Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
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Women Emigrants

Most Mormon companies, with the exception of the pioneer company of 1847, had more women (and children) than most non-Mormon companies. This was because most Mormons did not go west for furs, gold, adventure, or a new identity, but seeking religious freedom; they usually traveled as families and often had single women converts along. 15 And because many of these women, like Bathsheba Smith, Sarah Leavitt, Sarah Alexander, Caroline Crosby, Mary Field Garner, Eliza R. Snow, Patty Bartlett Sessions, Jane Rio Pearce, and Patience Archer wrote trail accounts, we know much of their trail life." Typically, trail life was harder on them than on the men. The lack of privacy in bathing, elimination, and sleeping was especially difficult for Mormon women, as was their task of gathering bison dung, euphemistically termed bois de vache, meadow muffins, or chips for fuel. There were several trail songs about this work. The following is typical:

There's a pretty little girl in the outfit ahead
Whoa, Haw, Buck and Jerry Boy
I wish she were by my side instead
Whoa, Haw, Buck and Jerry Boy
Look at her now with a pout on her lips
As daintily with her fingertips
She picks for the fire some buffalo chips
Whoa, Haw, Buck and Jerry Boy.

Women also were responsible for most of the care of infants and children, as well as the fuel gathering, cooking, churning, sewing, laundering, and nursing. (Many women found it difficult at first to cook in the higher altitudes, where water boils at a lower temperature--sometimes beans and rice could cook for hours and never get soft.)

Many women were pregnant when they left for the west and others became pregnant en route. Both realities added to the difficulties of immigrating women. Probably a tenth of all Mormon emigrants died. The author's study of Mormon Trail accounts indicates that most were women and children.

Women were also greatly hampered and disadvantaged by their clothing. Westering males dressed for the conditions: heavy boots, strong trousers, shirts, jackets, coats and broad-brimmed hats to protect the face and eyes. Tragically the same cannot be said for westering females. While modesty is almost universally considered a great virtue, it, like everything else except good will, can be overdone. The female attire of trail days, decreed by modesty and fashion, got filthy, soaked up water (even from dew), and often caused accidents. Long skirts could get caught in many ways, drawing females under animals and moving wagons.

Even after the super modest and "trail safe" bloomers (of Amelia Bloomer) came into existence in 1852, few Mormon females cared or dared to wear them, for they were considered a costume espoused by feminists as a dress for liberated women and signaled radical sexual and political messages that were denounced at the time. Furthermore, the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:5) decreed, "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man ... all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." Women also kept their long skirts, petticoats, ribbons, bows, and white aprons to maintain their sexual distinction from men and their "superiority" over Indian women, and to preserve their femininity and domesticity.

Balancing out the grim realities of trail life are female trail accounts of the "romance," beauty of the landscape, the adventure of it all. Activities included dancing, singing, games, recitations, feasts, parties, socializing, tea parties, courting, and weddings. Westering women, including Mormons, enjoyed thinking up trail-related names for their infants born en route, such as Platte, Lucile Platte, Humboldt, Nevada, Laborious, Echo, Handcart, Blue River, La Bonte, and Liberty. Sometimes at night, camp women would place their scanty domestic belongings around their campfire to approximate their "parlors" back home. They also arranged the interiors of their covered wagons to be as homelike as possible. They hung mirrors, pictures, and lamps, spread carpets, and placed other belongings to this end. In fact pioneer women generally did everything they could to preserve their traditional role and image and the niceties of civilization, domesticity, and a semblance of home while westering.

The realities of trail travel, however, greatly altered some aspects of family life. While the nineteenth century clearly distinguished between male and female roles, defining women as agents of civilization and keepers of morals, the differences between male and female work were blurred by the trail experience. Women were often called upon to take over men's duties and responsibilities. (Sometimes men even had to do women's work.) Throughout the Mormon migrations, every possible type of arrangement of family groups formed, including the unique Mormon contribution to the westward movement--polygamy.

Since polygamy had been practiced at Nauvoo, it existed on the trail. At the beginning of the exodus in 1846, some men took all their wives and children with them, some returned later for the balance of their families. Some women and their children joined their husbands later on the Missouri River, or in Utah. Some never did go west. Some men married plural wives en route; some missionaries returned from Europe with additional wives.

There were also single Mormon emigrants, bachelors, maidens, widows, widowers, the divorced and the orphaned. The net of faith brought in all kinds. As far as possible singles were fitted into the emigrant companies and completely accepted. Often such single pioneers were hired hands taken along as teamsters, drivers, cattle tenders, and handymen. Single females were sometimes hired to assist with the children and to aid older family members. Despite the big differences between Mormon and non-Mormon trail emigrants, it appears that in general, the lives of Mormon female emigrants were much the same as those of most women on the Oregon and California trails.

Source: Historic Resource Study - Mormon Pioneer National By Stanley B. Kimball, Ph.D., May 1991. (The study focuses on the history of the trail from its official beginning in Nauvoo, Illinois, to its terminus in Salt Lake City, Utah, during the period 1846-1869. During that time, thousands of Mormon emigrants used many trails and trail variants to reach Utah. This study emphasizes the 'Pioneer Route' or 'Brigham Young Route' of 1846-1847. The sections on Mormon beliefs and motivations for going west have been omitted. Interested persons can find ample sources for that information. The footnotes, bibliography, maps, pictures, pioneer companies by name and dates for the 22-year period, and historic sites - about 2/3 of the book - have also been left out for space considerations. Thanks to Dr. Kimball and the National Park Service for the availability of this information.)