Women of the Northern Plains and a Give Away!

Kit Morgan here and today I want to talk about farm life in the Dakota territory. (Okay, and a little about modern-day Oregon.)
In the early 1870s the soil in the Dakota territory was wonderfully fertile. Wheat was the main crop on most Northern Plains farms and the early settlers totally expected said wheat to not only sustain their family but bring them wealth — so long as they worked hard and managed their farms well, that is. When wheat crops failed to meet that promise, women stepped into the areas of poultry and butter production to sustain the family and maintain their hold on the farm. Between the decreasing fertility of the land, wild weather patterns and unstable prices, wheat farming soon became an unreliable source of income. This made women’s productive activities on a farm central to their family’s survival and success.

Most women raised poultry and milked cows to provide food for the family and as surplus for sale or trade. Their work might have yielded only a small portion of the income derived from their farm, but it was steady and substantial enough to meet the basic needs of their family no matter the conditions of the crops or the state of nearby agricultural markets. We had it going on back then and knew how to bring home the bacon! Or in this case the chickens and the milk. Productive American farm women enjoyed the respect of their families and communities even though they didn’t gain additional political or economic rights as a result of their work.

Historians have studied Pioneer farm families and discovered that as families settled, they moved through similar stages. Sort of like your first house, and then you get a bigger one later or add on when you have a child or two. Well, for pioneer families, their first house was usually a crude shelter they built to live in while breaking grass bound sod and expanding crop acreage. After that, they usually acquired some draft stock, milk cows and poultry. They found markets for their crops next and relied on a combination of grain sales and the trade of surplus eggs, butter and garden produce to generate enough income to maintain the family and improve the farm.

If they managed to remain on their farm through the first few years they might even build a barn! Maybe they’d add onto their house, acquire more land or better equipment. But none of this did you much good if you were too far away from markets and trade centers. This was a problem for the earliest settlers. Later settlers didn’t have it so bad as by then towns had cropped up. Later still there were grain elevators and railroads. Whew! What a life they had!

In my latest book, Claire, (Widows of Wildcat Ridge book 12) my heroine takes in sewing and laundry to get by. Life was hard even with the support of a family in those days. A woman alone had a much harder time of it. We’ve all heard stories from our parents, grandparents or great grandparents of tough times back in the day. For a free copy of Claire (which will release on March 1) do you recall a story that a loved one has shared with you about the things women did to make ends meet and keep their family fed? I’ll pick a random winner from the comments.

My cousins are wheat farmers, and I remember going to their ranch in eastern Oregon in the summer during the wheat harvest. Labor was never a problem for my aunt and uncle as they had 12 children. As they got older, they could work the harvest. Good times, I remember, but lots of work. Myself, I worked at making mud-pies with my cousins still too young to help. But I do remember how tired everyone looked when they got back to the ranch house. And yes, the pictures are from their ranch!

Kit Morgan
Kit Morgan is the author of over 80 books of historical and contemporary western romance! Her stories are fun, sweet stories full of love, laughter, and just a little bit of mayhem! Kit creates her stories in her little log cabin in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. An avid reader and knitter, when not writing, she can be found with either a book or a pair of knitting needles in her hands! Oh, and the occasional smidge of chocolate!
Updated: February 19, 2019 — 11:35 am

36 Comments

  1. Pioneer women were the backbone of the developing West. They took on all aspects of the work required to survive. Women today are doing the same work as men to survive today. As partners with their men, the West was tamed. Today, partnership shares the load. Survival to a life of ease, women are still the backbone.

  2. Women are often the unsung heroes of life in general. Pioneer women contributed a lot.

    1. Yes, and though they had the respect of their communities for the most part, they sometimes didn’t, no matter what they did or how hard they worked.

  3. Pioneer and even today’s ranch woman are probably some of the strongest humans on the planet in all aspects. I admire them greatly!!!

    1. Me too! I don’t know how my aunt did it! They have thousands and thousands of acres they grow wheat on. She had 12 kids and she was an RN! She passed back in 2010. The last of that generation. My uncle passed a few years before that. Now I believe 4 of the 12 cousins are running the ranch.

  4. Woman knew what to do back then and just did it.

    1. I know! They just said, “well, looks like I’ll have to do this,” and did!

  5. Women had to be strong and hardy back then. I admire them, but am glad I didn’t live then.

    1. You and me both, Estella! Yikes! What a hard life.

  6. Women were strong back then and some are today because they have to be. But the women today are not as strong as they were back then.

