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Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey

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More than a quarter of a million Americans crossed the continental United States between 1840 and 1870, going west in one of the greatest migrations of modern times. The frontiersmen have become an integral part of our history and folklore, but the Westering experiences of American women are equally central to an accurate picture of what life was like on the frontier. More than a quarter of a million Americans crossed the continental United States between 1840 and 1870, going west in one of the greatest migrations of modern times. The frontiersmen have become an integral part of our history and folklore, but the Westering experiences of American women are equally central to an accurate picture of what life was like on the frontier. Through the diaries, letters, and reminiscences of women who participated in this migration, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey gives us primary source material on the lives of these women, who kept campfires burning with buffalo chips and dried weeds, gave birth to and cared for children along primitive and dangerous roads, drove teams of oxen, picked berries, milked cows, and cooked meals in the middle of a wilderness that was a far cry from the homes they had left back east. Still (and often under the disapproving eyes of their husbands) they found time to write brave letters home or to jot a few weary lines at night into the diaries that continue to enthrall us. In her new foreword, Professor Mary Clearman Blew explores the enduring fascination with this subject among both historians and the general public, and places Schlissel’s groundbreaking work into an intriguing historical and cultural context.


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More than a quarter of a million Americans crossed the continental United States between 1840 and 1870, going west in one of the greatest migrations of modern times. The frontiersmen have become an integral part of our history and folklore, but the Westering experiences of American women are equally central to an accurate picture of what life was like on the frontier. More than a quarter of a million Americans crossed the continental United States between 1840 and 1870, going west in one of the greatest migrations of modern times. The frontiersmen have become an integral part of our history and folklore, but the Westering experiences of American women are equally central to an accurate picture of what life was like on the frontier. Through the diaries, letters, and reminiscences of women who participated in this migration, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey gives us primary source material on the lives of these women, who kept campfires burning with buffalo chips and dried weeds, gave birth to and cared for children along primitive and dangerous roads, drove teams of oxen, picked berries, milked cows, and cooked meals in the middle of a wilderness that was a far cry from the homes they had left back east. Still (and often under the disapproving eyes of their husbands) they found time to write brave letters home or to jot a few weary lines at night into the diaries that continue to enthrall us. In her new foreword, Professor Mary Clearman Blew explores the enduring fascination with this subject among both historians and the general public, and places Schlissel’s groundbreaking work into an intriguing historical and cultural context.

30 review for Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jessaka

    After reading this book, it appeared to me that very few women wanted to leave their homes and go by wagon train to Oregon or California. Then once on this trip, it didn’t seem likely that they could turn around and head back home, not unless they had a lot of other families following. The women went because, well, it was their duty to their husbands. I can think of a lot o biblical scriptures that support this. It was their men who wanted to go for an adventure, for land, or to go to California After reading this book, it appeared to me that very few women wanted to leave their homes and go by wagon train to Oregon or California. Then once on this trip, it didn’t seem likely that they could turn around and head back home, not unless they had a lot of other families following. The women went because, well, it was their duty to their husbands. I can think of a lot o biblical scriptures that support this. It was their men who wanted to go for an adventure, for land, or to go to California to pan for gold. When you tread these diaries of the women who were on these wagon trains, you get a feeling that the trip was more about accidents, sickness and death. They often wrote pages of the of the graves they saw, and it went like this: June 10th, Passed 4 graves. June 14, passed 12 graves. June 20, Passed 10 graves. And on and on. People were dying of cholera, if not from smallpox or Mountain Fever, which I learned by googling, was Rocky Mountain Spotted Tick Fever. I have always romanized pioneer life, not really realizing many of the hardships. Sure I have read this kind of book before, but this was one the best ones I had read. And for some reason it was more eye opening. Starvation, maybe being killed by Indians, the lack of water, and so forth, does not interest me. If I lived back then, the furthest I would want to travel west would be to the edge of a town after living in its center. But even so, back then the edge of town may have proved to be too dangerous. I believe my idea of pioneer life comes closer to being a hippie in the 70s and living on a commune where you did your best to grow your own food and etc, which was a life that if you grew tired of it or it didn’t work for some other reason, you could easily leave and go home or get a job in town.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kate Lawrence

