THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY
This article first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Autumn 2001, Volume 48, Number 3)
THEY WORE THE YELLOW RIBBON: THE EXPERIENCE OF ARMY WIVES ON THE WESTERN FRONTIER
Like many people of my generation, my first images of the Army of the American West were gained through film and television. Gleaming horses, dusty uniforms, wooden forts set in the open plains, courageous officers and brave men facing savage Indians in order to bring civilisation to the West. It was a man’s world in which women played no part.
And then I discovered the John Ford Trilogy, and a very different set of images – mature women accustomed to facing danger alongside their men; women to whom the army gave a home and a role in life, just as it did to their husbands; silent women seeing their men off to fight and just as silently watching their return. Any young women new to frontier life, finding out – like Miss Olivia Dandridge in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – if they were ‘army enough’ to cope with what Martha Summerhayes, a real army wife, described as ‘learning how to soldier’.1 I started to wonder which of these images was correct and what life was really like for women living on the Army posts of the American West.
I Joined the Army2
At a time when opportunities for women were very limited, marrying a soldier allowed them to ‘expand their horizons…to put their energies and strengths to use in ways which few nineteenth century women who remained in the East could hope to equal!’3 The number of women living with the frontier army was small; the majority of both officers and men were either unmarried or left their families in the East where life was thought to be safer and more comfortable. But those who went west had a significant impact on army life, bringing with them a wide range of expectations, experience, education and social backgrounds.
For many of the young wives, the first experience of frontier army life came as a great shock. They may have found the dashing young officer just out of West Point very attractive and the romantic excitement further increased by the elegance of the full dress uniform, the exciting social life and the tales of heroic deeds. But this was no preparation for the harsh reality of life on a frontier post. Homesickness, combines with the young wives’ lack of domestic experience and very basic living conditions must have made many of them wonder what on earth they were doing there and what they had taken on.
Other young women had a clearer idea of what army life would be like. As Frances Roe says, ‘an army post is always an attractive place to girls’4 and she mentions several visits by single young female friends and relations of army families, clearly implying that they were hoping to find a husband. But the group for whom army life was in many respects the easiest were those who came from army families themselves. Although officers’ daughters often went back east to complete their education, they would have no illusions if they married a soldier of the domestic difficulties they would have to live with and they dangers which awaited their husbands, however attractive their uniforms might be.
However Much Education, Position and Money Might Count in Civil Life, Rank Seemed To Be the Only Thing in the Army5
The lives of army wives were governed by the same hierarchies of military rank as the working arrangements of their men. They had not only to show respect to their husbands’ senior officers, but also to recognise the Commanding Officer’s wife as giving the social lead to life on the post. Sometimes the link between the husbands’ rank and the wives’ status was very helpful to a young and inexperienced wife, as there was a culture of senior officers’ wives supporting and advising new arrivals to the post, as well as offering hospitality until their domestic arrangements had been sorted out. Sometimes, however, the superior status of the senior wives caused resentment and Frances Roe tells of sharing an overcrowded ambulance when moving from Fort Lyon to Camp Supply in which some of the seating had been removed to make space for a rocking chair belonging to the General’s wife.6
But for the wives, by far the most significant affect of their husband’s rank was the custom of ‘bumping’, ‘falling bricks’ or ‘ranking out’. The higher the rank, the better the accommodation which was provided – even if someone was already living in it. Each time a new senior officer arrived at the post, all those of lower rank had to move to smaller accommodation, regardless of family size. Martha Summerhayes tells of married junior officers with families having to share accommodation, whilst a single senior officer had a larger house to himself, and the rule being applied even to one family with a new baby and two children with whooping cough. When (at Fort Russell, Wyoming) she herself was in a position to turn someone out of their home, she felt so sorry for them that she sought advice from the Commanding Officer. He told her ‘they’ll hate you for doing it, but if you don’t do it, they’ll not respect you’.7 The army’s need to recognise senior rank and the status that went with it outweighed the normal considerations of civilian life.
Most of the information we have about army women’s experience on the frontier comes from the letters and diaries of the officers’ wives; it is much harder to get a clear picture of the experience of the wives of the other ranks. As for the male view, there seems to have been a general sense amongst the senior officers that the presence of even a few women had a calming and civilising influence on their closed masculine world. Amongst the enlisted men and junior officers, however, there was sometimes resentment of the wives’ influence on their husbands in allocating duties to their subordinates, and in some cases a belief that the army was no place for a women who did not have a job to do.
