LDS Girls in the Pioneer West


In the summer of 1885, almost one hundred years ago, Colenda Chrilla Rogers was living with her family in Pleasant Grove, Utah—the strawberry capital of pioneer Mormondom. During that summer Colenda sewed a dress for her mother, wrote letters for her Aunt Lizzie, helped with the farm work, did the family washing, walked to Provo to see a circus, went regularly to Sunday School, picked wild berries, cut and dried apples and peaches, went on outings with her chums, and in general helped out with the work of home and farm, village and church.

We know about Colenda’s work and fun that summer because she kept a diary. Nor was it uncommon for pioneer girls to keep diaries. A number of these are in the Church Archives in Salt Lake City, in university libraries, and in the possession of family descendants. What was it like to grow up as a girl in pioneer Utah? What did pioneer girls do? How did they react? What were they like?

The first striking fact is that many of our pioneer girls were raised abroad, or were born of parents who emigrated from other countries when the girl was a small child. In 1870, approximately half the adults in Utah were foreign-born. In 1890, a year for which we have more detailed demographic data, Utah’s population, excluding those under ten, consisted of 30 percent native whites with native white parents, 35 percent native white with foreign parentage, and 34 percent foreign-born white. In other words approximately 70 percent of Utah’s residents had foreign-born parents. A little over half of these foreign-born in Utah’s first 30 years were born in the British Isles, and a little less than half in Scandinavia, principally Denmark. Obviously, there was a problem of adjustment to Utah’s semiarid land, but there must have been an even more important problem of adjustment to the people—their language, culture, and way of life.

A second striking fact is that a surprisingly large number of girls suffered because of the early death of one or both parents. Only a small percentage of households still had both parents alive by the time the last child had left the nest. A mother might die in childbirth, from tuberculosis or what the pioneers called consumption, or from one of the other frequent diseases—cholera, pneumonia, or smallpox. The father might die of an accident, exposure, or, like his wife, of one of the common diseases of the period. The impact on the children is clear. They were brought up by a single parent, or with a second father or mother, or by an uncle or aunt, or by foster parents. These were not always happy arrangements. In many instances it meant poverty, lack of schooling, and going to work at an early age.

For a similar reason, many of the girls suffered through the death of little brothers or sisters or neighborhood playmates. A heavy proportion of all the babies died before they were one year of age, and of those who survived infancy, about one-fourth died before they reached 16. So death was an ever-present reality. The girls themselves—that is, those who lived—almost inevitably went through long sieges of illness—smallpox, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, diphtheria (what the pioneers called “putrid sore throat”), and of course mumps, whooping cough, and measles. It was not only the disease that sapped their strength and energy, but the remedies—heavy doses of emetics, laxatives, mustard plasters, poultices, and having to wear a green flannel, foul-smelling asafetida bag around their necks each winter.

A third surprising fact is the frequency with which most pioneer families moved. Nearly every family moved their place of residence every two or three years. Lucy White’s parents, for example, had lived in nine different locations by the time she was 17. One of these was in a dugout in Salina, Sevier County. Rachel Pyne, who came to Utah with her parents from England when she was four, lived in eight different homes by the time she was eight. “We moved so often,” Melinda Bean said, “that after living in one place for several weeks the chickens would come in and lie down on the floor with their legs together ready to be tied for the next move.”

Partly because of the moving, partly because of poverty, most girls received very little education. Wards and settlements usually held school three months each winter. That is, there was school provided someone was available and willing to teach, provided the heads of households were willing and able to support the teacher with vegetables and other produce, and provided there was no emergency facing the settlement such as danger from hostile Indians, the necessity of repairing a dam, or an epidemic of smallpox, whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, or some other contagious disease. Most girls did well if they learned to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Sometimes they learned this in Sunday School, since day school was so uncertain and infrequent.

Recognizing their inadequacy, some of the girls went to heroic lengths to teach themselves. Mathilde Nielsen, born in Copenhagen, was brought to the United States when she was six, and her family settled in a Scandinavian village in Morgan County called Milton. The family was very poor. Mathilde had to milk ten cows and do the housework; card, spin, weave, and sew; and help tend her little brothers and sisters. Her mother died when she was 12; Mathilde had to “get out and rustle,” as she expressed it. By the time she was 16, she was working in a household in Ogden, making $3 per week. While there, she received a letter from her brother Waldemer, asking her to write home. But she had never written a letter! Let her tell the story:

“I will never forget my first letter [that] I ever tried to write. My brother insisted I write when he knew I had never had a pencil in my hand. But I was game. I got a book with the letters in and a lead pencil and paper, and started to write. It didn’t look so bad while I was writing, but when I got it finished I couldn’t read one word. I rolled it in a little ball and started to cry and was going to put it in the stove. I changed my mind. Instead, I sat down, smoothed it out, and sent it. I thought he would never ask me to write again. Just as quick as my brother could answer, a letter came back. He said he could read every word. If he hadn’t answered my questions, I would have thought he was fibbing. He begged me to write again. I did and kept on writing until it looked pretty fair.”

