubby is here.
    Sounds like an interesting book will have a look see if I can get a copy might be a nice christmas read :-)

  2. I didn't realize I'd pressed post. 2nd part about to be added. And yes, we have to be pro-active at times here!

  3. Maybe it won't be so bad letting wolves roam the wilds of Scotland, we do have an over abundance of deer in the country at the moment....

  4. Fascinating reading and I definitely understand the tree longing part. Not so sure about the descriptions of the wolves though. We've been looking at the Greystone wolves for my course and that description of their behaviour doesn't fit with their ecology at all.

  5. CT - well, just repeating what was written in the book. Perhaps the wolves were truly desperately hungry. Dunno.

    thelma - nothing we can't eat ourselves - we're partial to a bit of venison!

  6. Just looked it up on Wikipedia - yes, I know, that's not always 100% correct - but it does suggest that in some instances Plains wolves had got used to people being around (habituated) and no longer feared them, until they learned to fear guns. Either that, or they may have been rabid?

  7. Those plains folk were certainly tough BB although I would say you do pretty well down there when the weather turns bad.

  8. I used to imagine what it would be like on the prairies when reading the Laura Ingles Wilder books as a child. I felt the romance but didn't really get how hard their mother was working! What amazing women they must have been. xx

  9. I think of the pioneer families, especially the women, each time we cross and re-cross the prairies of the mid-west. Living in Wyoming for 12 years , although more mountainous, gave me that feeling of near isolation--particularly in winter--and that was with the amenities of phone , internet and central heating. A vast unoccupied space can be fairly daunting at times.