    1. Oh definitely not. We’re not made from as sturdy of stock as we used to be!

  7. Avatar

    My the majority of father’s ancestors were farmers. My father is one of 8 children and only one of them being a female so my Grandfather had plenty of laborers but my grandparents had enough land that they did hire blacks to work in the fields also. They hired them for the most part when my father, aunt and uncles were very young. My grandmother cooked breakfast lunch and dinner for her family and lunch for what ever hands were there for the day. The blacks were not allowed to eat in the house. They ate on one of the porches or under a shade tree. My grandmother tended a garden, sewed, baked, cooked, tended to the chickens, made butter, canned and quilted to sustain her family and to bring in extra money. I remember having tons of watermelons available every summer and if my Grandfather was around and we were eating a melon that wasn’t the best of melons he’d make us put it over the fence to the hogs, cattle or horses. I remember thinking many times that he was making us throw out a melon that was pretty good…

    1. Oh wow! I don’t know if I could have parted with my watermelon! What part of the country were they in, Stephanie?

  8. this is a wonderful post today. yes the women had to help out. My grandma used to say that the days never ended. Meaning that they were up at the crack of dawn working with mom and dad on their farm. They had dairy cattle and beef cattle. There were 6 girls. Grandma was the youngest. In between th chores, some would help with other things like, working with wood, quilting, canning, beading, etc. And grandpa made fantastic work with wood. They would sell a lot of these things to the local town. Then there was night where two of the girls plus their mom would make dinner while another 2 would set the table and 2 got to sit and read. They had family time over the last meal and she had said that some of it consisted of what was going to be done tomorrow and the rest was just having fun. Life was tough but they learned that work is good for the body and the soul. When the girls got old enough for school, great grandma would send them to town. One of the older ladies was a teacher of sorts.

    1. Oh, I love hearing these stories, Lori! I remember what a fun time it was at the dinner table with my cousins (this was back in the 60’s) after the older kids came in from harvesting wheat all day. My great grandmother and my dad used to pick coffee beans when he was little to make ends meet. All had the same belief that the work was good for the body and the soul.

  9. Kit, Thank you for this interesting post! Pioneer women knew how to get things done!

  10. This post reminds me of our American heritage, working the land with determination to carve out a way of life to benefit our family. In September as we drove west we were impressed by the huge wheat/grain fields as we drove through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, etc. It was magnificent to watch semi trucks being loaded with bales of hay, hauling grain, etc. I am proud of our American roots and proud of the men and women who worked endlessly to maintain their ranch and provide for their family. I hope we never forget the grit and work ethics it took to merely survive.

    1. It still takes a lot of grit and work ethic to run a ranch. Sigh, the problem nowadays is there are so many that just dont’ want to work.

  11. My paternal grandparents (in the South) were tobacco farmers and my grandma worked in the field and was able to keep up with the men. She also took care of the chickens, quilted, canned vegetables from the garden, and would watch others’ children before and after school.

    My maternal grandparents (in the North) came from dairy farming families. My grandfather repaired machinery. After he died, my grandma became a foster mom.

  12. Wow, a tobacco farm. I bet that was interesting. I myself used to farm. (I married into it.) We had a couple of hundred acres and raised diversified vegetables. Seven day a week job and up to 16 hour days. Long hard work. Most of the produce was shipped out of state, the rest sold at Farmer’s Markets.

  13. What great women! Thank you for sharing your great post!

    1. You’re welcome, Melanie! It was fun to research this!

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    This is about my mother. My dad drove a milk truck and delivered milk door to door in the 1950s and early 60s. When my brother and I were in elementary school my mom took a job as a waitress at a nearby restaurant. Much of her income depended on the tips that she earned so she also baked the pies for the restaurant. She got up, got us off to school, did her housework and laundry, baked the pies and got to work at 11 am for the lunch crowd!

  15. The first picture could be any of a number of places in the county where I live. Our Washington and Oregon wheat fields are often steep and require specialized equipment. I’m always amazed at the number of horses and mules the early settlers here needed to harvest the wheat.

    My husband’s grandmother earned extra money by serving as the postmistress and maintaining a post office at their house from 1910 to 1932. The post office was not much more than a shack tacked onto the side of the house. It was later moved to the corral where it served as a storage shed. During the building of the railroad spur line (which brought the mail) she baked bread for the construction crew. She did not have a summer kitchen so that little house had to have been unbearably hot that summer.

  16. Hot is right! Can you imagine? I love how the post office was tacked onto the house. Have you ever seen a picture of it?

    1. I’ve seen a picture of it when it was in the corral area but never by the house. Someplace in my house we have the stamp that postmarked mail sent from here….

      1. Still, the corral area would be cool to see.

  17. Hi Kit,
    I loved reading your post! I too admire the women who walked before us and what they did to survive. I also loved seeing the photos of your uncle, aunt and cousins farm. I am originally from Florida. A northern mother and a southern father. My paternal grandmother and grandfather had a dairy farm and also raised vegetables and peanuts. My paternal great grandparents lived in a house next door. They were German and only spoke German. My grandparents had six children and they all worked on the farm, the children after school. Milking to be done and tending the large vegetable gardens. I know that my grandmother preferred be outside working then in the house. Of course with the heat and humidity it was probably unbearably hot inside. My husbands mothers father was a dry land wheat farmer on the eastern plains of Colorado. There were sixteen children and the mother died in her forties of breast cancer leaving an infant and fifteen children. My mother in-law (second to the oldest) came home from secretarial school in Denver to take care of the home and children while the oldest sister worked in the fields with the father. I’m sure some of the other children worked the fields with them. Life was hard without the mother in the home but he was a successful farmer and provided for his family. I agree with the other commenters, I’m proud of our american heritages and that we come from people who were strong and determined to make a life here for their families. Who can ask for more than that!

