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[Detail] The David Hilton family near Weissert, Nebraska. 1887.

Women's Lives on the Great Plains

Men often struck out for the Great Plains on their own, leaving their wives and children (or wives-to-be) behind. Once women came west, however, they were certainly their husbands' partners in terms of taking on the work involved in making a home on the Plains. Both Mattie and Laura wrote to family members about their work, work that included cleaning, washing, child care, gardening, cooking, sewing, and more. A letter from Estella Stilgebouer (one of Uriah and Mattie's daughters) describes how hard women's work was, even as late at 1911:

…I had a big washing and ironing to do house to straighten out bread to bake etc. and when Sat night came about 5 P.M. I had to lay down was just about give out. and my feet hurt me so I could scarcly stand. the balls of them even swelled. Mon & Tues this week we have worked in the garden, as the weeds and grown pretty bad. Then we washed this morning. I have been so tired since we got back. seems like I cant get rested, but has been to much push work I guess.

My garden is pretty good. have had radises onions, lettuce peas & beets. we started 200 strawberry plants this spring they are doing fine.

Letter from Estella Stilgebouer to Ella Roesch, June 21, 1911

Find and read several letters that describe work done by women on the Great Plains. The following letters will get you started. You can also browse the subject index for topics related to children, cookery, gardening, and sewing.

Make a list of the kinds of work that the Oblinger women reported doing. What qualities and skills would a woman have needed to succeed on the Great Plains? Using your list of tasks, qualities, and skills, write a job description for a "Successful Great Plains Farm Wife."

The picture on the right shows a county fair exhibit. County fairs offered the homesteaders a chance to display the fruits of their labor. Does this exhibit represent everything the homesteading women did? What might you add to the exhibit to show the full extent of their work?

With the workload the women faced, good health would certainly have been a plus; in fact, health problems plagued the settlers. One of the most moving letters in the collection was written by Giles Thomas to his family, telling them his sister Mattie Oblinger had died in childbirth.

Sutton Neb.
Feb. 27" 1880
My Dear, dear Parents

With Sad thoughts I take my pen you a few lines—The Lord called for sister Matt this evening at 4.15 Oclok She inded was taken away unexpected to us but her master said come and she now is resting with the angels in heaven.

She was confined1 Tuesday evening about 4 Oclock and a bout 8 Oclock She took a fit very suden and never Spoke after the first one—the spasems come on about every hour and lasted until about 18 hours before her death. The doctors were compelled to perform a Surgical operation by relieveing her of the child the child is also dead and will be buried with her some time Sunday. There has been nothing left undone that could be done in her case the doctors worked with great skill but to no good. I cant write more at this time but will write again. Uriah Said he could not stand it to write now. dont know what he will do yet. its left his three little girls in a sad condition--with out a Mother.

Letter from Giles S. Thomas to Thomas Family, February 27, 1880

Uriah's second wife Laura suffered a variety of health problems. An improperly healed broken arm sent her back to Minnesota for treatment and rest in 1887. The letters she wrote to Uriah in those months chronicled her health complaints, as in this excerpt:

…I feel real bad this morning. I dont seem to have blood enough I am so cold all the time I have such a sore mouth & throat all the time. Mama & a good many more think I wont stand long but I dont feel worried I know I wont go before my time to go any way & so that is the least of my troubles. I guess what makes her uneasy is because Mike Snodgrass wife died she had such a sore mouth before she was confined & they did not do any thing & as soon as she was sick it got worse & she lingered on & at last died & the Dr said that she was run entirely down by having children, (she has had 3 since they were married 4 years ago) & that she died for want of blood to support her.

Letter from Laura I. Oblinger to Uriah W. Oblinger, August 17, 1887

Read several of Laura's letters from 1887, paying special attention to her comments on her health:

  • What ailments or symptoms does Laura report to Uriah? What health problems do other members of the family have during this time period?
  • Note Laura's comments about doctors. How would you characterize her view of the medical profession?
  • What evidence can you find in Laura's letters that gossip about health problems caused her even greater worry about her health? Have the effects of such talk among people who are not medical professionals been eliminated today by improvements in medical science? Why or why not?

Mothers (and fathers) in the late 1800s had many of the same concerns about their children that parents today have—they fretted about their health, their education, and their behavior. But the hardships of the time also created more unusual concerns. About nine months after Mattie died in childbirth, Uriah wrote a letter to his in-laws about problems on the farm, which were forcing him to consider sending his children to live with friends and relatives (a not uncommon practice).

…Crops & prices are so poor that it is making times pretty close here. and my misfortunes during the past year has put me back badly. I hardly know how to manage, I feel that it is not possible or right for me to go through another season as I have this one, for I cannot do justice to myself or family this way & I feel as though it will be hard to separate my children or separate from [them], but if I have to do so I would like for you to [take] part of them at least. If I have to put each one out separate I would like for you to take one, & Nettie one, & Uncle John Cooks one. I can find places for them here & good ones too, but our school advantages are not as good as yours & I fear their education will be neglected.

Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Thomas Family, September 26, 1880

Uriah's daughter Maggie (one of Mattie's children) began attending a normal school (for training teachers) in Missouri. In a letter from Laura to Uriah, dated July 21, 1894, Laura expressed her concerns about Maggie:

I am awful afraid Maggie will fail on examination she is so wild & fond of Company, & goes somewhere every night. I told her yesterday that she must give up some of her pleasure & settle down to hard work, for if she failed it ment harder work. it will just greive me if she does fail for I have been to so much expence to keep her in school, besides doing without her company which was the worst of all, besides the money paid out for tuition.

Letter from Laura I. Oblinger to Uriah W. Oblinger, July 21, 1894

The subject index contains a great many entries related to childhood. Select several letters and photographs about children. Using information from these sources, consider the following questions:

  • What leisure or play activities did children take part in?
  • Were children expected to help with the family‚Äôs work? If so, what chores or jobs did they do?
  • What, if anything, did the sources tell you about schools on the Great Plains in the late 1800s?
  • What concerns or worries did parents have about their children?
  • In what ways was parenting on the Great Plains in the late 1800s similar to and different from parenting today?