21: Woman as an Educator on the Frontier
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"Within the house, within the family the woman is all: she is the
inspiring, moulding, embellishing, and controlling power." This terse
description of woman's influence in the household applies with double
force and significance to the position of the pioneer wife and mother. Her
life in that position was one long battle, one long labor, one long trial,
one long sorrow. Out of this varied, searching, continuous educational
process came discipline of the body, of the mind, and of the whole moral
nature. Adversity, her
"Stern, ragged nurse, whose rigid lore,
With patience, many a year, she bore,"
taught her the practice of the heroic as well as of the gentler virtues;
courage, labor, fortitude, plain living, charity, sobriety, pity. In that
school these virtues became habitual to her mind; because their practice
was enforced by the stress of circumstances. Daily and nightly, in those
homes on the frontier, there is some danger to be faced, some work to be
done, some suffering to be borne or some self-denial to be exercised, some
sufferer to be relieved or some sympathy to be extended.
There is a two-fold result from this educational process: first, the
transmission, by the law of hereditary descent, of marked traits of
character to her children, who show, in a greater or less degree, their
mother's nature as developed in this severe school; second, woman becomes
fitted to mould the character and instruct the mind of her children in the
light of her own experience and discipline. Woman is the great educator of
Within the first half of the 18th century, in that narrow belt of thinly
settled country which follows the indentation of the Atlantic ocean, in
lonely cabins in the forest, or on the, hill-slope, or by the unvisited
sea, most of the representative men of our Revolutionary Era first saw the
light, and were pillowed on the breasts of the frontier mothers.
The biographical records of our country are bright with the names of
men—the brave, the wise, the good—who were born of pioneer women, and who
inherited from them those traits which, in after life, made them great and
illustrious in the learned professions, in the camp, and in the councils of
their native country. Who can doubt that the daughters, too, of those
strong women, and the sisters of those eminent men, inheriting similar
traits, exercised in their sphere as potent though silent an influence as
did their brothers in the high stations to which they were called.
As by a strain of blood, inherited traits come down to succeeding
generations, and, as from the breast of the mother the first elements of
bodily strength are received, so from her lips are obtained those first
principles of good and incentives of greatness which the sterner features
and blunter feelings of the father are rarely sufficient to inculcate.
On parent knees, or later, in intervals of work or play, the soldier who
fought to make us a free republic, and the statesman who laid deep and wide
the foundations of our constitution, acquired from their mothers' lips
those lessons of virtue and duty which made their after careers so useful
to their country and memorable in history.
We have said that woman was the great educator on the frontier. She
was something more than an educator, as the term is usually applied.
The teaching of the rudiments of school-learning was a fraction in the
sum-total of her training and influence.
The means of moulding and guiding the minds of the young upon the border
are very different from what they are in more settled states of society.
Education in the older states of the Union is organized in the district and
high school, in the academy and the college, and is maintained by large
taxation of the town, city, or state. Here are wealth, aggregations of
intelligence, and a surplus of the educated labor class. Commodious and
often beautiful edifices shelter the bright tribes whom the morning bell
calls together beneath the eye of cultured teachers. Stately halls and
quaint chapels are the seats where the higher learning is inculcated; the
paraphernalia of education is splendid, the appliances are adequate, and
the whole machinery by which knowledge is diffused among the young, works
with a smooth regularity that makes it almost automatic.
Contrast this system which prevails to-day, and in the more settled
conditions of American society, with that which prevailed in earlier years
in a thinly and newly-inhabited country, and which now obtains on our
frontier line, and how striking is the difference!
Indeed, how could we look for any such organism where small settlements
were separated from each other by long spaces and bad roads, and where
single cabins were so completely isolated, as in the New England and the
Middle and Southern States a century and a half ago, or as in the earlier
settled States of the West seventy years ago, or as in the newly-settled
States of the West within the present generation, or as on the frontier
proper to-day? Under such conditions even the district school was
impracticable or inaccessible. To supply its place, each household where
there were children was a training school, of which the mother was the
The process, under her eyes and hand, of forming the mind and character, is
very slow, but it is healthy and natural. It is conducted in the short
interval of severe toil. She reverts to first principles, and teaches by
objects rather than by lessons. It is the character that she forms more
than the mind.
She has about her a band of silent but powerful coadjutors. The sunshine
and free air of the wilderness are poured around the little stranger, which
soon grows into a handsome, largely-developed, vigorous nursling.
The air of the wilderness, too, is the native air of freedom: this, and the
ample space wherein the young plant flourishes, makes it large in frame and
broad in mind and character.
