WESTWARD THE WOMEN by Nancy Wilson Ross


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Pioneer women of the Far West, by the records they left for posterity, rendered a service to some possible future anthropologist who will be able to study (them). . .with the cool detachment with which today the natives of Peru. . . are observed."" Between the original 1944 publication and this reissue, Ross's prediction has come true, if one substitutes historians (such as Lillian Schlissel, Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey) for anthropologists. By contrast to their careful analyses, this volume appears highly anecdotal and, frankly, dated. Westward The Women, like Ross's description of wagon-train life itself, is filled with ""tragedy, humor, romance, and melodrama."" The first white women to make the journey, in 1836, were Narcissa Whitman-- ""a blonde beauty of high spirit"" --and Eliza Hart Spalding--""a plain young woman of less brilliant but more steady temperament."" Whitman, with her daughter, was massacred by the Indians in 1847; Spalding simple declined into ill health. Some Indians were friendly--Sacajawea's ""uncanny sense of direction"" guided the Lewis and Clark expedition through the Northwest Territory; some were more than friendly--the ""squaws"" married whites before shiploads of Eastern brides put a stop to it. If Protestant missionary women and Catholic sisters were among the first white women, they were soon joined by female adventuresses, ""hurdy-gurdy women"" with names like ""Peg-Leg Annie"" and ""Dutch Emma."" Most of the successful landladies of ""parlor houses"" were, as Ross describes them, ""hard-headed realists, forthright and outspoken, warm-hearted to a fault, generous to the sick and those clown on their luck."" They, in turn, would soon be joined by female reformers, such as Abigail Scott Duniway, a campaigner for women's rights who founded a newspaper for women in Portland, and Bethenia Owens, who shocked her Roseburg, Oregon, neighbors (unimpressed by her medical degree) by performing an autopsy on a male, then went on to campaign for sterilization of the insane. Overall, Ross detects in these varied lives ""an evolution from personal to social awareness in the American female,"" but the emphasis is clearly on each woman's saga, not what they shared in common. Surpassed, then, by recent histories, but not without popular interest.

Pub Date: May 15th, 1985
Publisher: North Point Press