The 18th century frontier family had much in common with the way Americans live and look at life in the twenty-first century. Getting by these days is challenging on many fronts, requiring more creativity and partnership in a family than often was the case just a generation ago. Between the rise in homeschooling, single-parenting, military obligations, or the need for both parents to be employed outside the home in order to survive, modern family life has begun to look a lot more like it did on the early frontier.

There was behind the pioneers… no tradition of judging the importance of work by the sex of those who performed it, or even much of “man’s work and woman’s work.”

Such a mindset began at birth. On the frontier, daughters as well as sons were reared with a self-assurance and spirit that would enable them to grow into strong-minded individuals able to withstand poverty, war, and grief. It wasn’t unusual for a widow to take over and continue with her late husband’s business affairs. Such a situation didn’t always wait for widowhood. Women, along with raising their children, worked at all manner of businesses—inn-keeping, dairying, tanneries, small shops, or the schooling of neighbors’ children alongside their own.

Women might have had less time for reading than their menfolk, but it would have been a short-sighted parent who neglected the education of daughters in favor of sons, for it was often left to a man’s wife to oversee the farm or plantation while her husband was away—for months or even years at a time—as a Long Hunter, or because government or militia duties kept him from the home place for long stretches. And those absent husbands and fathers were well equipped to care for their own domestic needs:

Men liked independence, and men… dependent on women to “cook and wash for them”… could never have been Long Hunters, surveyors, or soldiers.

Or pioneer farmers. Often a husband, with or without a grown son or two, left his wife and younger children and journeyed ahead to more fertile western lands to build a cabin and put in a corn crop. Along the way he stitched deerskin moccasins and clothing for himself and his sons, kept them fed, and (reasonably) clean. Once the family was united boys still helped their fathers in the fields, but many spent time helping their mothers:

Dr. Daniel Drake, whose family settled in northern Kentucky in 1788… churned, scrubbed—after he had made the hickory brushes and brooms with which the work was done—carded wool and spun it, spent much time caring for the younger children, helped in the cooking, and “had often to leave the field to help my mother.”

Carding, spinning, and weaving are often thought of as women’s work, but traditionally they were tasks carried out by men as well.

The sustaining of a marriage and the demands of child-rearing were seen as roles of equal importance to both genders on the 18th century frontier. Men were expected to take part not just in providing for their offspring, but in their nurturing and shaping as well.

There thus fell on the average man, not only the whole burden of his own life, but also that of the most important thing he had—not his job—but his wife and children.

Overall a picture of pioneer life develops that is strikingly modern in its practicality and sensibility—marriage was a coming together of equals, each trusting the other to do whatever the immediate circumstances demanded, or was in their strength and capacity to do, in order to create a stable, well-provisioned home for their offspring to thrive in. But even when that pattern was disrupted through absence or death, women on the frontier had been raised to carry on with an independence of spirit and courage that we can recognize and relate to generations later.

~ Quotes by Harriette Simpson Arnow, Flowering of the Cumberland
~ Photo by Jason Sturner, Flickr commons

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