“Wife, wife, rise and flutter”, Keturah Belknap heard her father-in-law trill on the morning of Tuesday, April 10, 1848, as she lay in bed contemplating the 2,200-mile trek to Oregon ahead of them. She had been preparing for more than six months, spinning raw flax into wagon covers and clothing, preserving mountains of food and devising cunning accommodations in the wagon into which her family would be crammed for the next six months. Driven by “land fever”, such journeys usually began with elation, but often descended into exhaustion, misery and brutality: from the perilous crossing of the Missouri River to the violence along the trail, which in the early days came less in the form of by the much demonized “Indians” than in settler husbands’ abuse of their wives and children (as witnessed attacks by Keturah); and to blizzards, drought, starvation, childbirths, and innumerable deaths along the way. The Belknaps made it through, but Keturah noted the human cost in her diary: “Those wer the days that tried mens soul and bodys too, and womens constitutions … they worked the mussel on and it was their to stay.”
Between 1836 and 1880, thousands of women – of every class, race, nationality and type imaginable – were on the move across the American West; in Brave Hearted Katie Hickman focuses mainly on the migrant routes to Oregon and California. Some women lobbied hard to go. It was Narcissa Whitman’s presbyterian zeal to convert Indigenous people “west of the Rocky Mountains” that sent her looking for a husband in New York state so that her application as a missionary would be approved. Ultimately, what Hickman calls “an abyss of cultural misunderstanding” would lead to the Whitmans’ deaths at the hands of the Cayuse they had set out to convert. Economic recession determined the Donner-Reed party to head for California. Their oldest member, seventy-five-year-old Grandma Keyes, was so set on going, despite being bedridden, that her family designed a two-storey “Pioneer Palace Car” for her, complete with stove, chimney, feather bed and looking glass. She died on the trail and the car was abandoned in the “dreary, desolate alkali waste”, as her granddaughter Virginia Reed called it, around the Great Salt Lake, as the party lost its way and began their nightmarish descent into starvation and cannibalism.
Some women went west reluctantly, under various forms of durance. Biddy Mason was an African American enslaved in Mississippi who was taken by her Mormon owners, the Smiths, to Utah, then California. There, with astonishing courage, she challenged her master’s lies and intimidation to wrest her and her children’s freedom in court, and went on to be an important figure in Los Angeles. Some women were violently transported from another direction, such as Lilac Chen, one of hundreds of Chinese women and girls trafficked across the Pacific to service California men’s appetites, in Chen’s case as a six-year-old. And, of course, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous women of many nations and tribes were already living on the lands of the trans-Mississippi West, now bearing the brunt of US colonization. One was Sarah Winnemucca, Northern Paiute. She vividly recounted her mother burying her up to the neck in the Nevada sagebrush to hide her from white emigrants run amok and later enduring what she called a “reign of terror” by white ranch hands intent on rape.
What is the effect of revisiting well-known episodes – the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, the California Gold Rush a few years later, the Donner-Reed party disaster, the “Whitman mosque” – from women’s perspectives? The most profound reorientation comes in Indigenous women’s accounts. They do not predominate numerically in this volume, but Hickman works to center the hard truths they tell about the violence, environmental destruction and cultural attendant on westward expansion. Sally Bell of the Sinkyone, in northern California, witness the massacre of her family by white vigilantes, a small child hiding with her baby sister’s heart, cut out by the attackers, in her hands. Cokawiŋ, a Brulé Lakota elder, survived the attack by William S. Harney’s US army detachment on their peaceful encampment by binding up her stomach, ripped open by a soldier’s bullet, with skunk skin. Here, George Armstrong Custer comes into focus not for his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn, but for appropriating Monahsetah, a young Southern Cheyenne woman captured during Harney’s assault, for his own pleasure; and for hiring Ihtatéwiŋ, an older Hunkpapa Lakota woman from Standing Rock, to make the fringed buckskin hunting suit that became central to his image. One of Narcissa Whitman’s many shocks in the west was being taught “lessons in local etiquette” – among other survival skills – by Marguerite McLoughlin, daughter of a Cree woman and wife of the Fort Vancouver factor.