Mathilde continued to write the rest of her life, and because of that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren are able to know about her fascinating life. Her legacy was a marvelous, if brief, personal history.

What did these pioneer girls do? Mostly, it would seem, they worked. They helped their mothers; they helped their fathers; they helped their grandparents, if one or more was near; they helped their neighbors; they helped their brothers and sisters. The specific tasks of the girl, in most instances, were to help with the housework and garden work; glean the fields; gather the eggs, fruit, and vegetables; make butter, cheese, and soap; help make all the clothing, including hats, worn by the family; help feed the pigs, chickens, horses, and cattle, and sometimes herd them; trim the lamp wicks and clean the chimneys; and do all kinds of errands. The hours of work were “all of them,” and the tasks were “whatever you can do.” Yet even in their poverty and economizing there could be the saving grace of humor. There was a family in southern Utah who were at supper. The little brother called out, “Ma, Jake’s wasty! He picked a fly out of the ’lasses and never licked its legs off.” “Wasty Jake Beecham” was a by-word around town for years.

Minnie Petersen, in Kamas Valley, was just a small child when she was asked to weed a neighbor’s flower bed. Not receiving proper instruction, she simply went out and pulled up all the plants that didn’t have blossoms on them. One day her father sent her over to Brother Olsen, the blacksmith, to borrow a monkey wrench. To help her remember the name of the tool, her father told her to think of a little animal. When she asked for the wrench, she asked for a “mouse wrench.” From that time forward, she was Mouse Wrench Minnie. When she was a little older, she and other young people were instructed to clear some land for cultivation. They chopped down willows and sagebrush, picked up rocks and hauled them off, and in the evening had a big bonfire of all the brush. All the young people in the village were there. They roasted potatoes to eat with salt and hung over the fire pieces of fresh meat. They played games and exchanged ghost stories. When they went out to gather wild strawberries, currants, and gooseberries that grew along the streams, they combined it with swimming in the creeks. In most groups there was nearly always one person who played the concertina, harmonica, or violin, and so they often had accompaniment for group singing and dancing.

Sarah Ann Murdock, the eldest child of a large family, had gone with her parents in the 1850s to Carson Valley, Nevada, where her father was appointed to take care of the Church cattle and make butter and cheese for the tithing office. When they were returning to Utah across the Nevada deserts, her mother began her labor for the next child. The wagon was halted in the shelter of a large rock. Since it reminded him of Mount Sinai, the father, after delivering the baby girl, blessed her and named her Rocksinai. They eventually moved to Heber Valley. When one of their friends or neighbors got their rolls of wool prepared, they would invite other women and girls to bring their spinning wheels and help get the rolls spun into yarn.

“We would go early in the morning and spin all day, stopping only to eat dinner prepared by the hostess. One day I spun ten skeins, which ordinarily would have taken two or three days. … Four skeins was supposed to be a good day’s work.”

Bessie Brown and Lila Eliason suggested that when they needed rags to make a rug for the meetinghouse, they should hold a rag dance. Everyone had to bring some rags to gain admittance into the dance. The next day after the dance, the young ladies and the Relief Society women made the carpet.

Nancy Greene’s mother settled in Escalante, what was called Potato Valley, and Nancy, the eldest daughter in a family of six, had a lot of cows to milk. “Among my mother’s cows,” she wrote, “was one old cow which would not let a man come near her. If for any reason one of the men had to handle her, he would have to put on a woman’s dress, apron, and sunbonnet. We children thought this very funny.”

Carrie Laub, in Hebron, remembered when she and her mother went out to the watermelon patch and enjoyed a watermelon. Her father ate with them and then went to work, but her mother stayed with her and continued eating. In a few minutes her father came back and said, “You still eating?” and the mother replied, “I am going to eat enough so in the winter when they are all gone, I won’t wish I had eaten some more when I had a chance.”