    Ever wonder why 19th-century American women who were reasonably comfortable in their lives would want to leave loved ones behind, perhaps forever, and endure the considerable dangers and hardships of the westward migration to Oregon or California? Well, they didn't want to--the author quotes their actual words to make the case that most went only because fathers or husbands insisted. Girls, most of whom married in their mid-teens, and their mothers really didn't have a choice. They also didn't Ever wonder why 19th-century American women who were reasonably comfortable in their lives would want to leave loved ones behind, perhaps forever, and endure the considerable dangers and hardships of the westward migration to Oregon or California? Well, they didn't want to--the author quotes their actual words to make the case that most went only because fathers or husbands insisted. Girls, most of whom married in their mid-teens, and their mothers really didn't have a choice. They also didn't get any postponement if they were pregnant or had young children; women were just expected to make do, even when it meant giving birth in open country with no support and traveling on the next day. And it often meant losing a loved one, child or adult, through accident or disease, who would probably have lived had they never set out on the trail. Particularly dangerous were the numerous river crossings and periodic outbreaks of cholera. The author has woven together the accounts of many women so that, unlike reading a lengthy diary containing much tedium, we get just the highlights and can easily compare one woman's experience with another's. This very readable approach is heightened by the accompanying photographs of most of the women, so we can look into their eyes. These are amazing and unforgettable accounts.

  3. 4 out of 5

    ``Laurie Henderson

    After reading this great book I have so much admiration for these pioneer women. The whole giving birth on the way west experience is beyond comprehension for me but these were very tough women. If you're seeking more information about the westward migration this book is for you.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

    I love books like this--excerpts from actual diaries of women who traveled to Oregon & California from the east. Plus, the editor had really done her research on these 94 women, to the extent of adding notes that made their difficult situations even more enlightening. For example, when Amelia Stewart White writes of having to climb out of the wagon to make it lighter and stumble for 3 miles through mud, over rocks, and being slapped by branches, she fails to mention that she is eight months I love books like this--excerpts from actual diaries of women who traveled to Oregon & California from the east. Plus, the editor had really done her research on these 94 women, to the extent of adding notes that made their difficult situations even more enlightening. For example, when Amelia Stewart White writes of having to climb out of the wagon to make it lighter and stumble for 3 miles through mud, over rocks, and being slapped by branches, she fails to mention that she is eight months pregnant and also carrying her two year old! By the time I finished this book, I swore I would never whine about household inconveniences again.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    I picked this book up because I love reading about history (or Herstory in this case.) The women's diaries were very interesting, but less than half of the book is devoted to them. The first half reads like poorly organized notes for a college paper. I was surprised that it was written by a Professor Emerita. I had to force myself to keep reading until I got to the diaries. I did enjoy the diaries and glimpses into lives that I could only imagine. I know I would not have had the fortitude to I picked this book up because I love reading about history (or Herstory in this case.) The women's diaries were very interesting, but less than half of the book is devoted to them. The first half reads like poorly organized notes for a college paper. I was surprised that it was written by a Professor Emerita. I had to force myself to keep reading until I got to the diaries. I did enjoy the diaries and glimpses into lives that I could only imagine. I know I would not have had the fortitude to make that journey.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jenifer

    Written more from an anthropological point-of-view than from a diaries themselves, this book makes many interesting observations about the motivations and situations of women who traveled in the overland journey, whether seeking gold in California, land in Oregon, or just moving toward what they hoped would be a better future. They were overwhelmingly young and their lives were made so difficult by the choice (often not theirs) to move and travel in this fashion. Interesting and informative.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Trudy Stachowiak

    I first learned about this book when I read the credits from a 10,000 Maniacs CD. An excerpt from the book was the spoken introduction to the Gold Rush Brides. The diary entries are from Women who traveled with their families west to find a better life. One of my favorite entries tells about how women retold events that happened on their journey different than men did. Men often made the events more dramatic than how the woman saw them. Loved this book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Shara

