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We hear a
great many things about the backwoodsmen of the west, but little about the women. Yet they share the loneliness of the woods with their men, and have actually been exposed to greater hardship and privation than the men.

The pioneer, accustomed to tempest and storm, moves into the wilderness with gun and axe, and establishes a home where up to that time no human foot has trod. For his weak and delicate wife it is a time of trial. In a shed of rough, unhewn tree trunks, protected from wind and rain on three sides only, she lives in a manner that would ruin the body of the healthiest European. She visits no neighbor because the nearest lives a half day's journey away. If sickness makes her take to her bed, no physician can help her.

The victuals are used up and the corn has not yet been raised, so the farmer takes his gun on his shoulder and tries to shoot a piece of game to still his family's hunger. Meanwhile, lonely and unprotected, the wife lies on her hard bed and listens through the night to the mournful howl of the wolves and the screaming cry of a lone panther. Scenting prey, they slink around the shelter, but are too fearful to come near. Fearlessly, the mother now looks after the anxious little ones crowding around her, and comforts them, although she herself needs comfort.

She makes her arrangements for defense if the beasts coming closer and closer actually dare an attack. Her man has taken the only gun, but the axe will be kept by the entrance, and a strong fire will be kept up.

Jubilantly she greets the spreading dawn, with which the husband returns, laden with game, and vigorously begins his labors. Every day he improves the quiet forest home and makes it more secure and livable.

Meanwhile, the wife takes care of her daily occupations and tasks. Early in the morning she prepares breakfast for her family. Coarse corn meal is mixed with water and salt in a wooden bowl until it forms a firm dough, then it is whacked flat on an iron lid and set down slanting on the glowing coals. Roasted coffee beans are crushed in her man's tin hunting cup with the handle of his tomahawk, then put in water in the big tin cup and set on the coals till the water boils and becomes coffee. When the bread is brown she cuts off thin slices of bacon over the iron pan, followed by similar pieces of deer meat. She pours some cold water into the boiling coffee to make it lighter, snatches it quickly from the fire and calls her family to their simple meal.

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The "service," if the few household utensils can be given such a name, is soon washed again, and now she brings out her big spinning wheel and turns the thread with a diligent hand. When the farmer is done with plowing for the year and the field has been tilled and the long winter evenings have come, he will make her a loom too. When the days are warm once more, the busy housewife will weave the threads that she spun in the previous year into clothing for all members of the little family circle.

There are many other matters to take care of. A little garden will be tended; chickens and pigs will be raised; she has to make soap so she can do the wash; and the young calf which her man has driven in shortly before demands a lot of her attention, for now there is milk. Also, she makes butter, very little to be sure, for it is very tiring to shake the milk in a bottle until the butter forms, if no other vessel can be found for this job.

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But the daughters and sons are now growing up, the herds increase, the arable lands are enlarged, and everything necessary for life is grown to excess. A few miles away rises the friendly smoke of neighbor cabins, roads crisscross the woods in all directions, and the pioneer becomes a respectable farmer. Because of these developments his tasks become easier, for the neighbors lend one another a friendly hand. When huge logs in the fields need to be rolled together so they will burn more easily - when the farmer needs to shuck the corn so it will not rot so quickly - when a house is to be erected and strong arms are needed - then he sends out a friendly invitation to his neighbors, men and women together. While the men work in the fields, the women and girls arrange themselves around an enormous quilt hung up in the house and stitch to their hearts' content. They help only at the corn husking.

When the work is done, the quilt will quickly be hoisted up until it hangs just under the roof beams. Some of the women begin cooking, while others prepare a powerful "stew," and both sexes join in a merry dance. To be sure, they know nothing of our German waltzes and glides. But they use their toes and heels in English and Irish dance like jigs, hornpipes, and reels in a remarkably agile way, so agile, in fact, that it almost sounds like castanets. They are not about to get tired at it, and quite frequently the sun rises and declines once more towards its setting before the merrymakers break up. Often they alternate the dances with games, although they always prefer the dances.

American maidens are seldom offered the opportunity to let other people admire their ornaments and finery. So they make the most careful use of every such opportunity to show what they own of adornments and better clothes. At such a ball a girl would have to be very poor who could not change clothes twice, and the more prosperous do this five; even six times, without once changing their hair-dos, which are always quite simple.

