May 14, 2017

The Pioneer Ranch Mom

The pioneer ranching mother was one of the true unsung heroes of the West. Her lot was an especially hard one; not only because of a lack of conveniences, but because her toils were a necessity in order to survive.

"Many a woman was laid away in a rough grave with her new born babe on her breast for lack of a physician's help." Indeed, Yavapai County death records for 1879 show that one-third of all female deaths were due to childbirth.

Many other pioneer women suffered the experience of burying their baby primitively wrapped in a blanket or placed in a packing box.

"One mother, grieving wildly that her first born must be laid away in a cracker box, looked out to see an ambulance drive up and an (unknown) woman step out. The stranger was the young bride of an army officer on her way to Ft. Whipple. Among her wedding presents was a music box in a beautiful rosewood case." The young bride removed the mechanism and lined the box "with the white silk skirt of her wedding dress and brought the little casket to the mother she had never (before) seen, that the baby might be laid away fittingly.

For the first several months after arriving, families had to live out of their wagons. Many babies were born under such conditions. 

When their permanent homes were constructed "few...were built with windows lower than six feet from the ground." A figure standing in window made an inviting target for hostile Indians. Additionally, the doors of these homes were heavy and strapped with iron for increased security.

Sharlot Hall once related: "More than one woman has barred the door of her home and with loaded rifle held off the Apache raiders till help could come.”

Generally these homes were lit with oil lanterns or candles and heated by burning wood in cast iron stoves. Those stoves would be used to prepare 3 meals a day from scratch; in some cases for both the family and for hired hands.

The pioneer mother had to train herself to be "both nurse and physician. With simple herbs and homely remedies" she did her best to heal disease and accident. "Some of the women became excellent nurses, claiming that for every ill there was a remedy by nature." It was a code of the West for a frontier woman "to go miles if need be, to help another woman in sickness.” In the vast pioneer wilderness, families could be as isolated as ships at sea.

A description of 19th century remedies from nature that were particular to Arizona. Today these seem humorous if not ridiculous!

Pioneer moms had to be resourceful, using anything and everything at hand. "Bed springs were made of rope woven length-wise or cross-wise or (some used) board slats." Mattresses were formed with straw and corn-husks while those who raised sheep used raw wool. Pillows were made from chicken, wild geese and duck feathers.

"When wearing apparel could no longer be worn, it was dyed, torn into narrow strips and woven into carpets and rugs to cover the rough pine or dirt floor. Dyes were made from roots and bark. Hats were braided from straw."

When an animal was slaughtered, every bit that could be utilized was. Fat that was "considered not fit to eat was made into soap by the aid of lye condensed from cottonwood ashes. Candles were also made from the tallow. Meat was cured in the smoke of cob fires."

Chores lasted all day, seven days a week. Fresh water would need to be drawn daily from a well or cistern. Cheese and butter were made from milk. Corn, peas, string beans and squash were all dried for winter consumption. Laundry was often washed in a large iron kettle. 

"When the first women arrived in the area, flour was (a whopping) $44 per HWD and scarce. Often the supply had to be divided--a few pounds given to each family. In one settlement where bread had not been tasted for weeks, a sack of flour was brought in so full of weevils that it could not be used until one woman bent a mesquite switch into a loop, sewed her only veil across it and sifted out the worms."

"There was no baker or brewer to depend upon for yeast, so (the pioneer mother) bought it...or learned to ferment flour and water and bake the sour-dough bread that was the staff of life on the old trails. She could bake a loaf in an iron pot or could cook thin biscuits in a frying pan." 

The pioneer mom’s chores were not restricted to the house, however. She would also be needed in the field especially during tilling and harvesting, working step in step with her husband. 

She also had to keep a keen eye on guard to protect the crops and animals. Raiding Indians were a constant threat to life in those early days.

All this while raising their children. Indeed, her work was never done.

"Perhaps it was the need for human resourcefulness which made these (women) strong (and) spiritually great as well. They knew the power of love, devotion, dependability, companionship, neighborliness, endurance and thankful heart and this they bequeathed to their children and their children's children. Rich is the heritage of the descendants of these brave and noble pioneers." (*2)

Tourist Tip:
Interested in a nearby dude ranch? CLICK HERE for the website of the Flying E Ranch in Wickenberg!

Coming in September 2020!
"Murder & Mayhem In Prescott"
Drew's first book with co-author Bradley G Courtney

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Cow Chips and Calluses, A Documentary of Chino Valley 1864-1976. Compiled by Ellen Ginn. (c) 1977 Action Press. Pgs. 48-49 citing an excerpt from a talk given by Sharlot Hall in the Ehle File of the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.
Cow Chips and Calluses, A Documentary of Chino Valley 1864-1976, Pg. 106.

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