The only women with a job and an officially recognised status in the army were the laundresses, who (until the practice was stopped in 1878) were entitled to food, fuel and accommodation and who could sometimes earn more than a private. They were certainly part of the army and subject to army regulations; there were tales of at least one laundress being court martialed for swearing at the Officer of the Day.
All other women whatever their class or husband’s rank were known as ‘camp followers’ a term that was often resented by the officer’s wives who considered themselves socially superior to the laundresses. Although they had no official status within the camps, army regulations did make some reference to officers’ families and recognised their presence, even if they did not accord them any rights or make special provision for them.
‘Ella And I Are Army Girls You Know, And We Do Not Mind Anything’8
The Army was on the Western frontier to control the actions of the Indians. For the women, the Indians represented a threat to their husbands, to their homes and to themselves. The likely consequences of capture did not bear thinking about: after the Fetterman massacre Colonel Carrington gave an order that ‘in the event of a last desperate struggle, destroy all (the women and children) together, rather than have any captured alive’.9 These fears, however, were largely unfounded and Joan Swallow Reiter states that ‘after 1861 there was not a single recorded instance of a women killed by Indians at an army post.’10
Against this background of suspicion and fear, some contemporary female descriptions of the Indians make interesting and surprising reading. Frances Roe was disappointed at the first encounter with Indians to find that rather than ‘the noble red man’ she had been expecting, ‘they were simply, and only painted, dirty and nauseous-smelling savages’11 and she comments with disgust on their cooking and eating habits. This general sense of social superiority did not however stop Ada Voges, Frances Roe and Martha Summerhayes all speaking very frankly and in tones of admiration about the well-built physiques of several of the young braves they met. A very different sort of description from the way in which they refer to the officers and men on the post, however ‘charming’ they may be.
Much more of a threat to survival for many women and children was the climate. Typically, the northern Plains were too cold and long bitter winters when it could be dangerous to stay outdoors even for a short time because one could freeze before feeling the cold’. or simply become disorientated and lost in a heavy snowfall, even within the post. Frances Roe describes a typical hailstorm in which the ‘stones were so large it was dangerous to be hit by them’12 and the years small supply of fresh vegetables growing in the garden was totally destroyed. Cooking became almost impossible when all the food and water was frozen solid and fuel shortages could become severe as the months went by.
A posting to Arizona on the other hand meant having to cope with hot, dry weather which was extremely hard for those accustomed to the gentler eastern climate, as well as a constant battle with insects, scorpions and snakes. Added to this, the army wives’ sense of rank and status precluded them from wearing looses, comfortable clothing worn by the local women, much as they may have envied them and wished they too could adapt their life-style to the climate.
The lack of medical care was another real problem for the women, particularly those with children. The post surgeon (if there was one) was usually highly regarded, but resources were very limited and the care of the soldiers was the priority. More women died as the results of accidents, disease, childbirth and exposure than from anything that the Indians could do.
‘Do The Best You Can Martha, I Have To Go To The Barracks’13
Living conditions in the early days of a new post were usually very poor, even for the officers. In most cases the accommodation was erected quickly and enlisted men provided the labour using whatever materials came to hand; the chances of having men with building or joinery skills and experience were small. The army wives’ diaries talk of trying to make a home in adobe houses (Fort Lyon), wooden huts (Camp Supply), log cabins (Camp Apache) and even tents (Fort Maginnis and Fort Phil Kearney). Whatever accommodation was available, in the early days, it was generally uncomfortable, and let in the wind, dust, rain or snow. The officers’ quarters at Meade in Dakota and Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne were considered to be very comfortable and the adobe buildings at Fort Shaw – with their low, broad porches, pleasant front yards and the officers’ walk under an arch of cottonwood trees – sound quite idyllic.
Regulations determined how much space was to be provided for officers of each rank – one room for a Lieutenant, two for a captain, three for a Lieutenant Colonel or Major, ‘until a Colonel has a fairly good home’.14 In reality, the accommodation rarely met these standards, and this, combined with the ‘ranking out’ referred to earlier, meant that for much of the time, the officers and their families were living in very cramped and overcrowded accommodation. Another cause of discontent for many wives was the crucial role of the camp quartermaster, who was responsible for allocating accommodation, arranging repairs and decoration and whose use of power which this gave him was not always thought to be fair.
The situation of the officers’ wives was, of course, much better than that commonly experienced by the wives of enlisted men and their laundresses. Their accommodation was usually in tents, dugouts, shanties and huts whose picturesque name of ‘Soapsuds Row’ belied a grim reality.
