When women were scarce

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“Women were scarce in the American West,” an old saying has it. The reference, of course, was to American women from the East, not to Indian or Hispanic women, who were just as numerous as their men.

In plain truth, Eastern ladies were seldom eager to uproot their lives and go pioneering on a raw and dangerous frontier. They knew that was no place to raise a family in safety and comfort.

Young Hezekiah Brake, who came to eastern New Mexico by wagon in 1858, taking a job at a dairy, remarked in his memoirs: “In those days, women dreaded worse than death the perils of the Western trails.” He probably had in mind his fearful wife, whom he sent for the following year.

I thought of his statement the other day when I happened to read the notice from a New York publisher announcing the launching of a new series of novels called “Women’s West.”

The publisher invited authors to submit manuscripts for the project. “Historical accuracy will be crucial,” the notice said. “Books in this series should give the reader a true sense of what life for a real woman was like in the Old West.”

That sounded fine, and admirable. But then came a wrenching declaration.

“This series will be unique. The main plots should have a goal of something other than finding love. These women shape the West, create its history. They blaze trails, fight battles, establish schools, and they can be outlaws.”

That sounds as if it was written by a radical feminist on the faculty of an Ivy League university. So much for accuracy.

Yes, there were a few female outlaws, like Belle Starr and Cattle Kate. On occasion wives took the lead in pressuring their husbands to build the town’s first school. And we can note cases where women in a crises picked up a gun and fought off attacking Indians.

But as interesting and exciting as these examples are, they must be judged as decidedly marginal in “shaping the West and creating its history,” as the publisher put it.

It is not sexist to say what is obvious and easily documented. In the 19th century West, women rarely did masculine things such as trapping furs, driving cattle, mining or joining the cavalry. I know of none who ever blazed a trail.

In the earliest states of Western development, American women were indeed scarce. Once I published a bibliography of women’s Santa Fe Trail journals, and I had to explain whey there were so few of them.

Later, as settlement took hold, the women began to appear and have an impact. Often the most enterprising were considered mavericks and even social outcasts.

That included New Mexico’s famed Sadie Orchard. She drove a stagecoach between Hillsboro and Lake Valley on the east slope of the Black Range, and later owned a bawdy house. Proper ladies snubbed her.

Women scarcely had the opportunity to be out shaping history on the frontier. Usually their adult lives were spent at home having one baby after another.

Couples wanted large numbers of children then, to help with farm or ranch work and care for them in their old age. Mothers who gave birth to 12 to 20 offspring were not unusual. But owing to the high infant mortality rate, the average pioneer family numbered seven children.

As the frontier was closing down toward the end of the century, women emerged as leaders in two important crusades. The first was the temperance movement, directed at curtailing abuse of alcohol by men. Ultimately, that led to prohibition.

The second was the suffrage movement aimed at getting women the vote. Wyoming became the first territory to enact a suffrage law, in 1890. New Mexico did not follow suit until 1914. Universal suffrage finally came with passage of a constitutional amendment in 1919.

Although frontier women did not blaze trails or lead armies into battle, they did play a useful and at times even a fascinating part in the westering saga. The true record of their passing is preserved in a wonderful literature, readily available in all Southwestern libraries and bookstores.