Making the Frontier Home: Stories from the Steamboat Bertrand

Women of the West

Due to the lack of single 'white' women in the territories, many men initially took on Native American wives. While these women helped balance out the sexes and restore gendered roles, their cultural backgrounds freed them from the constraints of Victorian society.  Native American women behaved in opposition to contemporary domestic roles, having the ability to leave their husbands and even physically attack men, images contrary to the ideal of submissive femininity. 

However, as women gradually moved West to join their husbands, fathers, and brothers, they slowly established the traditional gender ideals and Victorian concepts of domesticity of the East. Their awareness of the gender imbalance in these towns and feelings of isolation motivated women to form close bonds with the few other females near them. These relationships provided companionship, support, and a sense of normalcy in an unpredictable environment. 

Women also found stability and familiarity through the imposition of traditional domestic ideals, despite that the barriers dividing gender roles were somewhat permeable in marginalized regions. These values influenced selections of material items and the structure of their new homes on the frontier. While material culture played a primary role in the physical arrangement of home, first-hand accounts from women in the West imply that fulfillment of domestic ideals depended primarily on people rather than a place and its things. However, material objects played an important role in the transition to frontier life for women.  While some female pioneers did not take to the frontier, like Bertrand passenger Caroline Millard, many relied on objects to help recreate the 'civilized' Victorian home with which they were accustomed. Simple, decorative household objects assisted in the re-creation of an urban middle-class home.  Women also maintained a connection to middle-class consumerism by keeping up with current fashions.  While some ready-made clothing was available to order, evidence from the Bertrand suggests many women made their own clothes, as opposed to men who primarily purchased their clothing. The cargo of the boat contained various sewing notions as well as large bolts of silk, cotton, and wool cloth.  Despite the impracticality of fashion on the frontier, women went to great lengths to mimic the styles popular in the eastern states. 

The belongings of Bertrand passengers like the Atchison and Campbell families indicate that women emigrants were one source of current fashions. The quality of their possessions also suggests that many women emigrating West were of the middle class. Silk gowns and delicate parasols provide a refined contrast to the coarse life of a woman on the frontier. Evidence from the Bertrand indicates that most women made their clothing, as the cargo contained bolts of cloth and sewing notions, but few ready-to-wear garments for women.  These latter articles include primarily outerwear such as coats, shawls, hats, and scarves.

Some women recorded their experiences of life on the frontier as wives or daughters.  Eighteen-year-old Mollie Dorsey began chronicling her experiences when she and her siblings emigrated to Nebraska Territory with their parents.  Her account provides insight into the struggles of middle-class women adapting to an 'uncivilized' life in the West. Distracted by thoughts of fashion and men, Mollie strives to balance her freedom on the frontier with aspirations of being a respectable lady. Her journey serves as a personal narrative for the hundreds of women who traveled to the territories. While their records may not survive, journals or small notebooks were among the Bertrand cargo, suggesting that writing in some form was a common habit among the men and women of nineteenth-century Montana.

Full Catalog Records:
Carved bamboo parasol handle fragment from the personal effects of the Atchison family.
Leather book or journal cover from Bertrand cargo.

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