Mamie Woolley’s father was assigned to look after the church’s ranch at Kanab. On the ranch each summer there were more than one hundred cows which had calved—beef cows to be sure, but nevertheless cows which produced milk. Brother Woolley appointed a passel of boys and girls to do the milking and to make butter and cheese. Mamie was one of these. They had to be up as soon as it was light so the task could be done before the flies began to bother and the sun got too hot. The very young calves were given half their mother’s milk, the older ones one-fourth. The young men wore blue overalls and heavy shirts, while the girls had big sack aprons made of blue denim and a red bandana over the hair. The milk was poured into a large vat in the cheese room. “I milked an average of 20 cows night and morning every summer as long as we ran the dairy,” wrote Mamie. “Besides milking cows night and morning, I had to cook and do the housework, including the washing for the family and several hired men. Mother was in a delicate condition and could do very little except supervise.

“In the evenings after the milking and other chores were done,” wrote Mamie, “we would gather in the little log cabin … and listen to Aunt Mishie sing and play on the little old organ.” Some of the songs Mamie remembered them singing and playing were “Ben Bolt,” “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” “The Bridge,” “Silver Threads among the Gold,” “The Spanish Cavalier,” “The Gypsy’s Warning,” “Tenting Tonight,” “My Bonny Lies over the Ocean,” and many Sunday School hymns.

Mamie was apparently her father’s handyman on the farm. As early as age 11 she was put on top of a load of hay and told to drive the team home from the field, a distance of 6 miles or more, and through the Virgin River, which was full of quicksand and very hazardous. “My heart was in my mouth till I was safely over it,” she wrote. But when she arrived safely home, “I thought I was quite a hero.”

When Mamie was 14, a little sister was born at the ranch. Her father, by now stake president, had gone to general conference in Salt Lake City. Before leaving, however, he had brought from Kanab a midwife, Macey Stewart, who promised she would stay till his return, or at least till the mother was able to be up and around. “When the baby was a week old,” wrote Mamie, the midwife got homesick and “regardless of her promise to Father that she would stay, she left Mother in bed with me to care for her and the baby, besides all the housework, washing, etc., for the family and hired men. Talk about responsibility for a 14-year-old!” she concluded.

Frances Richards, whose parents lived in Union Fort, Salt Lake County, in the 1860s, lived on a family farm. She learned to milk at five, and helped put up the hay, raking it with hand rakes and piling it with hand forks. In the summer and fall she and her friends had apple cutting bees and peach cutting bees. “These were considered as recreation,” she wrote. “We would frequently cut as many as 25 bushels in one evening.” The next day these were spread on the housetops and on scaffolds to dry.

About the age of 14, many of the girls had to go outside the home to work to bring in income. They usually began working for neighbors, then a better spot out of town, and eventually, in the course of their work, they would meet the man who would become their husband. Mathilde Nielsen, as early as 12, had to work out. She milked 10 cows, did the housework, and got 50 cents per week. Her remark about this to her children was: “I had to go barefooted to do it all. When a cow stepped on your bare feet it sure did hurt.” By the time she was 15, Mathilde was taking confinement cases and looking after the baby. When she was 17 she went to Ogden to work for an LDS family for two years at $3 per week, and was able to buy many of the things her family needed.

Minnie Petersen left home to work at age 16 and received $1.75 per week. She received good recommendations and eventually was employed by a mining family in Park City at $6.00 per week, which is the highest salary I’ve seen paid any of the girls in 19th century Utah.

Mary Hobson, the eighth of nine children born in Farmington, Utah, in 1853, kept house for her older brother Alma. He had a store in Richmond, Utah, and was the first telegraph operator there. He taught Mary, age 15, telegraphy and sent her to a special school for this in Logan. She helped him and was the first woman telegrapher in Richmond. Then Alma moved to Franklin, the oldest town in Idaho, and kept a store, post office, and telegraph office there. Mary helped him and thus became the first woman telegrapher in Idaho. When Alma moved back to Richmond, Mary stayed in Franklin and managed the store, post office, and telegraph office for several years.

The kind of tasks given to the girls and young men were calculated to give them not only a sense of responsibility but a feeling of self-confidence. Among the Saints no distinction was made between the mistress of a house and a servant girl working for her. The girl ate with the family, prayed with them, played with them. The kind of tasks they were assigned unquestionably gave them a feeling of accomplishment. I mentioned Mamie Woolley earlier. In 1889 her father bought a home in Kanab and took Mamie with him to Salt Lake City to select furniture. They shipped it to Salina, Sevier County, the end of the railroad line, and then freighted it from there—an eight-day trip. There were two big wagon loads of it, both stacked high. Mamie drove one wagon and her father the other. They camped out every night and slept on the ground. Mamie hitched and unhitched the teams, curried the horses, and fed and watered her own team. Obviously, this was not the stereotype of “woman’s work.” Girls were asked to do what had to be done and what they were resourceful and courageous and skilled enough to do.

