By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2013 Heather Blanton
Feeling a little low today? Like the world is sucker-punching you? Well, you can mope…or you can fight. Learn a lesson from a true lady in defiance.
“I only had seven dollars to my name. I didn’t know a soul in Alaska. I had no place to go. So I stood on the beach in the rain, while tented Skagway of 1897 shouted, cursed, and surged about me.”
Abandoned and nearly bankrupted by her husband, Harriet Pullen pulled herself up by her bootstraps and vowed to make a living somehow. To get started, she placed her four children with friends in Seattle and headed north to Alaska to look for work. Her desperation for employment must have shown on her face because only moments after making it to the beach, a man tapped her on the shoulder and asked her if she could cook.
Could she cook?
Capt. William Moore was building a wharf and had a crew of eighteen hungry men, a kitchen, and a problem. To his dismay, and Harriet’s good fortune, the cook had run off. With grim determination, Harriet rolled up her sleeves. But she couldn’t stand up. Moore’s “kitchen” consisted of a tarp pulled across some logs that, because of hanging hams and heavy sides of bacon, drooped so low she literally had to bend over to cook. Adding to the misery, the previous chef had left the dirt floor littered with food scraps and a table buried under a mountain of dirty plates.
Harriet said she broke down and sobbed when she saw the mess. I suspect it was the last time she cried over her situation.
By dusk, she had scrubbed the dishes with ashes from the fire, cooked a mouth-watering meal, baked apple pies for dessert…and earned her first $3.00 in Skagway. Not to mention applause from the crew.
It didn’t take her long to earn enough money to have her three young sons join her (the daughter stayed in Seattle as Skagway was no place for ladies—of any age). It also didn’t take her long to realize $3.00 a day was not enough for her and her boys to live on. So she started baking pies…at night…after working all day to feed the crew of eighteen carpenters. She baked hundreds of pies and sold them to miners and a local restaurant. She not only made enough money doing this to take care of her family, the funds made it possible for Harriet to ship seven of her horses up from Seattle.
Harriet used the horses to pack freight over the notorious White Pass Trail, lovingly nicknamed by the locals The Worst Trail This Side of Hell. It was a wee bit steep, to say the least. Harriet was the only woman EVER to move freight over it. She did so quite successfully and word got around. So maybe it was no surprise her worthless husband showed up during this time. He didn’t stay long, choosing instead to brave the cold temperatures of the Klondike rather than the chill in Skagway.
When the railroad finally made pack mules obsolete, our heroine still managed to land on her feet. She bought a big house, rented out the rooms, and sold her pies. The Pullen House eventually became one of the most famous hotels in Alaska.
Harriet never re-married and raised four good kids on her own, two of them war heroes. This “Mother of the North” died in 1947. Probably with her boots on. So no matter what is going on in your life, I suggest first that you pray, and then roll up your sleeves and get to work.
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2012 Heather Blanton
Through the lens of history, you can scan a lifetime in the blink of an eye. This learning from a distance, though, not only insulates us from the anguish of dreams left in ashes, it prevents us from appreciating the hard-fought victories.
So put yourself in the shoes of a Sager sister.
I stand in awe of Catherine Sager, a pioneer of the toughest stock. Born in Ohio, she was the eldest daughter of Naomi and Henry Sager. In 1844, after having moved his family three times, Henry set his eye on the Oregon Territory. Her mother Naomi, pregnant, and already a raising a brood of six, went grudgingly. Catherine was nine when the family departed from St. Joseph, Mo.
Along the trail in May, her mother gave birth to Little Naomi. As if that wasn’t enough of a hardship, in July the wagon overturned crossing a shallow stream, severely injuring Naomi (apparently Little Naomi was fine). Still, the family pushed on. Then, only a few hours from a good rest at Fort Laramie, Catherine jumped from the wagon. The hem of her dress caught on an ax handle, throwing her under the huge, lumbering wheel of a fully-loaded Conestoga. Her leg was broken in at least seven different places. Little more than a month later, her father contracted a fever and died.