Many wives rose to these challenges and found ingenious ways to create a home using the few resources their disposal. With only a small stove in the centre of the room, army blankets and old canvas tenting were commonly used to line the walls and cover the floor in an attempt to keep out the bitter winter winds. Curtains were made out of dress fabrics, boxes were covered in old dress materials, and plain unbleached muslin was dyed with fruit juice to bring variety and colour. Only on a few posts were there skilled joiners who could make furniture out of good-quality wood brought in by wagon train; more often; tables and cupboards were quickly knocked together out of crates, planks and scrap lumber. The better-quality furniture and other household items which had been brought from back East were highly valued not just for their function, but as a symbol of a better standard of living and the way things ‘ought’ to be in an officer’s home.
He Had Engaged A Soldier…For A Striker15
Officers’ wives were of a time and social class which expected to have servants, and being out in the remoteness of the western frontier did nothing to change that expectation. Many of the young wives had no experience of cooking or running a home. When servants came out west with them, they often married enlisted men and moved on to another posting and even governesses were in short supply because many of them married officers and gave up their work. The army, however, had a solution to this problem – the Striker: ‘There were no persons to be obtained, in these distant places to do the cooking in the families of officers, and so it was customary to employ a soldier.’16 Perhaps one of the most interesting insights into this system is the story of Captain and Mrs. Vincent at Camp Supply who were considered fortunate to be with a coloured troop, because that meant ‘one can always have good servants’.17
But soldier-servants did much more than cook; they undertook all sorts of tasks around the home, looked after pets and fetched and carried for the officers and their wives as a normal part of their duties. Frances Roe tells of prisoners at Fort Shaw doing ‘the rough work, such as bringing the wood and water, keeping the yards tidy, bringing the ice and so on’18 and several tales of soldiers working outside in atrocious weather conditions to clear snow from the officers’ tents to make their huts watertight during very heavy rain. She comments on how cheerfully the men did this work, with no suggestion that perhaps the soldiers would have preferred to seek shelter from the storm for themselves.
In the south it was sometimes easier to find local women to act as cooks, housemaids and children’s nurses, but the cultural differences and unrealistic expectations of the army wives often brought a different set of problems and friction within the home. When Frances Roe was having problems with a drunken servant, she was comforted to learn of the experience of another officer’s wife called Mrs. Hughes who ‘had tried a different cook for each week for six in succession’.19
Housekeeping could be very difficult in all parts of the frontier, even with the help of servants. The cook stove required large quantities of wood; soft cottonwood was widely available, but it would not burn at all when damp and burned away too quickly when dry. Water was collected in outside barrels – in Texas and Arizona the winds blew the lids off and filled them with dust, and in the Northern Plains months passed with all the water frozen in the barrels. The winds could be so strong that washing was blown from the washing lines and disappeared into the distance, or if it could be secured tightly enough, there were times when it was torn to shreds by the wind.
On many posts the diet was very limited, especially during the winter months; there were particular problems with fresh milk, eggs and vegetables being in short supply. During the summer there was plenty of fresh game to be had in the open spaces around the post, and hunting for meat for the pot was considered a worthy pastime for the young officers and their wives. Forts near towns tended to fare rather better as regular supplies could be delivered and it was possible to obtain more luxury items for celebration meals.
The Constant Moves From Post to Post20
Perhaps the greatest challenge to the army wives’ home-making skills was the frequency with which they were posted to another camp. Frances Roe speaks with some bitterness about having to relocate for ‘details that apparently do not amount to much’21 and the fact that ‘we had been given no warning whatever of this move and had less than two days in which to pack and crate everything’.22 But most army wives probably just got used to things and came to share the attitude of Martha Summerhayes who ‘soon ceased to ask myself whether I was sorry or glad at any change in our stations’.23 Whatever equanimity they were able to achieve, they frequently had to say goodbye to friends, to pack up as many of their belongings as they were allowed to take, to sell or give away the rest, to make long and uncomfortable journeys into unknown territory – none of this could have been easy and was probably the greatest test of the women’s character. The cost could also be considerable as they had to pay for the transport of their belongings and to replace the items left behind when they were setting up their new home.
There were some consolations. Along the journey they could often stay overnight at another post where the officers and their families would be given a warm welcome, with plenty of offers of food and accommodation, and even a dance or party at the larger posts. New arrivals at an army post could often find it easier to settle in than it would be for a young civilian couple moving to a new town; the very structured environment and the strict rules of rank and social conduct meant that everyone knew where they ‘fitted’ in army society. And in many cases, other families would lend or give new arrivals the basic furniture and equipment until they had time to sort themselves out because they had recently been in a similar situation themselves.
