Unsung Moms of the Frontier
Do motherhood and the frontier mix? Obviously mothers were out there—emigrating ones, developing foot sores and often much worse as they walked beside wagons bound for Oregon, California and Utah; homesteading ones, working their fingers to the bone on their 160 acres in Nebraska, Kansas, Montana and the Dakotas; and enterprising ones, who, with or without husbands, ran stores, ranches, mills and hotels in a rough-and-tumble man’s world. Frontier women were expected to meet each day’s rigorous demands, often doing men’s work while keeping up with all the proper female matters—cooking, washing, pregnancy, childbirth, child care, tending the sick and mourning the dead. These were in fact great expectations, and the relentless toll of frontier life on body, mind and spirit often led to sickness and madness, loneliness and isolation, anger, frustration and an early grave. Yes, young frontier women did get weary.
Men, including those who could not tame themselves, were the tamers of the wilderness—at least in our traditional view of the Old West. But any way you view it, the women, particularly the mothers, did much of the taming themselves, as well as most of the civilizing that followed. Thanks to these respectable ladies, makeshift tents, shacks, jacals, mud huts and soddies became livable, family-oriented homes, and violent towns fueled by red-eye and testosterone became sober, upstanding communities. Some of the wildness of the shoot-’em-up era was gone, and the American West became a safer place to raise children. Yet most of these “uncommon” common women have long since been lost to history. There were also, sure as shooting, the so-called wild women of the Wild West—from hard-drinking plainswoman Calamity Jane to cow town soiled dove Squirrel Tooth Alice. But we rarely think of them as mothers, wed or otherwise.
The Western frontier mother most remembered today is perhaps Lewis and Clark’s Indian guide Sacagawea, a symbol of women’s worth and independence who in 2000 was depicted on a dollar coin with baby son Jean Baptiste, aka “Little Pomp,” sans husband/daddy Toussaint Charbonneau. A distant No. 2 might be onetime Comanche captive Cynthia Ann Parker, best known for giving birth to future chief Quanah Parker and (thanks to a famous photo) for breast-feeding daughter Prairie Flower. Even all those Wild West gunfighters we have come to know if not adore had mothers, and No. 3 on the “memorable mothers of the frontier” list could very well be Catherine McCarty—not because she married a man named William Antrim, but because she raised a kid named Henry who became better known as William Bonney and best known as Billy the Kid. A close No. 4 would be Zerelda James (later Simms and then Samuel), for mothering in Missouri bad boys Frank and Jesse (who married a woman named Zerelda like mom) and for giving her right arm for her sons when Pinkerton detectives bombed the James-Samuel household in January 1875. Rounding out the Top Five is another Missouri mom, Adeline Lee Younger Dalton, mother of Frank, Grat, Bill, Bob and Emmett Dalton, and aunt of Cole, Bob, Jim and John Younger.
Despite their Western wanderings, Earp brothers James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren always had a place in their hearts for their beloved mother Virginia. Wyatt, according to biographer Lee Silva, inherited her common sense, and she also passed on to him “her soft spot for animals, children and down-and-outers.” In our “Gunfighters and Lawmen” department this issue author Phyllis de la Garza mentions how 30-something Warren was living mostly at his parents’ house in San Bernardino, Calif., until his mother died in 1893, and his remarried father, Nicholas, booted him out onto the street.
But none of these women are why motherhood is on my mind. My own mother, a onetime book editor with a never-ending soft spot for animals, children and good words, died on September 12, 2013. I used to call her for editing advice, and though she was not a Western mother, she read every issue of Wild West. She was what motherhood should be all about in any place, any era.
Her famous last words: “Hi, Greg!”
See you later, Mom.