By the way, in no wise do they demand costly materials for their frocks; pretty calicos are much in evidence. Only the cut of their dresses has to be tasteful, and in this respect they yield nothing to "city women," from whom they also differ very little in behavior.

In America the distinction between farmer and city dweller, so strong in the old world, almost completely disappears. In vain the immigrant tries to find in the country dweller a trace of that clumsy, helpless bearing which all too often distinguishes our honest peasantry, and may well be derived only from the fact that the peasants seldom come into contact with the classes over them. The American farmer doesn't know any classes which stand over him, and his feeling of independence gives him that unconstrained, I might almost say genteel, manner that in our circles is manifested by the man of the world. It's just the same with the women.

It is interesting enough just to watch the natural grace with which these daughters of the forest, who may never have left their wild home districts, behave in every kind of life situation. The basis of this self-assurance may well be the respect in which the white woman is held in America. Any man who insulted the poorest and humblest of them would have to pay a heavy penalty. For that reason one sees young girls and women undertake long journeys without companions and without protection. They find a protector and a friend in every traveller.

In the United States young people marry very early, and I have encountered mothers of fourteen or fifteen, not rarely. But many of them contribute to their marriages the means of existence, the few things which the country dwellers of the west consider necessities and are so easy to come by. The people are easily satisfied, and their herds and crops increase as their children increase.

One must not think, however, that among these simple forest dwellers only the heart brings about unions. Unfortunately, the opposite is only too often the case, and many, very many examples of this are known to me personally. To be sure, at the reunions I mentioned earlier, such as the husking, quilting, logrolling, and houseraising "frolics," the young people frequently make each other's acquaintance and fall in love. But the young man will not be asked for a firm understanding of his intentions, and a few cows and pigs, some acres of land, and only too often a couple of slaves settle-the matter.

It was always interesting to me to see how the Americans "courted," and I will not forget a young man who took a wife in real American fashion.

Heinze - he was of German extraction - had worked hard and tirelessly to make a little piece of land arable, had built a good cabin, had split a few thousand fence rails so he could enclose a second field, had planted a small peach orchard, and had procured as fine a stock of chickens and young pigs as could be found in Arkansas. The natural consequence was that all the neighbors firmly asserted that Heinze was tired of bachelor housekeeping and wanted to get married. Despite all the gibes of his friends, however, he denied that this was at all certain and allowed that he "still had time to think about marrying." But this was not completely accurate. One morning in the middle of the week Heinze began with unusual zeal to black his Sunday boots and brush his blue wool coat with the shiny buttons.

His old father, who dwelt in the house jointly with Heinze, wondered. "Sonny," he said, "what's got into you, that you're putting on your Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes on Thursday? Surely you're not going to do some courting?"

"Don't be silly," answered Heinze, brushing all the more briskly on his very dirty coat collar. "I'm going over to the new settlers to see a few cows I might buy."

"Hm-m-m!" The old man shook his head, while his son took the piece of bearskin from the saddle and in its place threw across a delicately tanned lambskin that was used only on rare occasions. The father's supposition turned to certainty when his son, right there in the middle of the week, while looking into the piece of mirror that he had never needed for shaving, combed his hair. Soon after he had finished his toilette, he went away whistling with his horse at the trot.

The old man's suspicion was well founded. Heinze didn't go near the new settlers, but took the road down to the river, and after a three-mile ride reached a neighbor who had two very pretty daughters and, in addition, a very respectable property. He had not firmly decided which of the two girls he would ask for, and was leaving this completely to chance. He got down from the horse, which began to graze quietly, and went into the house.

It was still early in the day and he found both maidens busy with their housework; the eldest was churning and the youngest was spinning, while the mother sat at the loom and made the shuttle fly busily back and forth. After the friendly greeting, Heinze backed a chair up to the fireplace and began to turn his hat around between his knees.

"Have you already planted your corn this year, Mr. Heinze?" asked the mother.

''I'm going to start right away, Ma'am," said Heinze.

"It's a dry spring this year." "Very dry."

"How's your father?"

"He's kicking about, thank you."

"Don't you think it will rain today?"

