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7 of the Gutsiest Women on the American Frontier

March 8, 2018 in History

By Brynn Holland

Families of settlers resting as they migrate across the plains of the American Frontier. (Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

History and lore of the American frontier has long been dominated by an iconic figure: the grizzled, gunslinging man, going it alone, leaving behind his home and family to brave the rugged, undiscovered wilderness.

But as scholars of the American West continue to explore the complex realities of the frontier, two facts become increasingly clear: It was anything but empty when white men from the east went to “discover” it; and few frontiersmen succeeded alone. Women were in the picture much more than traditional histories have told.

The frontier was occupied not only by indigenous people, but also by African Americans, Spanish colonialists and others of European descent, offering skeletal social networks for white explorers and settlers from the east. By tapping into these networks, they learned survival skills (like how to find food) and made alliances, often through marriage. White frontiersmen often wed Native American women who could act as intermediaries, helping navigate the political, cultural and linguistic gulf between tribal ways and those of the white men.

In fact, says Virginia Scharff, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico, men could not have likely succeeded in these unknown lands without connections to indigenous communities—or without women, who provided networks, labor and children. Placing frontiersmen in context of these networks doesn’t diminish their individuality, she says, but adds much needed dimension to their stories.

Families of settlers resting as they migrate across the plains of the American Frontier. (Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Case in point: Daniel Boone, one of the most celebrated folk heroes of the American frontier, renowned as a woodsman, trapper and a trailblazer. Twice captured by native warriors, he earned the respect of the Shawnee for his backwoods knowledge, and was even adopted by the tribe’s Chief Blackfish while being held captive. In several encounters, the tribal connections he had forged helped him save the lives of white cohorts the Indians wanted to kill. And with Boone traveling frequently, surveying land and blazing trails, his wife Rebecca provided much-needed stability and labor: bearing him 10 children, while keeping homefires burning as they moved from Virginia to ever more rugged settlements in North Carolina, Kentucky and Spanish-controlled Missouri.

“If we start to think of these individual heroic men as participants in really rich sets of social relations, it makes them come to life in ways that are more than …read more


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