Read diary excerpts of frontier wife Susan Newcombe.
Downright notorious females did exist in Texas, one being Sally Scull. She took cattle from the family stock farm after her father's death, registering her own brand and earmark independent of her husband, whom she had married at 16 years of age. A few husbands later, Sally is reputed to have commonly worn and used a pair of six-shooters and a Bowie knife, ridden astride in leather britches, fought Indians and white men alike, raced horses, and made livestock-buying trips into Mexico accompanied by just a few of her own "vaqueros."
Stories about Sally Scull say that she killed at least one of her five husbands, and that one of them may finally have done away with her, for she disappears from the historical record by 1868. Though wild, Sally was in other ways quite typical of the rougher sort of ranch wife and mother: an illiterate female who married young, trying to raise children by making do with what was available.
Educating the children was another task for mothers who could read and write. There were no schools anywhere near most ranches. Books were hard to come by, so many youngsters learned to read from the old family Bible. Practical skills were taught quite young, and the children would have had numerous chores to complete. Both women and children learned to shoot for food and for protection from a variety of two- and four-footed marauders.
Parties or church socials would have been looked forward to by all of the ladies, as chances to visit with other women were rare. The Sunday meetings might be held only once every few months, with a circuit preacher leading a mixed congregation at one ranch or another. Quilting or husking bees were less common than the women would have liked, since travel distances across West Texas were so much farther than between farms in the eastern states.
With the coming of the railroads a decade or two later, those huge, empty lands could be crossed more safely and easily. Goods from the cities and seaports were shipped to railheads that moved closer and closer, bringing civilization -- or at least better food, household goods, and the occasional friend or relative -- to the isolated ranch families.
Getting the mail in and out became more secure, and by the late 1870s and 1880s, mail-order catalogues (even from Bloomingdale's) were published, a boon to all frontier folks, but especially the women. Virtually everything was available to the hard-working ranch wife who could pay a few cents or several dollars for it. Ready-made clothing, exotic spices, big kitchen stoves, good silverware, mechanical toys and dolls, pianos, and parlor furniture were there to wish for, if not to buy.
Changes in cattle raising emerged as well, with the arrival of purebred stock and the barbed wire required to separate one ranch from another. The days of the empty open range were drawing to a close as the 19th century moved toward its end. Roads, schools, stores, and eventually indoor plumbing (!) appeared or improved considerably, and life became a little easier for the men, women, and children who fought drought, disease, and loneliness to make a living on the ranch.
Robin Gilliam Crawford
is currently the Curator of Historic Structures at the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She has worked at historic houses and museums across the Southwest for almost 30 years, and has designed numerous exhibits.
Select another title
The Open Range
Life for the Rancher's Wife
The Vaquero Origins of the Texas Cowboy
Lords of the Plains
African American Cowboys
Buffalo Soldiers on the Frontier
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