Here the conversation broke off, and Heinze twisted and turned his felt between his fingers in a truly inhumane way. The oldest daughter: tried a few times to start up some talk, but it was in vain. Heinze answered everything as tersely as possible, and fell back into his meditations. Finally noontime neared, the table was set, and food was brought out. The visitor stood, smoothed his hat, and said "Goodbye to you-all!"

Won't you eat with us, Mr. Heinze?" "Got nothing against it,'' Heinze answered, quietly turning around. He put his· hat under his chair and plunged straight off into some fried bacon and a dish of potatoes.

The food was cleared away, the women again took up their occupations, and evening approached. Bur the probable suitor still sat stock-still in his chair and looked searchingly but sidewise now at the eldest, now at the youngest daughter. The girls, who had long since noticed the glances of their suitor,·could hardly suppress their laughter.

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Finally their father came in from the woods leading a few cows. He walked into the room, greeted the guest, and sat down next to him. Heinze now thawed a little and became more talkative, but still did not speak freely. He let himself be invited to the evening meal before he allowed that he ought to fodder and saddle his horse, and repeatedly asserted that he had to ride home at once. But the oncoming darkness and a threatening storm made any discussion of this useless, and without further invitation Heinze now carried the saddle into the house and tied the pony fast to a trough.

As soon as the storm was over, everybody sought a bed, and the suitor too found himself stretched out under the woolen covers. The whole family, including the guest, slept in one room. On the next morning, before it was yet quite light, the two maidens rose, heated the coffee, milked the cows, and brought out the breakfast of bacon and cornbread.

Now Heinze became restless, and the words lay on his tongue for asking the question about one of the daughters, but he could not utter them. The old man, to whom the mother had imparted her suspicions, noticed that. So, to spare the poor devil such an embarrassment, he took Heinze by a button, led him just outside the door, and there told him that both his daughters were already promised and on the following Sunday would both be married at the same time.

Heinze said only the one word - "Singular!" He pressed his hat harder down on his forehead, shook the old man's hand, asked him to bring his saddle out of the house, and ten minutes later was on his way home.

But he had used up a whole day, during planting time at that, and for this reason must not return home without having accomplished his mission. So when he rode by another little cabin, in which lived likewise a young but very poor maiden, he went in and finished his business in· an hour and a half. He quickly got the consent of parents and daughter, who knew him as a hardworking fellow. Four hours later he was walking in shirt sleeves behind the pIows on his own land, making furrows for planting corn, and eight days afterwards he rode with his bride to the Justice of the Peace and left as a married man.

No matter how poor a backwoodsman may be, he will never permit his wife to do very hard work. The occupations of the women are mostly limited to cooking, washing, spinning, and weaving. Of the usual city amusements, such as being taken out for an occasional dance, the poor woman knows· nothing at all. Often, indeed, she knows cities only by their names. But she wants nothing further than to see her own family thrive, and her own herds to grow and multiply every year. Sundays she rides at her man's side on a very nice ladies' saddle (which she bought herself, although she had to sell a cow) to prayer meeting, and uses the same time to seek out a woman friend who does not live far away from the meeting place.

The following example will show what energy often slumbers in the breast of such a woman, energy that needs only a spark to blaze up.

In April 1840 a young Missourian on a hunting trip with several comrades discovered a lead mine, evidently a very rich one. It was about fifty miles from his own farm and forty miles from any other inhabited farm. Since he was alone at the time, he decided not to say a word to his companions about his find, but to move there with his wife and children and when they got there to make an "improvement," that is, to settle there. He could expect, after he had secured the land in every way, to make a fine profit from the yield of the mine.

He thought about it, then proceeded to do it. By the third morning he had returned to his family. When he could not find a buyer for his land right away, he abandoned his little estate, packed the necessary tools on one horse and his wife and two small children on another, shouldered his gun, and set out with light heart and happy hopes on the march to their new home.

But when the youngest, a nine-month-old infant, became ill, and toward evening the sky clouded up, he decided he could not traverse the whole distance in one day. He turned their steps to the bank of a little brook. where earlier he had seen an old, abandoned cabin. They had hardly reached this shelter when the rain began to pour down in streams, dazzling lightning flashed through the firmament, and the thunder resounded in terrible blasts.

Before long the little family had made itself at home and settled in for the night. The bed was put in good order in a corner, and the cooking utensils were brought out. Before doing anything else the man lit a good fire, and later, when the storm let up somewhat, he piled firewood from outside onto it.

