Brave Hearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West by Katie Hickman - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Hitching Skirt and Wagon

Brave Hearted: The Dramatic Story of Women of the American West


Virago 400pp £25

In 19th-century America, those who hitched their wagon and headed west did so in the expectation of never making the return journey. Thousands of miles lay before them, full of dangerously fast rivers, parched plains and vertiginous mountains. In the months, sometimes years, it took to go from the safe havens of the east to the new horizons of California, Oregon and Colorado, the emigrants faced violent extremes of weather, wild beasts, starvation and disease. They also faced attacks from Native American tribes, relations with whom turned increasingly hostile the further they encroached on ancestral homelands in their search for new territory.

Katie Hickman has gathered a collection of intriguingly vivid first-hand accounts written by some of the women who ventured west. Their stoicism in the face of what seems now like insurmountable challenges and horrors was and is extraordinary. Giving birth, often more than once, in the back of an ox wagon hundreds of miles from any kind of doctor is the least of it. The work of a western pioneer wife was back-breaking and never-ending. You were always preparing for the worst – for crop failure or famine or sickness. Keturah Belknap, the daughter and then the wife of settlers on the move, was put to work weeding onions and picking bugs off vegetables at the age of six.

Hickman kicks off with two Presbyterian missionaries, Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, who in 1836 journeyed on horseback thirty miles a day, from rural New York to what is now Washington state, crossing the Rockies in the process. The overland route was generally the easiest one; travelling by sea took a grim seven months at least. As it was customary for missionary men to rapidly secure wives before heading off into unknown country, the women found themselves dependent on husbands they barely knew, putting their trust in almost total strangers. Mary Richardson Walker, who followed their trail two years later, confided poignantly to her diary that her new husband (they had met forty-eight hours before their marriage) refused to address her by her first name: ‘Nothing gives me such a solitary feeling as to be called Mrs Walker,’ she wrote. ‘[I] should feel much better if Mr W would only treat me with more cordiality.’

Wagon trains that ran into difficulties often ended up completely isolated, trapped by weather or terrain. Virginia Reed’s family was among a group stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains as a result of heavy snow, just three impossible miles from the nearest pass. Those who survived did so by cannibalising the dead, including two Mexican guides, whom they shot before eating their bodies.

On arrival, Whitman and her family established their mission at Walla Walla, a six-day boat ride from the main settlement, the old fur-trading post of Fort Vancouver. Hickman paints an evocative picture of Fort Vancouver and of the town where Keturah Belknap settled, St Joseph, Missouri, the rackety population of which she describes as a ‘richly diverse and energetic potpourri’. As usual, a closer look at the past reveals a more relaxed attitude to social and ethnic mixing than we might nowadays imagine. There were many African-American freeman in Missouri, for example – though they were required to carry a licence or be apprehended and sent back into slavery. The largest wagon-manufacturing business in Jackson County during the 1850s and 1860s was owned by an African-American couple, Hiram and Matilda Young, who were freed slaves.

Alliances with the local tribes had been encouraged by the earliest French fur-trappers, since these brought access and advantages. The descendants of relationships between Europeans and Native Americans enjoyed considerable prestige. These included the much-admired half-Cree Marguerite McLoughlin, who served her dinners on crested silver and was the social queen of Fort Vancouver. The mother of the historian Josephine Waggoner came from the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota tribe. Waggoner left two remarkable accounts of the everyday life and beliefs of the Lakota. Her near-contemporary Sarah Winnemucca, granddaughter of the chief of the Paiute nation, became a renowned translator and campaigner for Native American rights.

Over time, however, enmity between emigrant whites and Native Americans deepened. Successive governments broke their promises about land rights, and what had once been an uneasy but mutually beneficial peace curdled into fear and hatred. The missionary Whitmans were murdered by the Cayuse they had hoped to convert to Christianity; the Cayuse had in turn hoped that the Whitmans would bring medicines to cure their diseases. Ruinous cultural misunderstandings combined with a grisly measles epidemic led to a bloodbath. This was followed by another bloodbath, when a vengeful militia forced the Cayuse into submission: they gave up 6.4 million acres of their land in exchange for a half-million-acre reservation.

Although it is occasionally a bit chronologically confusing, Hickman’s Brave Hearted puts the rough texture of personal experience back into the big narrative of how the west was won. Along the way, she shows us what was lost.

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