Women On the Trail and On the Farm
Iowa pioneer women played an important part in the early settlement of the state. The rural Midwest was settled in a different way than many other areas of the United States where the first new arrivals were fur trappers or cowboys or miners and where men far outnumbered women in the early population. In Iowa, most people came to farm the rich soil and they came as families. Wives and daughters were an essential part of the farming operation. As a result there were many children among Iowa’s first settlers. On the eve of the Civil War one out of every three Iowans was under the age of ten.
Iowa Sounds Good
While many women hated to leave family and friends in the East, they also shared their husbands’ enthusiasm for getting a new start in a new land. Preparations to come to Iowa began months before the trip began. They believed that Iowa had a healthy climate and fertile soil. For some, taxes in their home states seemed high. They also knew that slavery was forbidden north of the Missouri border.
Preparation for the Trip
One historian identifies four major roles for women in preparation. They were needed to pack sufficient food for the journey. This often included a barrel of flour to bake bread and biscuits along the trail, dried foods and meats, and the pots and pans for cooking. The second role was to provide sufficient clothing and bedding. The family often slept in or under in the wagon, and because the trip usually began in the early spring, they needed blankets to keep warm during chilly nights. The third role was to stock up on the necessary medicines that may be needed. Women served as family doctors in the years before trained physicians. Finally, women had to sew a canvas top for the wagon. The heavy cloth protected them from the weather along the trail.
On the Trail
Once on the trail women faced new challenges. Some traditional tasks continued. Women cooked meals over a campfire. They also had to care for the children in new and unknown places. If the family had a milk cow the women often milked and churned on the trail just as she did at home. The women washed clothes when the family camped by a stream and mended clothing torn along the way. She sometimes drove the ox team that pulled the wagon.
In the Home
When the family reached their new home, women worked hard to care for the family. Their biggest task was helping to feed the family. In addition to preparing meals and cleaning up after them, they planted large gardens. Vegetables like potatoes, carrots and turnips were stored in root cellars. Cabbage was made into sauerkraut and stored in large crocks. Some vegetables like cucumbers were pickled in vinegar. Apples and sometimes pumpkins and squash were cut into small slices and dried. In the winter they could be soaked in water and cooked. When canning jars became available, they preserved corn, green beans and tomatoes.
Farm women also raised large flocks of chickens. The hens supplied eggs which were an important part of the diet. Chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys also provided a year-round source of meat. While men normally butchered the large animals like hogs and cattle, women helped cut up the meat. To preserve it, they sometimes smoked it for many hours in a smokehouse and then wrapped it in clean cloth. They also packed it in large crocks to prevent the air from reaching it. They also canned it or made sausage. The animal fat would be cooked down (rendered) for lard and to make soap.
Most families had their own milk cows. Cows were milked morning and night, a chore often delegated to the children. The milk was set aside to allow the cream to rise to the surface. Women then skimmed off the cream and churned it into butter. The skim milk was fed to the hogs.
Women also sewed and mended clothing for the family. Keeping clothes clean was a hard job before automatic washing machines. Monday was wash day. Children often hauled buckets of water to the stove where it was heated. Then each piece was scrubbed on a wash board, rinsed in boiling water, wrung out and hung up to dry on the clothesline. On Tuesday the clean clothes were brought in and the shirts and dresses were pressed with heavy irons heated on the stove.
By the time Iowa was settled, New England textile mills were producing good quality, cheap cotton fabrics. While some women spun yarn from sheep and wove it into woolen cloth, the process took so much time that it was better to buy the factory-made cloth. Still, they needed to cut out the pieces and to sew them together to provide clothing for the family. Mending torn shirts or dresses or making aprons gave women an opportunity to sit on busy days.
In addition to making the family’s clothing, many Iowa women took pleasure in making beautiful quilts for the beds. They designed their own patterns and often used worn out clothing to make colorful quilts. Quilting was almost the only opportunity for women to express their artistic abilities. Most tasks were measured by quantity—the numbers of jars of corn canned or the number of socks knitted—but quilts were made to be beautiful as well as to provide bedding. During all these tasks women also had to care for their children. They also nursed the sick. When there was a death, women in the neighborhood came in to prepare the body for burial. When the crops needed to be harvested, women often went to the fields to pick corn or to cut oats or wheat in a race against the weather.
Women in early Iowa towns shared many of the same tasks. They too planted large gardens and preserved food for the winter. They made and washed clothes, often kept a flock of chickens or a milk cow, and cared for the sick.
Women’s work was essential to running a farm and maintaining a household. Farming was a partnership between a husband and wife, each with his or her responsibilities. Because Iowa was a farming frontier, women were an important part of life on the frontier as well as on the established farms.
Written for Iowa Pathways by Tom Morain.