    Though uncomfortably silent on the impact westward expansion had on the people already living there, I loved this book. First hand accounts of life on the prairie, carefully edited into a compelling and readable package (because, face it, most people's journals -- my own included -- can be kind of rubbish). A woman's experience of the west is vastly different from what we see in films, and this book is a good reminder that the next time you see John Wayne rock up to the farm house table, you Though uncomfortably silent on the impact westward expansion had on the people already living there, I loved this book. First hand accounts of life on the prairie, carefully edited into a compelling and readable package (because, face it, most people's journals -- my own included -- can be kind of rubbish). A woman's experience of the west is vastly different from what we see in films, and this book is a good reminder that the next time you see John Wayne rock up to the farm house table, you better think about who fed and watered the cow, milked it, and the churned the butter to make those damn biscuits. And who got every morning without fail to feed the chickens that laid the eggs. And who saved every scrap to feed the pig to make the bacon. It's all very well going out on some wild western adventure, but women carried the burden of getting food on the table in the middle of Nowhere-ville, Barely-even-the-usa-yet and it was a monumentally heroic undertaking... And yet their are no monuments.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    How anyone made it across the Oregon Road or Overland Pass is still a mystery to me. These people were incredibly strong willed and determined especially the women. I liked the book, however I would have liked to have read more of the actual diary entries. If your expecting a book containing many diaries you will be dissapointed. The book only contains 4 diaries and the rest you will see small snippets from others explaining certain situation that everyone faced as they made this trek. Their How anyone made it across the Oregon Road or Overland Pass is still a mystery to me. These people were incredibly strong willed and determined especially the women. I liked the book, however I would have liked to have read more of the actual diary entries. If your expecting a book containing many diaries you will be dissapointed. The book only contains 4 diaries and the rest you will see small snippets from others explaining certain situation that everyone faced as they made this trek. Their were 3 different migration treks that took places and each one a little different from the previous one. All 3 were very difficult, but in each trek lives were lost, people became sick, accidents were everywhere, and the Indians were a threat to the wagon parties.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Noel

    Just paged through it and read one of the diaries. Well laid out, great photographs and heartbreaking stories. It might take me a while to read this, but it is excellent information.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

    A dry read (felt like I was reading it for an 8th grade book report), but I learned some interesting tidbits. Of particular interest is the attitude towards pregnancy. The women don't even mention the pregnancies in their diaries until the child is born. There seemed to be this weird cult of silence/denial around the dangers of giving birth. A diarist will comment about how a woman died and her baby is just two days old, but they would never come out and say a woman died of childbirth. A defense A dry read (felt like I was reading it for an 8th grade book report), but I learned some interesting tidbits. Of particular interest is the attitude towards pregnancy. The women don't even mention the pregnancies in their diaries until the child is born. There seemed to be this weird cult of silence/denial around the dangers of giving birth. A diarist will comment about how a woman died and her baby is just two days old, but they would never come out and say a woman died of childbirth. A defense mechanism to shield themselves from the harsh realities of the time? It was a woman's fate to have a bunch of babies, so why dwell on the danger. This book is about two-thirds commentary and analysis, and the diaries fall at the end of the book.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Linda Boda

    Purchased this in Oregon while on vacation, as we traveled over the mountains and through the passes which the pioneers risked their lives to cross. Lillian Schlissel not only collected hundreds of diaries written between the 1840s-1860s, but she compared and synthesized them to get a better understanding of what it was really like for the women who came west. The first half of the book is her analysis and observations, and the last half is 4 actual diaries of women who completed the journey. Purchased this in Oregon while on vacation, as we traveled over the mountains and through the passes which the pioneers risked their lives to cross. Lillian Schlissel not only collected hundreds of diaries written between the 1840s-1860s, but she compared and synthesized them to get a better understanding of what it was really like for the women who came west. The first half of the book is her analysis and observations, and the last half is 4 actual diaries of women who completed the journey. Lots of good primary source material - highly recommend!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Camille

    I found this book very interesting and very accessible - it reads like a novel. The first half of the book is a historical explanation and account of the westward journey from the point of view of women. The second half regroups a few diaries of the trail by women. There are also quite a lot of photographs, which I really enjoyed. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Karlene

    I found this book really interesting. This is one of those periods in history that I love to read and learn about, especially from the female perspective. This book brought to life a lot of the struggles that were only experienced by women. I recommend it to any one who is interesting in women crossing the plains in hopes of a better life

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kathryn

    While much of this book is not directly from diaries, it effectively conveys the hardship and sacrifice women made to accompany their husbands west. Much has been written about the westward expansion in America, but very little from a woman's perspective. I found it interesting and inspiring.

