What constitutes a frontier? Is it simply an imaginary boundary between geographical spaces? Or is it a constantly moving line between supposed “civilization” and the “unknown” beyond? As I set out to write on the topic of female pioneers, all attempts inevitably drew me back to this elusive term. The boundaries of the United States shifted steadily throughout the nineteenth century, creating a multitude of frontiers by every definition.
To me, a frontier is simply a place where your people have not gone before—it is the place on the map where the collective thinking of your society draws a large and compelling question mark. Of course, this doesn’t have to be a geographical boundary—it might be an unexplored theological issue, an uncomfortable topic of conversation, an unfolding intellectual sphere, a newly invented technology, or an insight irreconcilable with current social norms.
And although no one you personally know has been to such a space, that doesn’t mean it has never been inhabited by another group of people who have a prior claim to it. But because no one you know has been there, the frontier is a place where rules are still being worked out and negotiated—it is space available to anyone, not only the powerful players of the past.
The freedom of such a space is as exhilarating as it is disconcerting, and, in a true frontier, the traditional safeguards and protections are as glaringly absent as the stifling rules. People can and will get hurt. That is why rules were made in the first place, at least hypothetically.
I was raised on stories of strong pioneer women who traversed frontier spaces. Within my own family history, I have women who left lives of luxury in England, positions of leadership among the Maori in New Zealand, and others who were drawn by their poverty from the hamlets of Wales. Some of my ancestors set up house in an abandoned chicken coop. I was raised on these stories. The blood of these women runs through my veins, and I grew up seeing my life as a continuation of their own.
And in fact, all of our lives are such a continuation. The frontier as we’ve defined it could as easily apply to modern technology, with its resulting onslaught of related inventions, as it does to the American West. We live today in a world of upheaval, a world changing at a frantic pace, where many boundaries of the past have been flung away, and we are once again deciding: What are the rules? And who gets to say? Now, more than ever, we need to know the stories of the women whose blood runs through our veins, literally or metaphorically.
While working on this project, I came across a box of books discarded by my university’s library. Never one to pass up free books, I sorted through the stack and found an old, leather-bound volume entitled Pioneers of California.
Thinking it might be useful, I thumbed through the pages. Chapter after chapter of the book profiled ministers, governors, politicians, settlers, and gold rushers to the West. Without a single exception, they were white. Without a single exception, they were all male.
The book served as a reminder that we are not many generations removed from a time when it was perfectly acceptable to tell the story of California through the eyes of white males alone. But history is made up of so much more than established war heroes and political figures. It is made up of people—their stories, failures, and triumphs. As the historian Howard Zinn has observed, “If history is to be creative, to anticipate new possibilities without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.”1
Thousands of women—black, white, Native American, Mexican, Chinese, Polynesian, and other racial variations—experienced the physical frontier space of the American West. As the “pioneers of California” can be broadened to include women, so can the term be redefined beyond the special province of American expansionism. The women in this book come from a variety of backgrounds and traveled in a number of different directions—these stories represent a mere handful of the women who survived and even thrived on a multitude of gritty, tumultuous frontiers. Some were crushed by the challenge, their voices silenced and discarded in the passing of time. But some of them triumphed; some of their stories remain. In spite of all odds stacked against them, their voices persist, speaking through a journal kept in a leaky wagon or through a life so remarkable the world was forced to take note.
Fragments of their stained, complicated, gloriously real lives have been passed on to us, giving us tales to fuel our own efforts to build on these “fugitive moments of compassion,” and create lives that become stories worth telling. The further I got into this project, the more I marveled at the contemporary relevance of these women. So many of the questions that still haunt and inspire us, both as individuals and as a nation, can be traced to the historical events surrounding their lives. You will be astonished at how familiar their struggles appear, and I can promise you will find yourself in these pages.
In this book I have attempted to avoid political language—retaining interpretation to the end of each chapter, and maintaining objectivity as much as possible, while acknowledging that no history is ever truly objective. There are far too many divisions in U.S. society today, and my hope is that by focusing on principles, discussion, and compassion, we may begin to bridge some of those gaps and divides. In places where you find yourself disagreeing with my interpretation, please take what you find helpful and disregard the rest.
Pioneering of every variety, in every generation, requires a stubbornness of thought, a willingness to disregard public opinion, and a grit to endure. These stories are fit inspiration for modern-day efforts to venture into new and unknown paths, climb ragged, rocky mountains, and harness a vision of how we might rebuild this tumultuous world into something better, truer, and stronger for generations yet to come. May you find impetus here to forge your own frontier.
WE&P by: EZorrilla