Making the Frontier Home: Stories from the Steamboat Bertrand

Growing Up in the West

Care of children was perhaps the most important duty ascribed to the Victorian mother.  Declining child mortality rates coupled with a decline in birth rates enabled parents to form closer bonds with a fewer number of children during this period. As a result, childhood and motherhood became sacred aspects of the Victorian middle-class home. While fatherhood also was an important aspect of domesticity, as primary earners, Victorian men concentrated their efforts in the public sphere, leaving the domestic space under the control of women. The ultimate goal of this feminine responsibility was to cultivate healthy, moral citizens. Emigration to the frontier was perceived as an opportunity, not just financially, for the growth of children. Rural areas offered mothers the chance to remove their children from the germs, grime, and corrupting influences of more industrial areas. Although artifacts associated with young ages are sparse in the cargo of the Bertrand, the personal artifacts, such as small leather shoes, associated with a few of the passengers affirms that parents were moving their children west. Children also helped distract women from the loneliness many felt in the temporary absence of their working husbands or isolation from friends and extended family.

Though schools were scarce throughout the territories, many mothers insisted on continuing their children's education after emigration. This process may have been conducted at home by a parent or elder sibling with what few resources they might have had  on hand. Bertrand passenger Fannie Campbell was able to share her accomplishments acquired from schooling in Missouri by working as a teacher in Gallatin City, only two years after it opened in 1865 (see Switzer 2013:78). Education, however, had to be balanced with chores and other contributions to the family economy. However, children managed to find time for leisure activities, including reading and drawing, skills which stayed with children as they matured into adulthood. The personal effects of some Bertrand passengers even include toys, suggesting an intention to preserve childhood and play. Artifacts used for these activities, as well as accounts of their use, illustrate that despite the hardships faced by pioneers, individuals still took time for personal enjoyment and cultivation of the self. These were fundamental aspects of middle-class values and Victorian ideals.


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