The cabin was one of those roughly built huts in the likes of which the pioneer of the west spends his whole lifetime, and which he leaves only to exchange where possible for an even plainer one lying further west. The roof was covered with split boards, which in turn were held fast by heavy stakes. It deflected the rain well enough, and only here and there did a few drops find their way inside through rotten places in the wood. Planks were nailed to the walls on the northern and western sides. The floor consisted of rough-hewn boards, in which big bore holes showed that the boards had once been part of a flatboat and had apparently been brought here from the Missouri, not very far away. To be sure, the collapsed chimney gave the whole a gloomy, wild look, but at least partially it promised to fulfill its purpose. If more smoke swirled around the room than could properly be tolerated for comfort. still the smoke was a protection against the not inconsiderable quantity of mosquitoes, which rose up from the nearby swamp in countless swarms.

Tired out from the exertions of the day, the travellers lay down to sleep, and for several hours there reigned a quiet unbroken by anything except the breathing of the slumberers.

Suddenly the baby was wide awake and began to cry and would not hush.

"I'd like for you to bring me a cup full of water," the woman finally said to the man. "The baby wants a drink, and my tongue is sticking to the roof of my mouth."

"Sure - just be patient till I get the fire started up again and light a few splinters - if I don't I won't be able to find the water in the dark."

With that he stood up and groped his way to the fireplace, when he suddenly gave a cry and sprang into the opposite corner of the room.

"For qod's sake - what's the matter?" cried the frightened wife.

"Nothing," groaned the man, breathing deeply, "nothing! I just stepped on something!"

"I'll get up and make the fire!" said his wife and raised herself up from her bed.

"Stop, for the love of God! Stop!" the Missourian cried quickly and fiercely. "Don't move from the place you're laying in now till daylight!

"What's happened to you? William, tell me - I beg you." The poor wife was nearly dead with anxiety.

"There are snakes in the room and I stepped on one."

"Did you get bit" asked the wife in horror.

"I don't think so; one sprung at me but missed me wide. Just lay quiet, don't move and hold the kids still!"

" God!" moaned the poor wife, "if it was only daylight, so I wouldn't be so afraid. Now you stay where you are, so nothing bad will happen to you."

"Yes, yes!" said the man, "I won't move, just tend to the kids for me."

For a,long time the wife lay awake and listened anxiously for the slightest movement in the room, but finally fatigue took its due, and when the little one quieted down, she went to sleep·again. But fearful dreams afflicted her, and with a cry of fright she sat up suddenly.

It was bright day, the sun shone through the cracks into the interior of the cabin, the children still slept at her s!de, her husband lay motionless at the opposite wall, and none of the dangerous creatures could be seen in the room. The morning had driven them away. The woman quickly rose, put on a dress, and went over to rouse the father of her children. Hardly had she touched his shoulder when she jumped back with a scream, which scared the baby and resounded gruesomely back and forth in the empty cabin

A corpse lay before her, cold and stiff, with glazed eyes wide open and swollen limbs. Waiting, she sank down on the lifeless body and tried everything in her power to call him back to life. It was in vain, and sobbing she threw herself on the bed again to give vent to her pain. But the children, worried by the loud lament of their usually cheerful mother, joined in- and clung crying to their protectress.

That gave her back her whole strength and fortitude, and awakened a courage in her which beforehand she had not known she had. With the calm of despair she spoke pleasantly to her children, gave them breakfast, and got ready to bury her husband. Among the tools they had brought were several spades and mattocks, and a little ways from the cabin, near the murmuring brook, she dug the bed for the man she loved.

With a strength hardly to be believed she carried the heavy body to its final destination, laid it down in the grave, placed a few boards crosswise directly on the body, folded her hands in silent prayer over the grave, and was about to fill it, when the oldest girl, a child of four, grabbed her arm and begged her not to "throw dirt on Daddy."

Then her courage abandoned her, and with loud sobs she pressed the child to her and gave way to grief. But she soon brought herself under control, carried the child from the place, hugging her closely, and quickly ended her sad task.