The trail west nearly wiped out the whole family.
And Death wasn’t through hunting the Sager family. Naomi succumbed to the fever as well and died in Oregon—so close to the goal. She had requested that the wagon master take care of her children and he kept his promise, or at least he tried. By October, the train had made it to the Whitman Mission in Oregon. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman happily adopted all the Sager children. The couple ran a school, farm, trading post, and doctor’s office. The settlement, however, was smack dab in the middle of Nez Perce and Cayuse territory. Due to the treachery of a white man, the Cayuse were manipulated into attacking the settlement in 1847. Catherine again lost loving parents, along with her two older brothers, in the massacre. The surviving women and children were held for ransom by the Indians. In the month-long siege, her six-year-old sister Louisa contracted measles and died.
Four Sager girls survived. Catherine, Elizabeth, Matilda, and Naomi, the baby girl born on the trail. After the massacre, they were separated and shipped off to foster homes. One more untimely death, however, awaited the sisters. A stray bullet struck down Little Naomi at the age of 26.
Finally, Death took a holiday from its unnatural greed for the Sager family. And like Job, had much of “wealth” restored to them. Catherine, Elizabeth and Matilda married good men, had large families, settled into blissfully normal lives, and lived to be senior citizens. Catherine shared the Sager story, and her grief, in a memoir she penned in 1860. Having lost siblings myself, I am amazed at the resiliency of these women. The fortitude to keep going when everything had been stripped from them is beyond admirable. I feel their pain and will always be grateful for their sacrifices.
Respect the lace.
By Heather Frey Blanton
Copyright 2012 Heather Blanton
Sometimes I write about the women who fought for this country’s independence in very real, sacrificial ways. Sometimes I write about women who fought the land and the times to settle difficult territory. Susan Anderson is definitely the latter.
Born in Indiana in 1870, she moved with her family to Cripple Creek Colorado at the beginning of the town’s gold rush. Deciding she needed more of a challenge than the rough and rowdy mining town could provide, her father encouraged her to attend medical school. In 1893, she entered the University of Michigan medical school. Little did she know how difficult the journey to put two letters behind her name would be.
She graduated in ’97, but while in school, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The illness would plague her the rest of her life. She returned to Cripple Creek and tended to the miners there for three years, but the pretty, petite doctor was jilted by her fiancée in 1900. That same year she suffered the loss of her little brother.
In need of a change, she relocated her practice to Denver. Surely, the bustling, modern city would provide a steady flow of patients. Not. Anderson nearly starved to death. Patients were very leery of a female doctor, especially when there were already several male doctors in town. Frustrated, she moved again, this time to Greely, and took work as a nurse. How frustrating that must have been for this gutsy, stubborn gal. Probably the stress had something to do with her TB flaring up. Sick and weak, Anderson moved to Fraser, Colorado to recuperate or die. She breathed not a word of her vocation.
But word got out, as it always does, and her health improved. I wonder if the two events are related? At any rate, the citizens of remote Fraser were delighted to have a doctor. They didn’t care if she was male, female, or a different species entirely. Everyone from lumberjacks to ranchers to pregnant wives came to see her. She occasionally even treated a sick horse.
In her career as a doctor, “Doc Susie” was paid with everything from firewood to food. Cash was an extreme rarity and her living conditions reflected that. Nearly destitute, sometime around 1915 or so she was appointed the Grand County Coroner and the regular pay check helped ease some of her financial concerns.
She never owned a car but always found a way to visit her patients. Most often she walked, sometimes in hip-deep snow. Mostly, though, friends and family members of patients provided transportation. Anderson was not rich financially, but she earned an esteemed reputation as a fine rural doctor and diagnostician. Her life was not easy but I think that’s how she would have wanted it. She liked fighting for her accomplishments.
She conquered a frontier, both real and emotional, leaving behind a path for other women who dared to dream big. Anderson practiced in Fraser until 1956 then retired to an old folks home in Denver. She died four years later and was buried with her family in Cripple Creek.