A New Recruit24
The army provided them with a home, a status and a huge network of friends all over the West. Because everyone moved around so much, arriving at a new post could often mean meeting up with officers and their families who had been known at previous postings. As happens in any large extended family, some people had more things in common and got on better than others – but spending time facing hardship and common dangers in a remote part of the country, far from old friends and family members, created a bond between the women which offered support and friendship to replace that which they had lost moving West.
Many women identified with everything about their husband’s regiment, taking an immense pride in all the officers and men, and being moved almost to tears whenever they heard the regimental march. The sense of being ‘married to the regiment’ comes across very clearly in Frances Roe’s description of a ‘military wedding’ between a ‘child of the regiment’ and a young officer25 and the pride with which Martha Summerhayes refers to her infant son as ‘A New Recruit’.24
In spite of – or perhaps because of – the dangers and difficulties of so many aspects of army life, officers and their wives tried to make the most of any social opportunities available to them. In general, personal relationships between men and women (whilst following the army’s own strict rules concerning rank) were free of the many constraints of Eastern life of the officers’ social standing. With so few women around, the wives seemed to have fulfilled the role of mother or older sister to the young unmarried officers who were far from home.
We Were In The Saddle Every Day26
Compared with most women living on the Western frontier – whether they were the wives of homesteaders or of enlisted men – the officers’ wives had a great deal of time in which to take advantage of the magnificent countryside in which they lived. Amongst the outdoor activities reported in their letters and diaries are horse riding, tennis, skating and sleigh riding. Officers’ wives often joined their men in hunting for game as prairie chicken, grouse and deer were plentiful in many parts of the west, although Kate Garrett’s experience of bringing down a buffalo outside Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory was rather unusual. They also pursued the more conventional female pursuits of embroidery and sewing bees, drawing and painting, but again used their location to advantage; Mary Elizabeth Achey’s sketch book features many army posts and their surroundings, and captures the beauty and remoteness of the countryside where the army led her and her husband.
For some women, however, the lack of opportunities for intellectual stimulation could be frustrating, particularly on the smaller posts. There were few books and by the time that newspapers and magazines arrived, they were often very out of date. At the larger posts, where there could be as many as eight companies at any one time, things could be very different. There were band concerts, card parties, amateur theatricals and dancing. Frances Roe describes a number of events in which a great deal of ingenuity was used to create evening gowns, fancy dress outfits and costumes for a masked ball. Links back East were usually easier and more reliable making it possible to hold formal and very elegant dinner parties which served a wide selection of food ‘with dainty china and handsome silver’.27
Martha Summerhayes, however, makes it very clear that the social life for the enlisted men in the barracks could be very different from that of the officers. Commenting on the efforts of the Temperance Societies to close the canteens – where enlisted men met together to eat, read, play billiards and drink beer or wine – she talks of the loneliness and the drear monotony of the barracks life in times of peace ‘with no recreation, no excitement, no change’.28
When Faye Was Ordered Here, I Said At Once That I Would Come Too, And So I Came29
Whenever they were posted along the Western frontier, the officers and their wives were always far from home. Some women found this impossible to cope with: they went back East for a holiday and never returned. For others, the mail provided an essential link with family and friends, even if at best it took two or three weeks to arrive and could often be a month out of date. Those who felt more settled into army life found their trips to visit family made an enjoyable break, but the prospect of the long and uncomfortable journey was very daunting, as well as expensive, as the officers had to meet the costs of these trips themselves. Many wives discovered that as the years went by, they became increasingly distant from their friends and relations, who could not begin to imagine the conditions on the frontier, or the closed self-contained world that was army life.
Those Agonizing Goodbyes30
Most soldiers on the frontier spent relatively little time fighting. They were constantly preparing and training for it, and their wives lived in constant fear of what might happen when the time for fighting arrived. But Martha Summerhayes was probably not unusual in that she spent several years as an army wife and lived on many posts across the South West before her husband first went on an active campaign. She describes the moment with great poignancy: ‘I realised then perhaps for the first time what the uniform really stood for; that every man who wore it, was going out to fight – that they held their lives as nothing. The glitter was all gone; nothing but sad reality remained’.31 As the men set off, the women watched in silence, keeping their emotions under control to boost the morale of the departing column.
The campaign could often last for months and if communication routes were disrupted there could be long periods with no news of where the men were or what was happening to them. Many men before they set off would entrust letters and treasured possessions to the officers’ wives to be sent to their sweethearts, wives and families back east if they did not return. The strain whilst the men were away must have been enormous, but life had to go on, children and homes had to be cared for and the women knew that most men usually returned unharmed. Mutual understanding and the shared fears produced a strong emotional bond between the wives which helped to sustain them all and to keep their apprehension at bay.