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But now she had to show all her energy. She could not stay where they were, even though the food would have lasted a few days, for she had acquired an unconquerable horror of the place. She quickly got everything in shape to move off again. The things which she did not absolutely need she laid inside the cabin and fastened the door. The rest she carried out into the open, packed provisions for several days together, left the youngest child for a few minutes in the care of the older one while she brought up the mare, grazing a few hundred paces away, laid the saddle on the mare's back and brought to it her man's gun, bullet pouch and knife. She would not be weaponless while traveling through the lonely wilderness.

With enormous effort she finally reached a point where everything was in its place, and with the help of a fallen tree she set herself in the saddle and lifted the children up to her. There was a new difficulty to overcome now - how could she find the right direction, when on the way hither she had paid hardly any attention, and had heard only that the settlement lay northwestward?

But hesitation would not help her, and she trusted the horse's sagacity, by which she hoped it would find its way home without her guidance. The mare seemed pleased with the change of pasture and not at all disposed to seek again the sparse grass of her home territory. Every time she felt the reins slacken, she would begin to graze, and heeded neither threats nor shouts.

The helpless young woman again saw herself thrown back on her own resources, and began now to guide the reluctant animal on a southwest course, to the degree that she herself was capable of finding such a course. But she could only continue her way very slowly - she needed all her foresight to keep some projecting bough or overhanging branch from stripping the long, heavy rifle and both the children from the horse.

Toward noon, the sky, which had been clear until then, clouded over, and the unfortunate woman lost her only guide, for she was not capable of determining her direction by the bark of the trees. Nevertheless, to the best of her ability she followed what she thought was the right path, and camped, when evening came, at the foot of a little hill and at the edge of a clear spring. The children were frightened that night by the howling of the wolves and the ghastly tones of the owl, which sounded its loud cries right over them.

While her own heart was beating terrified, the mother soothed her crying children, poured fresh powder in the pan of the rifle, and waked at the slightest noise which she could sense in the dry, rustling foliage.

The next morning found her again ready to travel, but the sky was still overcast. Ever more anxiously beat the poor mother's heart when she thought of trackless wilderness still lying ahead of her, in which she now was lost. On the second evening, after she had filled the children, she used up the last bread crumbs, and on the third day gnawing hunger associated itself with her other sufferings.

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She had seen a number of deer on the way, well within range, but every time she was kept from using the gun by her fear of causing the horse to shy and putting her children in peril. Now, however, when on the evening of the third day she saw a flock of wild turkeys resting in the trees without any fear of her, she quickly made a halt and succeeded in killing one of them.

Nonetheless, an uneasy night lay before her. The baby cried continuously, and the wolves, attracted by a sound so much like the call of a fawn, crowded whining around the fire. The frightened widow finally could think of nothing which would help them except to load the gun with powder and shoot it off to scare the beasts.

But who can describe the feelings which assailed her breast when not very far away a loud "Hello" answered her shot. Oh how joyfully she shouted to the rescuer, who finally, led by her voice, came up to her!

One can imagine the man's amazement when he found the pale, weakened woman alone with two helpless children in the wilds. He didn't spend much time asking questions, but hustled them all quickly to his dwelling, not very far away, where his wife received her unlucky guest with affectionate sympathy. The man had heard the shot earlier in the evening, even heard the child's cries borne on some gusts of wind. He took these for the panther's call, from which they were indistinguishable, and paid no more attention to the first shot. But the howls of the wolves, ever becoming louder, caught his notice, and just as he stepped in front of the door of his house he heard the second shot. This led him to believe that he would find someone lost in the forest, although he could not imagine that this was a poor lost woman.

The house of the farmer was a good twenty miles southward from the intended course and the parental home of the unfortunate family. On the next day, however, the American took her and her children in a little wagon back home to her relatives.

Up to this point, the strength of the unfortunate woman had lasted, and her strong spirit had controlled her body, but now Nature claimed its rights, and a nervous collapse put her in bed for a month.

In the meantime several young people set out for the cabin where the man had died, to bring back the things that were there. One of them knew where it was. There they decided to watch over the house during the night and if possible kill the snakes. They kept the pine cone flames burning high, and had hardly an hour after sunset to wait until two huge rattlesnakes came crawling out with protruding tongues and neared the crackling flames. Four bullets at the same time ended their malignant existences, and as victory trophies they were hung over the grave of the poor pioneer.

Source: Research by Bryan Wright

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