Go West Young Woman
Women went West for a variety of reasons in the 19th century. Some were eager, others reluctant and some resistant. For those who made the journey and survived to arrive in California, Oregon or Washington, relief at reaching their destination was replaced by the realization that they had to work diligently to make a home for themselves and their families.
Women like Lydia Rudd who wrote in her diary, “With good courage and not one sign of regret … [I] mounted my pony” to go west (DuBois, 220). Certainly, some women were eager for adventure, to escape the drudgery of life in the east or simply to support their husbands. Few single women made the overland crossing which took six months or more depending on the weather and conditions of the route travelled.
The authors relate that some women were reluctant, but grudgingly supportive of their husband’s decision to move west. In 1852, Martha Read wrote to her sister to express her apprehensions, “It looks like a great undertaking to me but Clifton was bound to go and I thought I would go rather than stay here along with the children” (DuBois, 220). To Martha, the prospects of single-motherhood were more daunting than the perilous journey across the country in a wagon with no modern conveniences.
At least one woman, in desperation sought to end their time on the frontier by setting the family’s wagon on fire (DuBois, 221). Women, undoubtedly, had little to no choice in the decision, but simply were required to follow their husbands. Throughout all these accounts, women’s lives during the journey were trying. They had the sole responsibility of caring for the children, cooking, tending to the family’s belongings and helping to set up camp at each night’s stop. The average woman’s day was extended well beyond the day of her husband (DuBois, 222).
Once the news of the Gold Rush reached the east, husbands were even more eager to make the journey. Wives, like Luzena Wilson, realized that she could make “good money tending to the miners” (DuBois, 227). This news undoubtedly reached the east and made the prospect of the expedition west a little more palatable for women who were slated for the journey.
The lives of prostitutes have been glorified and romanticized by historians. This false claim that women could seek wealth and independence through their sexual labor has been exaggerated over time. There were certainly cases where this was true, generally in big cities like San Francisco and Seattle, but not so for women outside the cities and certainly not for immigrant and native American women who were considered the lowest of the low (DuBois, 229).
All in all, women did not choose to make the perilous journey west, but rather followed their husbands. Some were eager for the adventure, some reluctant but open minded, some actively resisted. Once there, they sought to create a new world for themselves and their families.
DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.