  16. 5 out of 5

    NaDell

    It seemed to me as though this book took what was written in the diaries of a few women who came West in wagons and then the author twisted what they said to fit into her preconceived idea of how she thought women would have acted. There were several things that she talks about that just don't fit with how women acted back then with modern takes on them, mostly in the childbirth area. She talks about how a woman had a child six-seven months into the journey and how she must have known she was It seemed to me as though this book took what was written in the diaries of a few women who came West in wagons and then the author twisted what they said to fit into her preconceived idea of how she thought women would have acted. There were several things that she talks about that just don't fit with how women acted back then with modern takes on them, mostly in the childbirth area. She talks about how a woman had a child six-seven months into the journey and how she must have known she was expecting before she left with her family (which at that time may or may not have been true). She decided that just because women didn't write about their pregnancies along the trail, that they just suffered in silence and didn't want to follow their husbands, when the reason many women (pioneers or not), just didn't talk about pregnancies either because they considered it inappropriate in polite company or they didn't want to count on their child living through infancy. That's not covered in her hypothesis though. She talked often about how sad the women were on the trail and after they got to their new homes, based on what they wrote in their diaries and assumed that that meant they didn't want to go there in the first place, when really a little writing about the disappointments of expectations on the trail is to be expected. I was disappointed that these diaries didn't take into account the thousands of Mormon pioneers who cheerfully (in general) trekked across the same paths to the West and their perspectives. Many, many more diaries could have been compiled with those included and a different viewpoint and conclusion may have been drawn from that. I didn't like the set up of the book that has 'diaries' in the title with it mostly being introduction and history and a little section of a few diaries toward the back of the book. While I did like reading some of the history and struggles many of the people had along the way and when they arrived, I just didn't agree with her conclusions and the way she interpreted the diaries she included in the book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Anica

    Not exactly what I was expecting, based on the title. There are women's diaries of the westward journey, but they're added to the back almost like an appendix (which wasn't clear in the introduction that that was the format). The majority of the book is the author summarizing with occasional excerpts from the diaries, almost like you would when writing a research paper for school. The order also felt rather mushy. I made it through the first section (75 pages) before I gave up, and there's not a Not exactly what I was expecting, based on the title. There are women's diaries of the westward journey, but they're added to the back almost like an appendix (which wasn't clear in the introduction that that was the format). The majority of the book is the author summarizing with occasional excerpts from the diaries, almost like you would when writing a research paper for school. The order also felt rather mushy. I made it through the first section (75 pages) before I gave up, and there's not a strong narrative throughout. She talks about a general thing, then gives an example of one woman's entire journey with a slight focus on the general thing, before switching to another woman and kind of doing the same thing. (For example, she might want to talk about how about how being pregnant wasn't really mentioned in the diaries, then will tell you about Mrs. Whoever left from this place at this age, saw these things, wrote about this, gave birth on this day, then arrived at this place in this situation. Then it would go to Mrs. Someone Else and the summary of her entire journey, with an extra few sentences on the childbirth part.) The problem with this is that it doesn't carry that continuous thread throughout and just ends up jumbled. It could have been organized by the different legs of the trail, or more specific for each woman. Actually, organizing it by the subject like she kind of does would have been great too, but then make each section specifically about that thing and focus on it in a clear, easy to follow way. Everything was too summarized and I felt like I was reading the introduction the entire time. That probably sounds all jumbled too, but that's what this book did to me. ;) I'm sure the author researched the subject extensively and I don't doubt her knowledge, but her ability to convey that information is severely lacking. 1.5 stars.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Good reading. Was interesting to hear from the pioneers themselves what was involved in going from city life out east to a great unknown frontier on the west coast (Oregon or California). The native Americans were more often helpful than murderous. They were willing to serve as guides, river portage help, and also wanted to trade food or leather items for whatever the travelers could part with. So much death along the trails! Many more died from cholera, smallpox or other diseases than anything Good reading. Was interesting to hear from the pioneers themselves what was involved in going from city life out east to a great unknown frontier on the west coast (Oregon or California). The native Americans were more often helpful than murderous. They were willing to serve as guides, river portage help, and also wanted to trade food or leather items for whatever the travelers could part with. So much death along the trails! Many more died from cholera, smallpox or other diseases than anything else. The oxen or other livestock also died along the way, worked to death with not enough good forage to keep up their strength. Just making a fire was a challenge one year when it seemingly rained without end.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sherri