An inevitable female task in almost every household in which the girls grew up was making cloth and clothing. As early as ages five or six the girls were knitting with two needles, and within a year they were knitting pairs of stockings with long legs and double heels from yarn which their mother or older sisters had carded, spun, and dyed. By the time they were 12 they had learned to spin. Sarah Ann Owen, in Cache Valley, remembers spending long hours spinning on a machine that required the spinner to stand. “We found,” she wrote, “that by removing our shoes and standing in water that we poured on the barn floor, we could relieve the aching of our feet while standing all day spinning.” Most of the girls learned to embroider, crochet, and tat when they were 13 or 14. Some of them, at the same age, also learned to weave. Not all households had looms, of course, but often there was one or more in every neighborhood.

The making of cloth and clothing in the home was partly a necessity, considering their poverty and distance from markets with machine-made products. Textile material was scarce in the 1850s and ’60s, and in some areas also in the 1870s and ’80s. One girl reported that she saw a woman rip up an old dress to make over for one of her children. “She picked out the stitches one by one,” the girl reported, “and saved the thread to restitch it with.”

Many households raised their own sheep, clipped the wool, prepared it for spinning, spun it, and then took it to a neighbor with a loom to weave it into linsey. The linsey was then cut and made into skirts, blouses, shirts, dresses, and men’s suits. Mary Julia Johnson stated that a young man who was leaving in one week on a mission had no suit to wear. When the women of the ward heard this, they went to work with the result that “one Sunday the wool was the sheep’s back, but by the next Sunday it had been clipped, cleansed, carded, spun, woven, and made into a splendid suit and was on the back of the missionary as he delivered his farewell address in our little church house.”

Even the herding of the sheep and the clipping of the wool was often done by the girls, particularly when they had no brothers or their brothers had other work to do. Many girls had some herding experience, and a few did all the herding. Minerva Stone herded her father’s little band of 15 or 20 sheep on the bench east of Ogden. Her work included feeding and raising the lambs whose mothers disowned them. In getting the sheep back to her home each evening, she often followed paths lined with cockleburs. She was barefooted.

“I would hesitate,” she wrote, “and wonder whether it be the least painful to run over the burrs or to walk slowly. Running would be more acute, but sooner ended, while walking slowly would prolong my misery. However my supply of shoe leather [the souls of her naked feet] was inexhaustible. As soon as one thickness would wear off, another would grow in its place.”

Remembering that there were no such things as coats in many pioneer homes, and no central heating, it is easy to understand why the girls wore so many layers of underclothing. Mamie Woolley, who lived most of her years in St. George or Kanab—not exactly a cold country—described the clothing girls wore in the 1880s and ’90s.

“Our garments or unions reached from the neck to the ankle, with long sleeves to the wrist, and were made of heavy factory [cloth], which had to be bleached for weeks, by boiling and then spreading it on the lucerne patch where it could get the direct rays of the sun, and it had to be wet every day during the process.

“On top of the garment or union we wore a ‘chemise’ which reached far below the knees, was made of bleach, or factory, and more or less elaborately trimmed with tucks and insertions to form a yoke, and narrow lace or embroidery was ruffled around the neck and armholes. …

“We never wore less than two petticoats and often three or more. Mother never considered us well nor modestly dressed without a white flannel or linsey petticoat ‘next to us’ (on top of all the other things mentioned) and then a red or gray flannel one over that in winter. In summer the extra one could be made of cotton, either bleach, all tucked and ruffled, or black satine [sateen], as we liked; but they must be made as full as they could possibly be gathered on to the waistband to conceal the outline of the figure and make them entirely shadowproof.”

Over these underclothes they had tight-fitting basques or bodices, with stitched tapering folds or “darts” and “side bodies” to fit the bodice to the curves of the body, making at least ten seams in the waist, each one of which had to be “overcast” or sewed over the edge to prevent raveling and “boned” or strengthened with stays. Buttonholes were placed so close together down the front that the buttons usually touched, and sometimes overlapped each other. All of the sewing of these garments, it must be kept in mind, and also the boys’ unions and shirts, was done by hand, by the mother and the girls.

As for the skirts, they were 3 or 4 yards around the bottom, made either circular or with 12 to 15 gores or sections, flared lengthwise, all lined throughout, with skirt lining, and interlined with crinoline to above the knees. The skirt, of course, reached to the ankle and its heavy weight caused considerable friction on their high-topped shoes. Together with the numerous petticoats, the heavy skirt always hung on the hips and was never suspended from the shoulders.