    1. Wowzers! Sixteen children! I can’t imagine. Well, actually I can having seen a family with twelve. Still to lose their mother, that had to be hard but sounds like dad pulled through!

  18. My paternal grandmother did talk about the time during the Depression. She and my grandfather worked at the shirt factory. They had 7 children and things were tight, as they were for many. My grandmother made very basic quilts from scrap fabric from the factory. She always had a garden and canned vegetables for the winter. She still had her garden and canned vegetables well into her 70’s, even though she didn’t need to. I enjoyed going over to their house when I was a child and weeding her garden. There was one thing she told me about the Depression that stayed with me. Her uncle was a butcher. Meat was often something she couldn’t afford. She told me her uncle gave them sausages that had started to spoil. She would wash them well and cut off the spoiled pieces. As far as I know, no one ever got sick. It goes back to you do what you need to do to for your family to get by. That generation was tough and worked hard every day of their lives. My grandmother was still doing all her work around the house, and gave us fits when we caught her on a ladder outside cleaning windows when she was well into her 80’s.

    1. My goodness! What resourcefulness. But you’re right. One did what one had to do!

  19. I loved your article. I live in the mountains of Southwest Virgina in a corner where Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina meet. I have long loved the pioneering stories, I think in part because I could identify with them so well. We were the first pioneers on the first wave of westward expansion where Conostoga wagons traveled down the Cuberland Gap and into Kentucky our people mostly walked in on old Indian and bufflo trails because the trees were too thick to get back up here in the mountains, but land grants were given to those willing to carve out a homestead in the middle of wilderness, and carve it out they did. Most of the people who settled here were Scots-Irish and a stronger work ethic and independent spirit are hard to find. The draw back was the remoteness and isolation made people here very insular and change came very slowly. The right of women to vote was ratified in 1920, but wasn’t enacted until 1952. That affected the entire culture of home and family for women here. Additionally there was no electricity until the mid 1940’s, and for some later. I remember my grand parents had 100 acers up the side of a mountain with rocky white clay soil. Their barn was made of notched logs and chinked. They buried their potstotes, turnips, and cabbage in a pit of the barn floor layered with straw and covered with boards. Their house was wired with the electric wires stapled to the walls and a slingle porcelain light fixture overhead with bare light bulb and pull cord overhead. I know both my grandmothers at times washed clothes in the creek in the summer and on a washboard in the winter with lines strung up inside for drying clothes. I grew up the late 50’s and early 60’s helping hang the clothes out on the line and haul water from the river to fill the washer and washtubs. Water for the wash was heated on our wood and coal burning cook stove and it was the same for both my grandmothers who were in their 70’s only they had wells. A lot of people here still have a well as their only water source as running municipal water lines through these mountains is even harder than getting electricity in. The wells on up in coal country can be full of iron and sulphur or have low water tables making it unreliable. Hard to believe for 2019 right? Growing up the men either farmed, worked in the mines,or went out to a factory to work often driving long distances. The women stayed home took care of the children, raised and canned most of what we ate, very little was purchased at the store. I remember one of my grandmothers had one of the churns that was a gallon jar with a crank handle and paddles inside for making butter when they still had cattle and the other used to run beans on a string and hang them behind the stove she called them leather britches and she dried apples that way too. I remember my mom’s mother making a fire ring in the back yard, building a fire, putting a washtub of water on it to boil and setting jars of tomatoes in it, covering it with a piece of old tin roofing to can her tomatoes. She also saved her tomato seeds, she raised what would be heirloom tomatoes today. My mom’s mother quilted and crocheted dollies and I am blessed to have some of each. They made most of their own clothes as my mom made many of mine, and I in turn have sewn for myself and some for my children. I know how to build a fire in a cook stove and cook a meal on it from scratch, have lived with only wood and coal burning stoves for heat, slept in a feather bed on feather pillows made by my grandmother, used a pump with a spout inside the house and one outside for water. I never had my first real bathtub with inside running water until we moved to town when I was 4. Life was hard you made do a lot, learned to be grateful for what you did have. These are precious menories and I am only 62.

  20. Wow, Deborah, you should be writing books! Pioneer stories would be no problem! You have the hands-on experience to a certain extent. I love how your grandma did her tomatoes!

  21. I am a former teacher and one of the many hats I wore was teaching creative writing. I have always had a very active imagination and I have some story ideas ratteling around in my head, but since they say write about what you know I think it I would start out in the Laura Ingall’s style of sharing fictionalized versions of my childhood experiences. I wrote an essay on my “BlackBerry Summer” and won a prize, so I am thinking of expanding it into a book. It’s on my bucket list anyway. I just have to clear two other projects out of the way first.
    I enjoyed sharing my experiences with you. Responding to these posts have certainly been good for recharging my creative juices.

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