Frances Roe gives this very simple description of the emotions on the post ‘after the return of the companies from their hard and often dangerous summer campaign’.32 Whether the campaign had been successful, or simply uneventful, the soldiers’ safe return would be greeted with great celebration. Once again emotions were kept in check – at least in public – as the men tended to make light of the dangers they had faced and the women kept up the appearance of never having doubted the ability of the regiment to deal successfully with whatever might have befallen them.
I Was Filled With Dread33
But not every campaign was successful and even a successful campaign had its casualties and fatalities. When men had been wounded or lost, their wives often reported feeling a terrible sense of foreboding as they watched the messenger approaching the post, long before they could tell whether it was good or bad news. When the news was bad for the regiment as well as for the individual women, the role of the army as family was perhaps at its most valuable. The accounts of Mrs. Custer supporting the other women during the long night they spent together waiting for news from the Little Big Horn, and the way in which Colonel Carrington’s wife held the women together after the Fetterman massacre are wonderful examples of the way that the regiment as family could work for the women at a time of crisis.
Whenever possible the bodies of the wounded and fallen were brought back to the post, or at least some effort was made in the field to give them a decent burial. But sometimes further distress was added to the grief of loss because it was so difficult to dig graves in ground that was frozen or baked by the sun, especially if there was a threat of another attack. Army funerals were normally very formal, attended by the whole company in full dress uniform, with three volleys fired over the grave and the band playing Taps. Although showing great respect for the dead, the funerals were regarded as just another aspect of army life. John Summerhayes told his wife; ‘it’s a soldier’s life, and when a man enlists, he must take his chance’; he went on to explain that cheerful music was played at the end of a funeral because if the soldiers felt sad ‘when one of them dies…it would demoralise the whole command’.34
For the wives whose husbands were killed in action or who had succumbed to illness or accident, the consequences were devastating. They had to cope not only with their personal loss and grief, but also with losing everything else, and sometimes with almost indecent speed. Their home was needed for whoever was coming to take their husband’s position in the company; as Frances Roe says ‘in civil life a poor widow can often live right on in her old home, but in the Army never’.35 They also lost the structure and pattern of their lives and – perhaps most difficult of all – they were no longer part of the army ‘family’ in which people understood what being an army wife was all about. As they hastily packed their belongings and returned to their distant family and friends, or set out to start a new life among strangers, they must have felt that the army to which their husband had literally given his life, had turned its back on them at the time of their greatest need.
I Had Cast My Lot With A Soldier, And Where He Was, Was Home To Me36
So what was it that made a women ‘army enough’ to survive the unique combination of the dangers of army life, with its strict regulations and protocols of behaviour, and the difficult living conditions of the Western frontier, whether on the cold northern Plains or in the hot desert conditions of the south west. How and why did they stay? Firstly, of course, because they were married to men who had chosen the army as their way of life. But there does seem to be more than that.
For the wives, too, the army became a way of life; it was their home, their family, their opportunity to experience things they could not have imagined when they were back East. It gave them a unique type of friendship with the people who shared their world and a strong sense of belonging, which had no comparison in civilian life. Whatever the dangers, for some women being an army wife became their life. As Martha Summerhayes said: ‘…I was really a soldier’s wife and I must go back to it. To the army with its glitter and misery, to the post with its discomforts, to the soldiers to the drills, to the bugle calls, to the monotony…to the uniforms and stalwart Captains and gay Lieutenants who wore it, I felt the call and I must go’.37
Martha Summerhayes: Vanished Arizona. University of Nebraska Press 1979. p.58
Joan Swallow Reiter: The Old West – The Women. Time Life Books p.13
Frances Roe: Army Letters from an Officers Wife. University of Nebraska Press 1981. p.350.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.80.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.47.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.10.
Oliver Knight: Life and Manners in the Frontier Army. p.188.
Joan Swallow Reiter: op. cit. p.74.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.10.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.79.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.55.
Dee Brown: Women of the Wild West. Pan Books. P.57.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.233.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.63.
Ibid. p. 24.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.349.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.252.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.216.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.248.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.85.
Elizabeth Custer: Boots and Saddles.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.235.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.216.
Dee Brown: op. cit. p.45.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.31.
Frances Roe: op. cit. p.80.
Martha Summerhayes: op. cit. p.192.
Other Reading: Alice Marriott: The Ladies in This is the West, edited by Robert West Howard.
English Westerners' Society
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