Close your eyes to picture the Wild West, and your mind will likely conjure up images of rolling plains and somersaulting tumbleweeds. And then you’ll see them: cowboys on horseback – the iconic figures of this bygone age. Yes, men dominate our understanding of the Old West, but what about women? Some of them were fighting against society’s rules, and a closer look at their extraordinary lives may well teach you a thing or two about how women lived — and sometimes thrived — in the Wild West.
No place for women in the Wild West
For years, the now-famous advice “Go west” was not a proposition that enticed many American immigrants. They saw the country’s inland western territories as an obstacle-laden landscape, strewn with jutting mountains and unforgiving deserts. No place for a woman, surely! So those who did travel west either journeyed by sea or on just a few well-trodden paths. And they headed for California, where they knew they’d find a lusher, more welcoming climate.
Claiming their own territory
All of that changed by the mid-19th century, though. And you can probably guess one of the reasons why. The California gold rush, which kicked off in 1849, inspired people from across the country to head towards the Pacific coast and strike it rich. Plus, the United States won the Mexican-American War in 1848, giving the nation even more western territory for settlers to claim.
Farming, ranching, or mining?
As people moved out west, they typically settled into one of three lifestyles: farming, ranching, or mining. Land husbandry had drawn people out west to Oregon and California in the early 1800s, but things started to pick up across the Great Plains between 1870 and 1890. Homesteaders grew wheat, sugar beets, oats, flax, and corn. Meanwhile, the Idaho contingent became famous for its potato production.
Learning how to improvise
Men, women, and children often lived on farms, and they excavated their homes out of the sides of hills: dugout dwellings. Or they cut squares of sod from the earth and piled them up to build houses. There weren’t many trees on the plains, so settlers had to improvise. Eventually, though, they began to haul lumber and build more structurally sound residences. But what were the women up to, you ask?