    This was put together in an interesting way by the author of the narrative and yet diary accounts of almost 100 women who "overland-ed" during the westward days of 1840s-1860s. There are three sections for each decade and the obstacles and advances they faced. At the end are a few actual diary accounts as well as a chart to summarize the authors findings. Fortitude. The word that comes to mind of these women. A sense of family commitment and hope. The strength and will of these women who not only This was put together in an interesting way by the author of the narrative and yet diary accounts of almost 100 women who "overland-ed" during the westward days of 1840s-1860s. There are three sections for each decade and the obstacles and advances they faced. At the end are a few actual diary accounts as well as a chart to summarize the authors findings. Fortitude. The word that comes to mind of these women. A sense of family commitment and hope. The strength and will of these women who not only carried the domestic side of the travels but often did "men's work" if they fell ill or were killed. Childbirth and death waited for no one and no one waited for childbirth and death.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Wendy

    These women were incredibly strong and resilient. Most were not asked if they wanted to go but told they were going. Those that did we're expected to do all the usual chores that were considered women's work under incredibly harsh condition. Children and childbirth were norms of the trip and barely mentioned. The westward movement could not have been successful if they hadn't gone. So much hardship they took on and kept going. Amazing.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Rachel

    I really learned some things from this book. It's divided into two parts: a research and analysis part, and a sampling of actual diaries. I soaked up both parts, but the second part I related to better. I just got back from traveling all over the northern California and Oregon. It really puts these women's experiences in perspective! My assessment is that they were incredibly tough, and people today should try to take a frontier approach to many of life's problems. I recommended!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Donna

    A clear eyed look at the travails of the Oregon trail...a piece of history that can be romanticized but shouldn't be. The trail was harrowing with death, disease, drownings, some Indian attacks, loss of horses, oxen and cattle, storms, and difficult ascents and descents. Many women traveled with small children and many were also pregnant and gave birth on the trail or gave their lives giving birth.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kathie

    Although I enjoyed this book, the first (approximately) two thirds of it read very much like a textbook. The last part was almost entirely made up of the writings of emigrant women, which is why I’d searched for the book in the first place. Had the majority of the book been as fascinating (see the Covered Wagon Women series for a perfect example of how well this type of book can be done), I would have loved every word!

  24. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    This book was so fascinating. I've always wondered how women handled the westward journey, and learning their personal stories was so intriguing. Even if we're still left wondering how they handled "indelicate" things like going to the bathroom and handling pregnancy, this book gave a glimpse into everyday life on the trail, and the struggles and joys they encountered.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Barbara

    Re-read this after many years and was gripped even harder by the heartbreak, the unending toil, the frustration these women recorded as they followed their men to the west coast, some eagerly but more resigned and bitter. Also snorted at (and agreed with) Schlissel’s snarky asides about the patriarchy sprinkled throughout.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Aimee M.

    This book was very informative and to me gave a very good history background of what happened during the journey to California. I can't imagine not only being pregnant during the journey but then to also give birth, with no doctor, would've been scary.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Nicole

    Just incredible. I really can’t believe what these families lived through just to get to the other side of the country. Journal entries are especially fascinating. I’m so glad I never had to do this! I would have turned back after the first two hours!

  28. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    Written in a textbook form with end notes galore, this gives accounts of various women traveling west between 1840 and 1870. Piecing together the actions and thoughts from a smattering of notes is difficult, but the author seems to do a great job.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Stacia Opland

    So interesting to hear the women's viewpoint of moving west, and everything they went through, as compared to what the men experienced. I can tell you that I really don't think I would have wanted to be a woman crossing the prairie at that time.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mad Hapa

    The first part of the book is a summary of the women's diaries, and the second part is actual diary entries. So, it ends up being kind of the same information twice. I learned a few things about the Oregon Trail, but it's not a comprehensive book.

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