Part of the intensity of settled women’s accounts lies in the exquisite detail they allot to everyday social relations, an effect compounded by Hickman’s unerring eye for dramatic detail. Women in a circle, holding out their skirts to allow each other to relieve themselves on the plains; women missionaries alternately supporting and resenting each other; women diarists betraying their racially based exclusions; military wives documenting the shock of moving from packed stage coaches to “vertiginous” isolation out west; Keturah Belknap specifying her preparations as compellingly as her adventures on the wagon trail – all these details are with expectations, resourcefulness, resilience and loss.
In this environment men’s voices become most interesting in relationship to women. Some men labored to drown out and distort women’s accounts. In 1851, thirteen-year-old Olive Oatman, member of a Brewsterite family (a Mormon splinter group traveling southwest in search of utopia), was taken captive by the Yavapai. They sold her to the Mohave, among whom she lived until 1856. Like several white women captives, on her return Oatman emphasizing how well she had been treated by the Mohave. Renamed Spantsa, she considered herself their kin. The Reverend Royal Stratton, an itinerant Methodist preacher, would have none of it. The sensational version he concocted for his own profit had Oatman tortured by starvation, sexual degradation, and savagery. He even misrepresented her facial tattoo, a mark of belonging among the Mohave, as their branding of her as their captive.
Other men in positions of power tried harder to respect women’s voices. In 1856, when Biddy Mason and her half-sister Hannah launched their court challenge against their enslavement by Robert Smith, he bribed their lawyer to drop the case. The women found themselves voiceless, as Black people forbidden by California law from testifying against white people. At this point the presiding judge, Benjamin Hayes, stepped up: “The judge decided that the ‘speaking silence of the petitioners’ must be listened to’; Hannah’s “very hesitation in speaking out, he noted, ‘spoke a volume’” about what they had endured. He concluded that the women and their families “are entitled to their freedom and are free forever”.
Despite more than forty years of scholarship on women in the American west, in that nebulous but influential entity, “the popular imagination”, as Hickman notes, the Wild West remains the preserve of masculinity. Working mainly with published sources, she has woven together an extraordinary range of women’s first-person voices – we hear from more than fifty of them – into a gripping narrative. Especially when she traces intersections among those stories, they show the West as a place of complex relationships. When Olive Oatman returned from the Mohave, she went from being succoured by Aespaneo, the wife of the tribal chief, to being cared for by Sarah Bowman, the brothel owner at Fort Yuma. A Tennessean nicknamed “Great Western” for her imposing height and girth, with two six-shooters on her hips, Bowman in turn contrasted strikingly with her fellow entrepreneur Ah Toy, who had clawed her way up from “Chinese sex slave” to establish a chain of California brothels. Within half a dozen pages Hickman presents in counterpoint Cecelia McMillen Adams, white settler, and two Indigenous women historians, Josephine Waggoner (Ithatéwiŋ’s daughter) and Susan Bordeaux Bettelyoun (Oglala and Sicangu Lakota). While Adams counts down the miles from Illinois to Oregon in the number of emigrants’ graves passed each day, Wagoner and Bettelyoun count down the shrinking Indigenous populations, killed by cholera brought west by the settlers.
Another kind of contrast emerges when one young woman talks to another. Hickman compares Virginia Reed’s later account of the Donner-Reed disaster, written for publication and imbued with sentimental piety, with the letter she sent in the immediate aftermath to her cousin Mary back east. In the thirteen-year-old survivor’s combination of horror and positivity can be heard women’s true grit: “I have Wrote you anuf to let you know now that you don’t now what trouble is but thank the Good god we have all got throw and the onely family that did not eat human flesh … Don’t let this letter dishaten anybody and never take no cutofs and hurry along as fast as you can.”
Christine Bold‘s most recent book is “Vaudeville Indians” on Global Circuits, 1880s–1930s
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