Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Book looks at Westward settlement through women’s eyes


I ran onto a wonderful little book in my library which I had forgotten, and wonderful it truly is: It looks at America’s Westward settlement through women’s eyes, by giving excerpts from their diaries of their westward emigration.

The book is “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey,” by Lillian Schlissel. Historian Schlissel is professor emerita of Brooklyn College-CUNY, where she was director of American studies. Her book was published in 1982 and reissued in, I believe, 2004. The copy I have is a tattered paperback of the 1982 original. You can still find the book from time to time on eBay and Amazon, and I urge you to get a copy. (If you click on the title of the book above it will take you to any copies currently for sale on Amazon.) It is a real eye-opener that abolishes many of the stereotypes of the rugged, “manly” settlers who tamed the West.

Quite frankly, I’ve been guilty myself of forgetting that tens of thousands of WOMEN were among those who packed up all they owned, left behind the security and relative comfort of homes in the East, and started across the plains, mountains, and deserts for new lives in Oregon or California territory.

This book will open your eyes to some incredible women who matter-of-factly endured hardships and held their families together. It is a collection of excerpts from diaries and other references from nearly 100 women who lived and told of incredible adventures. There is a table near the end of the small book which profiles each of the women mentioned in the book and gives summary details about their lives and families.

In the course of the book, you can read of women who clearly were treated as equals by their husbands and other men on the journey; women who made individual purchases, deals, etc., with traders and with Indians along the course of the journey; and women who were the “rock” of stability upon which their families were founded, braving hardships and stoically dealing with death and disease that decimated their families.

The preface, introduction, and careful notes in the book are well worth it for anyone interested in knowing more about women of the Old West. There are excellent period photographs (the book focuses on 1840-1870) throughout the book that really help you see and “feel” the people involved.

I could rave on, and I probably will return to this wonderful book in the future. Meanwhile, I urge you to shop around and get a copy of your own. If you have any interest in life in the Old West, this little volume is a “must have” for you!