This tribute to The Pioneer Mother was written by Albert Nelson, on August 11, 1940. Mr. Nelson was caretaker of Layman’s cemetery, from the late 1920s to the 1950s. His papers are in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.
The Pioneer Mother
Why is it we hear so much about the Pilgrim Fathers and so little about our Pilgrim Mothers. The Pilgrim Mothers had to put up with all the hardships the Pilgrim Fathers did and they had to put up with the Pilgrim Fathers besides. They were indeed intitled [sic] to sympathy, but I doubt that they ever thought so. Hardships are the natural lot of pioneers, and the ones that the Pilgrim Mothers found in the New World gave them plenty of occupation, without dwelling on the ones they brought with them from the Old.
If we have lost sight somewhat of the Pilgrim mothers, it is no more than we have done, until recently, about all the pioneer mothers of our country. Our attention has been engrossed by the men who went forward to open the wilderness, and we have overlooked, without reason and justice, the women who accompanied or followed them, and who established there, by their toil and sacrifice, a permanent civilization. But now that our centuries as a pioneer nation have come to an end, we can look back on them with clearer perspective and understanding. We can see more definitely the value of the parts that were played in them.
There can be no question that the American frontier has come to an end. Three hundred years of steadily advancing settlement have extinguished the light that led us onward in our continental growth. It has passed from reality into history, fiction and cinema. That is why memorials to pioneer mothers are beginning to take their place beside the tributes to Daniel Boone and Kit Carson. And Boone and Carson, and all their like, would be the first to approve. For these men knew sporting blood when they saw it and ungrudgingley [sic] admired it.
The term sounds strange, perhaps in this connection. But that is only because we are not pioneers. We have reached that stage of sophistication—I believe it is called sophistication—where we think that sporting blood must be garbed in a stylish and distinctive costume, and have something resplendent about it. We show our sporting blood by patronizing exclusive hotels and steamships and gold courses, and by riding in luxurious cars. Living in a lonesome shack, poorly clothed and fed, and eternally slaving over a wood fire, children, spinning wheel, loom and a wash-tub, is not in the least our idea of it. But if it were not for that very real, and very brave and very spirited kind of sporting blood, we would never have had a country at all, or the opportunity to display our sophistication. For that is the kind of sporting blood that the pioneer women of America showed, at the daily risk of their lives, from the time of our first settlements. And if [that] doesn’t entitle them to a lion’s share of the nation’s monuments, I cannot imagine what would.
It took a hundred and fifty years from the time of the first settlements for the frontier to cross the Alleghenies. It took another fifty for it to cross the Mississippi. Thus Andrew Jackson, born nine years before the Revolution, was the soon of a pioneer mother of North Carolina; Abraham Lincoln, born twenty-eight years after it, was the son of a pioneer mother of Kentucky: and James Garfield, the last of the log-cabin presidents, born only thirty years before the Civil War, was the son of a pioneer mother of Ohio. There are still plenty of men who can remember when the East was universally referred to in the West as “back in the States.”
The migration westward followed the course that migration has always followed in human history. It followed the river valleys.
From the Alleghenies to the Mississippi the struggle was hard enough; from the Mississippi to the Pacific, it was epochal. The territory was larger and wilder and more remote; the climate more severe, the Indians more hostile. They saw the buffalo, their chief means of subsistence, disappearing; they saw their lands taken over; they saw at the same time that the military forces sent against them were far too small to subdue them. The government ineffectively sought to guard the trails with a few handfuls of cavalry. Any sufficient reprisal against the gruesome massacres that swept the plains like a prairie fire was impossible. It is not so many years since the last formidable Indian uprising was subdued. There are still those who remember it. What this meant to the settlers of the West for the preceding years is better imagined than described. To follow in detail the dangers and disasters of the pioneer wagon trains is to open a chapter of horrors that repels recital. Death by starvation, thirst, in storms and snowdrifts, commonplaces. Bleaching bones were milestones on all the traveled routes. The wretched survivors of ill-fated expeditions fell into murder and cannibalism. The descriptions of the Indian outrages, as recorded by army observers, are utterly unspeakable. Many pioneer mothers carried with them, as a matter of course, a supply of the swiftest and deadliest of poisons for themselves and their loved ones. They fought shoulder to shoulder with the men, and when all hope was gone, as resolutely killed their children and committed suicide. More often, fortunately, they won, and usually against heavy odds. Plenty of pioneer mothers, single handed, have defended their homes against roving bands of Indians. If they only came to steal cattle, that alone meant tragedy on the plains.
We talk about efficiency in these days, when we have so many contrivances and instructions for its attainment that they obstruct it by getting in each other’s way; what, then, are we to say about the efficiency of the pioneer women, who with nothing, made and preserved an empire for us? And who, for all that, were not ashamed of being women! They never had an inferiority complex, or considered it necessary to prove themselves the equals of men. It never occurred to them that they were not. Or to the men, either. For the frontier, in its fundamental purpose of survival, brought out the fundamental values of life. Witness that a woman was more respected in the rowdiest mining camp, by the lowest dregs of male society, than she is now in circles that pride themselves of their sophistication. They knew being a woman was a full-sized job; they saw it demonstrated so successfully that they were quite ready to respect a woman simply because she was a woman. Of course this was a quaint, old-fashioned idea; hysterics were a luxury that pioneers could not afford. The pioneer woman had more vital matters to attend to than the fear that her abilities might not be properly judged, because of her sex. Her life gave her plenty of substantial things to get neurotic about, if she wanted to. Fortunately for us, she didn’t. She went right on to the end of the road, doing what was useful, and had to be done. I won’t say that she liked it’ I don’t say that she did; I don’t see how she could. But it was none the less magnificent for that.
They make a splendid pageant, those familiar figures that parade out of the past before us, through the pages of books and across the motion picture screen—the trader and the trapper, the scout, the forty-niner, the desperado, the express-rider, the stage driver, the cavalryman, the cattle-rustler, and the cowboy. Now that they have passed, as actualities, into oblivion, they will grow immortal in legend, and will identify themselves forever with the winning of the West.
But they did not win the West. They opened it, and that is all. It was not within their power to civilize it, to give it permanence, and purpose, or a tangible hope and vision of its future, or to create in it the sinews of a nation.
No—the West was won, our whole continental territorial expanse was won, by a far different figure, seldom dwelt on in the glamorous chronicles of our glory.
You can hardly see her face—not because it is covered with cosmetics, but because it is concealed by a faded sunbonnet. And positively, my dear!—she has no chic at all! But a tired child, resting its head on her knees; flashes of the setting sun falling like prophetic arrows across her shawl, as the great rough wagon in which she sits lumbers slowly onward; and a few simple household needs, essentials from the familiar home she has left, for use in the unknown home ahead. Unknown, though this much is known, that it will be home, since she is there.
That was the figure that won the West, and all of what we proudly call our country. If we do not have the good sense to be proud of the pioneer mother, we should have the good grace to be ashamed of ourselves.