Respect the lace.
by Heather Frey Blanton
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Not every woman who helped settle America did so with eager determination. Some did what they had to do and didn’t really think about it. Others, deeply regretted ever leaving home and most likely spent their last breaths cursing the fateful decisions. None of this makes these women any less brave.
Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel west of the Rockies, is sadly, one of the darker stories of settling the country. She started out with good intentions, focused too much on the bad when things didn’t go her way, and ended up dying an ugly death.
Early in 1836, she and her new husband Marcus Whitman left New York to open a mission in Washington state. You’ve got to put the danger and difficulty of this trip into perspective. This was before the 1849 Gold Rush that caused the West to explode with settlers. The land left of the Rockies was populated by Indians and mountain men. Period. Roads were mere trails. There was no rail road, no stagecoach lines, no towns, unless you counted military forts. But Narcissa fell in love with Jesus at the age of 11 and knew he had a plan for her.
She was convinced the Indians needed to know about Jesus and answered God’s call to carry his word into the darkness. With few possessions and an energetic, often insensitive, faith, they arrived at their destination in late September.
For Narcissa, this was really when the hard work began. Her husband, a doctor, had many opportunities to get out and about for medical calls, but she stayed mostly at the mission. The Cayuse Indians were not very receptive to the Whitman’s teachings or way of life. Constant misunderstandings occurred because of issues with cleanliness, privacy, and ownership of property.
Eventually the couple, disillusioned with the Indians, turned more towards the trappers and immigrants passing through. Still, due to language and faith barriers, Narcissa was lonely. Things only went from bad to worse for her when her daughter, two-year-old Clarissa, drowned in the Walla-Walla River.
Tensions between the Whitmans and the Cayuse continued to rise as thousands of settlers poured into Washington and the mission-turned-trading-post played host to them. Over a decade, the Cayuse saw their land and way of life disappearing because of this onslaught of settlers. Marcus had several physical altercations with warriors in the tribe who insisted the Whitman’s close the post and leave.
In the fall of 1847, a wagon train arrived with over five thousand immigrants. Along with their hopes and dreams of a brighter future, these settlers also brought with them measles. Few of the Cayuse had any resistance to the disease and dropped like flies. Rumors circulated that Dr. Whitman was causing the deaths. The Indians attacked. Along with her husband and fourteen other people, Narcissa died in the mud just outside her door.
An inglorious end to a noble, though misguided, effort. Still, Narcissa had tried. She dealt with things the best way her whiney nature would allow. I respect her efforts, but I’m glad I’m not her descendant.
by Heather Frey Blanton
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Being a woman out west at the turn-of-the-century would have been hard enough. Can you imagine being a black woman? Well, for Mary Fields, it was all in a day’s work.
“Stagecoach” Mary Fields was a black slave born in TN probably around 1832 or so. She was taken into Judge Dunn’s family and served as a nanny and house maid, and remained with the family, even after emancipation. During her growing up years, she became friends with Dunn’s daughter Dolly. Dolly, a gentle soul, joined a nunnery and shortly after transferred to Saint Peter’s Mission in Cascade, MT. She quickly discovered that the mission, a school for Native American girls, was in a magnificent state of disrepair.
Sister Amadeus (or, the daughter formerly known as Dolly) just about killed herself trying to get the place cleaned up, to the point she contracted pneumonia and fell deathly ill. She contacted Mary at this point and asked if she would like to come west and help out for a bit. Mary must have been a sight to behold walking around the school. Over six feet tall, weighing in at a lean two hundred pounds, wearing pistols on both hips, this woman was big and very black. And she liked to work. She nursed her friend back to health and then took on the mission, literally. An indomitable attitude coupled with her skill with a hammer and Mary was promoted to foreman of the place in pretty short order.
Not all the men on the grounds crew were OK with this and one mouthy gentleman started a fight. Not only did a bullet windup tearing daylight through the bishop’s drawers (on the wash line), some folks just didn’t care for Mary’s less than ladylike language and her fondness of alcohol. The bishop forced Sister Amadeus to fire her old friend.