All of the clothing was made for growing girls and boys, and in the usual family, had to last at least a year. So they always made them a little larger than would currently fit them. In this way they could grow into them, as it were. Girls sometimes complained that their party dresses when first tried on, were “much too large,” but the mother helped by putting in tucks and temporary hems that would make them suitable for immediate wearing.

Despite the ration of one new dress, suit, and skirt per person per year, there was always more than they could do. A Cache Valley resident recalled that he did not remember ever seeing his mother or sisters in bed. “They were up in the morning before any of us, and the last to bed.” And this resident recalled that when his mother died, “she did not look natural because she didn’t have her knitting in her hands.”

Some households, of course, did not have enough girls to do all the spinning and sewing that was necessary for the members of the household, or perhaps the mother was dead, or perhaps she was ill for an extended period. In that event, the custom was to invite a neighbor girl to join the household. Some experienced girls, who were 14, 15, or 16, earned some income by spending time at households—helping with the sewing task. Louisa Chamberlain, who lived in Cedar City in the 1860s, was an example of these. Her mother had fallen in love with another man and left her, an only child, to care for her aged father when she was seven. She fed him, kept him clean, and cheered him when he was downcast—the epitome of the “poor little match girl.” Her father died when she was 13, and from that age, to use her words, she “just lived … wherever I could find work.” A slight, quick-moving girl, she took her spinning wheel with her. When her spinning hours were over, she helped in the kitchen.

The customary picture of pioneer boys doing the outside work and girls performing the inside tasks is only partly correct. Girls, regularly in some families and occasionally in most, also worked in the fields, milked cows, pitched hay, and herded the livestock. It is not true that boys did the hard pioneering while girls led a more protected inside life. Girls shared in many of the work assignments traditionally thought to have been done only by boys, and girls shared the “hardness” of pioneering work along with the boys.

We must also remember that the girls participated in ward plays, ward choirs, ward dances, and ward outings; they were sometimes terrorized by hostile or supposedly hostile Indians, and sometimes by wild animals and reptiles and natural disasters; they were impressed with the nearness and reality of God and with the good example of most of their religious leaders; and they were full of spirit or spunk. They contributed much to the building of the kingdom.

As to their achievements in later life, we can all be proud. Most of these women became good wives and mothers, honorable, hardworking women of great faith. The Mamie Woolley that I mentioned also became the second woman mayor of an American city when she was elected mayor of Kanab. Susa Young became an officer of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Louise Yates, who was born in Scipio, Utah, during an Indian raid and spent the first three days of her life hidden with her mother in a potato cellar, became a general president of the Relief Society. Louisa Lula Greene, who grew up in Smithfield, Utah, and had for her first assignment from the bishop the editing of a manuscript newspaper for her Sunday School, was the founding editor of the Woman’s Exponent, first continuing magazine by and for women west of the Mississippi River. Ada Dwyer, who was born the year the Salt Lake Theater opened, became a child actor there, then a teenage actor, and finally a performer on the stage in leading cities in America and Europe. Emma Lucy Gates became one of the great opera singers in the world. Alice Louise Reynolds, one of 11 children who lost their mother when Alice was 12, became the first woman to have professorial rank at BYU and one of its most honored and best-remembered teachers. Caroline Cottam Romney, who had pioneered in Mexico and Arizona, became the mother of Henry Eyring, one of the world’s greatest chemists, and Camilla Eyring Kimball, the wife of our beloved Prophet. Ellis Reynold Shipp, whose mother died when she was 14, became one of Utah’s most famous and respected doctors and, among others, delivered President N. Eldon Tanner. Louisa Chamberlain, who was left an orphan at 13 and who “just lived … wherever I could find work,” became the grandmother of President Marion G. Romney.

It is clear that many of our pioneer girls who lacked formal education found some way to make up for it. Some who were very poor and were forced to work at an early age acquired the experience and self-confidence to enable them to make the most of their situation. Pioneer institutions like the Sunday School, the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association, and Relief Society helped the girls develop their talents and abilities. And the writing of their pioneer diaries and journals helped develop their self-confidence and sense of perspective so that they matured gracefully. The second generation of Latter-day Saint women, building on their experience as girls, were successful in combining Church service, professional achievement, and family life. They furnish a splendid model for our own girls to build on, and furnish an example to all of us that we should be awake to our own opportunities and responsibilities.

[photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten