Sunday, May 4, 2008

Those Western Women

One of the reasons the period of the Old West fascinates me is because I wonder if I would measure up to the men and women who risked everything, including their lives, for the chance at a new beginning. I love to research, in particular, the women who made the journey, generally following their menfolk or taking the leap of faith to become a mail order bride. With little respectable opportunities beyond marriage and teaching open to women, admittedly their options were limited. But what drove them to take on the hardships and deprivations that awaited them? How did they survive the loss of family members that were a certainty in such a challenging environment?

Take a woman like Mary Low, who came to Washington Territory at the age of nine with her family as part of the first settlers of what would become Seattle, Washington. Presumably she had no say in the matter when her father decided to leave Illinois for the new land. It was a cold and damp November when the family arrived by ship expecting a settlement with four cabins ready and found none completed. One can imagine she had to work hard, even as a youngster, to help finish those cabins by Christmas. According to an essay by Dorthea Nordstrand, (, that first Christmas was celebrated not only with four finished cabins but a feast consisting of two wild geese, salmon, wild potatoes and a few dried applies for pies as their bountiful supper.

If the rest of her life is any indication, the trek west and an upbringing in primitive conditions formed a life long pioneer spirit in Mary. When she was old enough, she became a teacher in Kitsap County near the lumber camps. In fact, at the age of twenty, she married a lumberman, Woodbury Sinclair, in 1862. Woodbury was seventeen years her senior. And when her husband decided to strike out and establish himself as one of the first residents in what would become Snohomish City in 1865, Mary followed him. On April 30 of that year she boarded a steamer with a month-old baby in her arms to make the trip across the Puget Sound and up the Snohomish River to her husband’s claim. She would be the first white woman in the area. Their new beginning would not come without cost. Twenty days later the baby died.

In her book, “Sketches of Early Snohomish Life” (1911) she reminisced in almost Whitmanesque terms about those early days giving some insight as to how women coped during a time of deprivation and hardship, loss and isolation:

“There was much to do, but the pioneers were hustlers and could turn their hands to anything -- no specialists in those days. The women, young and hopeful, fearing neither danger or privation, soon began to make things look homelike. A large fireplace assisted considerably in clearing the dooryard, in which later bloomed old-fashioned flowers -- Sweet Williams, Marigolds and Hollyhocks. There was no time to be lonesome; frogs sang cheerily in the nearby marshes; mosquitoes kept the people busy building smudges. Wild game was plentiful. The Indians brought venison, wild ducks, fish and clams. Also the ranchers from Snoqualmie Prairie brought delicious hams and bacons of their own curing."

Mary had two more children before her husband, then 46, died suddenly in 1872. Mary was a widow at the tender age of 29. Her husband, being one of the first settlers, had left her with prime real estate in the newly settled outpost and it is reasonable to assume she used the proceeds from rents and land sales to maintain her household. Besides being the first white woman in the area, she also became the first teacher when she opened her home as a classroom. You can’t help but wonder if she imbued her students with her pioneer spirit.

She died in 1922 at the age of 79, still in residence in Snohomish City in her original home on Pearl Street. During her lifetime she had seen Washington Territory move from a wilderness to a thriving state, had witnessed the area’s struggle to give women the vote (Washington Territory had given women the right to vote two times in the late 1800’s only to have it repealed both times due largely to saloon interests who feared women would vote in support of prohibition), had lived through the Civil War period, the Nez Perce war and the First World War, had witnessed the invention of the car and the airplane and most importantly, had participated in claiming a wilderness. A woman surviving despite extraordinary circumstances.

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