After a short-lived attempt at running a restaurant, Mary applied for a job with the US Postal Service delivering mail at the age of 60. The USPS was looking for one qualification: the fastest time in hitching up a team of horses. Consequently, Mary became the first black woman hired by the USPS and only the second female in general.
God love her, Mary’s belligerent attitude, never-say-die determination, and willingness to fight at a drop of hat served her well in this job. She gained an unequalled reputation for delivering the mail. Literally, sleet, snow, ice, blizzards, bandits, it didn’t matter. If the horses couldn’t make the trek, she strapped on snowshoes and kept on trucking. In between, she spent a lot of time at the local saloon and developed quite the reputation for fisticuffs. And what girl doesn’t enjoy a pinch of Copenhagen between the cheek and gum after a tough fight?
Mary retired from the post office at the age of 70 and the nuns at the mission helped her open a laundry, which she ran until her death in 1914. This woman was so loved by the folks of Cascade, they closed the schools to celebrate her birthdays.
Race, gender, age, all barriers Mary busted wide open and the citizens of Cascade were smart enough to look past. Now that’s what I call “respecting the lace.”
Again, I am intrigued to read between the lines. A city girl leaves Denver, degree in hand, to accept a job as a teacher on a Wyoming ranch. Her classroom consists of seven students. During her school year, she meets her future husband, a handsome, ambitious sheepherder. It takes this stubborn Scotsman five years and dozens of sappy letters to convince Ethel to accept his proposal. What was she waiting on?
Born into a relatively wealthy family, Ethel was a fearless young thing with a big heart. She spent a summer volunteering in the slums of New York, if that tells you anything. In 1905 she finished at Wellesly and took a job teaching the children on the Red Bluff Ranch in Wyoming. Her letters indicate she fell madly in love with the place and its people, but not so much with John Love. Oh, she liked him well enough and appreciated the fact that he made the eleven-hour ride to see her several times during the school year. Ethel, though, apparently wasn’t ready to settle down. She had, you know, places to go, people to see, things to learn. Or was she simply afraid marriage might mean her life would pass into obscurity?
At the end of that first teaching job, she enrolled in the University of Colorado to obtain a master’s in literature. That’s when the letters started arriving. Lots of them. And John made no secret of why he was writing. Ethel needed to be his wife and he would wait for her. No matter how long it took. Unless and until, she married another.
When Ethel received her degree in 1907, she took a job in Wisconsin, again as a teacher. Still the letters followed. And she answered, often with an apology that she shouldn’t. She didn’t want to give him false hope, after all. Once she even scolded him for closing his letter with “ever yours,” instead of the customary “sincerely yours.” Yet, Ethel did not entwine her life with any other men. She didn’t often attend dances or parties. Strange girl. It’s almost as if she was the female version of George Bailey. Perhaps restless, she moved back to Colorado in 1908 and continued her work, but where was her heart?
Ethel spoke four languages, enjoyed writing, especially poetry, even staged theatrical productions. But that sheepherder, who buy now was doing pretty well for himself, wouldn’t give her any peace. Finally, this fiercely independent American girl caved. The two were married in 1910.
Maybe John just had to prove he could respect the lace.
by Heather Frey Blanton
Imagine you’re a woman living in a western town where a war over money and power is raging. People are being outright murdered. There is no law except that which is meted out by the villains. Then your husband is murdered and you are alone with these cut-throats. What do you do?
If you’re Susan McSween, an American girl, you fight on till you become “The Cattle Queen of New Mexico.”
Susan was the wife of Alexander McSween and the two moved to Lincoln, New Mexico in 1875. They hit it off with English rancher John Tunstall who introduced them to the legendary John Chisum. The two cattle barons and all the other folks in the valley were eagerly looking for a way to wrestle some commerce out of the fist of James Dolan. Dolan and his partner Lawrence Murphy had monopolized the banking and mercantile trade in Lincoln, charging absolutely exorbitant prices for everything.
