Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. 408 pages. Maps, index, notes, bibliography. 8¾” x 5¾”. $35 paperback.
The varying voices of Colorado’s courageous women pioneers speak in this collection of short narratives collected by the Civil Works Administration in 1933 and 1934. Most of the women are unknown except for a few like that of Sara Chivington Pollock, who defends the role her grandfather, Col. John M. Chivington, played in the Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. Of course, the voices of the men who came with these women to Colorado, as well as the stories of women who gave up and went back home, are missing.
The book is arranged by regions of the state with extensive notes by Lee Schweninger, who provides brief introductions. Some major areas, such as Denver, are omitted.
The stories of the pioneer women have many similarities. Often the men traveled west first seeking economic prosperity or searching for a better climate for their health. During their westward migration many of the families attempted to make a go of it in other places before they arrived in Colorado to claim homesteads. In the 1870s most of these families traveled by wagon while later settlers came by train.
Many of the women were left alone to fend for themselves and try to eke out a leaving as their husbands often changed jobs. The women often lived in fear—always of Indians and sometimes by cowboys. They could be intimidated by Indians while alone with their children. Hattie L. Hedges Trout tells the story of her mother’s interaction with a single Indian who offered her fifty buckskins for the “nice squaw”—her fourteen-year-old daughter. He asked her, “You got man?” She lied and said, “Yes, back here.” After a while he rode away, but she was fearful until her husband returned from Denver where he worked (78).
Freighting goods was a common occupation of the men who traveled through areas where roads were almost nonexistent and streams had to be forded repeatedly. In some regions the husband worked for the railroad while his wife tended to the homestead. Wives sometimes ran boardinghouses for the railroad workers, and women made a business of selling butter or eggs or sewing buckskins for the Indians. The pioneers’ greatest immediate need was water, which they often hauled as far as six miles away (168). Until they had a convenient water supply, raising livestock was limited.
Social life and the support that the pioneers gave one another held these struggling women and their communities together. Nellie Buchanan describes the burial dress and coffin that the neighbors made for the deceased child of a poor family. They took the coffin into the bedroom of the mother, who had just given birth to another child, so that she could see how well they had taken care of “her darling.” (141). Elizabeth Richards sums up their lives: “We had to work very hard to get ahead; we met many disappointments and discouragements, but we had good kind neighbors, friendly visits, and social gatherings that were always enjoyed.” (167)
Patricia Hill Pascoe is the author of Helen Ring Robinson: Colorado Senator and Suffragist (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2011). Her BA is from the University of Colorado and her MA and PhD degrees are from the University of Denver. She served twelve years in the Colorado State Senate where she championed women’s issues.