Women Pioneers on The Trails West

By: Carly Peterson

Women Moving West

Many women had to leave their homes and families to move out west because their husbands wanted to. The women on the trail had to do pretty much everything; they had to cook, clean, milk, churn, take care of the children, wash clothes, and sometimes drive the ox team pulling the wagon.
When the families finally moved into their homes, the women still did almost all of the work. The women helped cut up meat, cleaned up after the other family members, mend clothes, make clothes, milked and churned, took care of children, etc.
Not only did women have to plant and tend to the gardens, they also helped build their house, right along side their husbands. Pioneer women also had to deal with any animals like rodents or sometimes even bears, coyotes, or mountain lions. Men may have been working in the fields or mining, but pioneer women did a lot of the hard work, and don't get a whole lot of credit for what they accomplished.


In preparation of the move out west, women had to do a lot of work. They were the ones who packed the food and supplies, as well as bedding and clothing. They also needed to collect any medicines their family might need on the journey, as the women were basically the 'doctors' of the family. The women even had to sew the canvas top of the wagons themselves! The canvas was an important part: it kept out unwanted weather and protected them.

Women's Experiences of The Trail

It strikes me as I think of it now -- of course, I was a girl, too young then to know much about it -- but I think now the mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else. The men had a great deal of anxiety...but still, the mothers had the families.

- Martha Morrison Minto

Any discussion of the role of women on the Oregon Trail is, at its heart, a discussion of the role of mothers in frontier families... On the frontier, the division between the sexes was perhaps best symbolized by the men working the fields and the women tending the dooryard garden. The men were responsible for deciding what to plant in the fields that generated the family's income, while the women controlled the garden that the family depended on for greens, vegetables, and often medicinal plants needed to prepare folk remedies...

Women who wished to break out of their traditional roles faced cultural and legal frameworks which made it difficult for them to function independently: men voted on behalf of their families, controlled business relationships, and typically held sole title to the family farm (the Donation Land Act of 1850, which governed land claims in Oregon, was unusual in that it granted half the family claim to the husband and put the other half in the wife's name). Many women were never taught how to hitch up a team, saddle a horse, or drive a wagon -- and actually doing any such thing would have been considered unladylike in most social circles -- which meant that they couldn’t readily attend church or get together for a social occasion without help. Thus, once the man of a family decided to pull up stakes and head for Oregon, the wife had little choice in the matter.

I am going with him, as there is no other alternative.

- Margaret Hereford Wilson