Not much for being extorted, Tunstall and McSween opened their own mercantile and bank. Infuriated over the challenge to their little kingdom, the Murphy-Dolan faction immediately hired gangs of mercenary gunmen to wage a war of violent intimidation. Tunstall, in turn, hired boys who would come to be known as The Lincoln County Regulators. Fiercely loyal to their employer, legendary members included Billy the Kid and Charley Bowdre.
Lincoln was a powder keg and after several murders, including that of John Tunstall, the Tunstall-McSween store was burned to the ground with a handful of the Regulators inside. Alexander McSween was shot as he was coming out of the building to surrender.
Susan McSween saw the whole thing.
Amazingly, instead of cowering, she sought justice in the matter and hired attorney Huston Chapman to go after Dolan, his sheriff, and Army Colonel Nathan Dudley. Susan also had Chapman attempt to negotiate amnesty for her Regulators. All for nought. While Dudley stood trial, he was acquitted. Before Dolan’s trial, Chapman was shot and killed. The case was dropped, but Susan didn’t go away. She just changed her strategy.
Murphy managed to acquire all of Tunstall’s land holdings, developing a sizable ranch. He even dabbled in politics, but his dream of being the biggest cattle baron in the state was repeatedly foiled by a meddling, ambitious little brunette on a mission of her own. Susan acquired several thousand acres after her husband’s murder and then married George Barber. At one point, the couple reportedly had over 8,000 head of cattle.
While Murphy eventually drank himself to death, Susan McSween sold her ranch in 1902 and retired a wealthy woman. She died at the ripe old age of 86 having outlasted nearly all the men involved in the murder of her husband.
A true lady in defiance.
Life on the Western frontier for a woman was hard enough. Can you imagine being a minority? There were probably few things treated with less respect than a black woman or an Oriental woman.
Meet Lalu Nathoy, AKA, Polly Bemis.
Of all the research I have done on pioneer and patriot women, Polly impresses me the most. Originally from China, in 1872 her father sold her off as a concubine. Polly’s worth: two bags of seeds for her starving family. She was smuggled into San Francisco and taken by an “intermediary” to the wild-and-wooly mining town of Warren, Idaho where she would be served up as a concubine for an Asian saloon-owner. Polly was only 19 years old.
Legend says Charlie Bemis won Polly in a poker game and immediately set her free. Apparently, Polly didn’t really need her freedom. She worked for Bemis for many years and finally married him in 1894. While it has been suggested this was a marriage of convenience, I have my doubts. True, a new federal law could have made it necessary for Polly to be deported and yes, she was actually threatened with deportation at one point, which led to a hasty wedding with Charlie. But she could have just left Idaho. She could have bid farewell to Charlie. She could have moved some place where Orientals weren’t treated so harshly. She chose, instead, to stay and fight.
Polly passionately sought to become a real, legal American citizen. I suspect citizenship appealed to her independence and I really don’t think marrying Charlie was all that distasteful of an idea, either. Admittedly, though, the marriage helped move her towards becoming a citizen. She still had to petition the courts and after more than two years of rigorous, legal wrangling, Polly became an American in 1896.
Shortly after this, she and Charlie moved seventeen miles out of Warren, homesteading along the Salmon River and working a gold claim together. Their cabin was so remote, it couldn’t be reached by road, only boat. For a marriage of convenience, they sure liked their privacy. The cabin was no castle, either. Measuring a mere 15×20 feet, it is impressive that she and Charlie never tried to kill each other. Personally, I believe that only true love could hold a couple together in these circumstances.
Charlie died in 1922. Polly continued to live alone along the Salmon River until 1933, when she suffered a debilitating stroke. Three months later, she passed away in a hospital at the young age of 80.
There are several great books on Polly, but I recommend Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. McCunn has a passion for Polly’s story and you will discover things about this pioneering woman that will humble you and challenge you. It is an honor and blessing to be a woman. It is also a grand privilege to be an American.
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