Transplant a cypress from a garden in a populous community to the deep
black mould of the west, and it grows to be a forest monarch. It is Hazlitt
who says "the heart reposes in greater security on the immensity of
nature's works, expatiates freely there and finds elbow room and breathing
In the log-cabin there is perhaps but a single room: there is a bed, a
table, blocks of wood for chairs, and a few wretched cooking utensils.
Thank God! The life of the pioneer woman is not "cribbed and confined" to
this hovel. The forest, the prairie, the mountain-side are free to her as
the vital air, and the canopy of heaven is her familiar covering. A life
out doors is a necessary part of both the moral and the physical education
of her children.
Riding through one of the prairies of the far West, some years since, we
arrived just at dusk in front of a cabin where a mother was sitting with
her four young children and teaching them lessons from the great book of
nature. She had shown them the sun as it set in glory, and told them of its
rising and of its going down; of the clouds and of the winds, and how God
made the grass and trees, and the stars, which came trooping out before
their eyes. She taught them, she said, little as yet from books. She had
but a Bible, a catechism, an almanac. The Bible was the only Reader in her
little school. Already she had whispered in their ears the story of Jesus'
life and death, and charged their infant memories with the wise and
beautiful teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.
What a practical training was that which children had in that outdoor
knowledge which had been useful to their mother! The chemistry of common
life learned from the processes wrought out by the air and sunshine;
astronomy from the great luminaries which are the clocks of the wilderness,
and the science of the weather from the phenomena of the sky. There was no
"cramming" in that home-school; each item of knowledge was well absorbed
and assimilated, for the mother's toils made the intervals long between the
lessons. So much the better for the young heart and mind, which grows,
swells, and gathers force unlaced and unfettered by scholastic pedantry and
It is from the mother, too, that the boy or girl must take their first
lessons in the tillage of the soil, which are most readily learned in the
garden, for the women are the gardeners of the frontier. Gardening is a
labor of patience and virtue, and is excellent discipline for the
character. A child's true life is in the fields, and should be early
familiarized with the forms of vegetable life. No small part of the
education of a child may be carried on by the care and assiduous
contemplation of plants and flowers. Observation, experience, reflection,
and reasoning, would all come of it. A flower is a whole world, pure,
Woman's natural fitness for the work of an educator of the human plant is
seen in the readiness and zeal with which she enters into this work of
tending and training the plants in a vegetable or flower garden, and the
garden is one of the outdoor schools where her little ones gain their most
useful instruction. The difference between plants, the variegation of
colors, their relations to the air, the sunshine, the dew, the rain; the
habits of plants, some erect, some creeping, some climbing, the seasons of
flowering, fruitage, and seed, are impressed with ease upon the plastic
mind of childhood.
From the garden it is but one step to the meadow and the forest. Here the
boy and girl sees nature unaided by man working out similar processes on a
grander scale. There is heroic force and valor in the trees and grasses,
and the child is early brought into antagonism with these strong forms of
wild nature, and learns that he and his parents live by subjugating or
converting them to their use. This is the lesson of contention in carrying
through a useful purpose. The native sward is to be overturned and a new
growth implanted; bushes are to be torn up root and branch so that the
cattle may have pasture; the trees must be hewn down and cut into beams and
Thus, too, is learned the great lesson of labor. There is no rest for the
mother. The stove, the broom, the needle, the hoe, and the axe are ever the
familiar implements of her household husbandry. The cows and poultry are
her protégés. Her brown arms and sunburned face are seen among the
mowers and reapers. Endowed with the practical faculty for small things,
she reaches into details which escape the blunter senses of the stronger
sex. The necessities and contingencies of frontier life make her variously
accomplished in the useful arts. She becomes a "jack at all trades,"
carding, spinning, weaving, cobbling shoes, fitting moccasins, mending
harness, dressing leather, making clothes, serving as cook, dairy-maid,
laundress, gardener, and nurse. From example and from precept the children
learn the lesson of labor from the mother.
The girls of course remain longer than their brothers under her tutelage.
Theirs is a lofty destiny—lofty because as wives and mothers they are to
carry the shrine of civilization into the wilderness, and build upon the
desert and waste places the structure of a new civil and social state.
Serving as a duty and a pleasure is woman's vocation. The great German poet
and philosopher has finely amplified this idea:
"Early let woman learn to serve, for that is her calling,
For by serving alone she attains to ruling;
To the well-deserved power which is hers in the household.
The sister serves her brother while young; and serves her parents,
And her life is still a continual going and coming,
A carrying ever and bringing, a making and shaping for others.
Well for her if she learns to think no road a foul one,
To make the hours of the night the same as the hours of the day;
To think no labor too trifling, and never too fine the needle;
To forget herself altogether, and live in others alone.
And lastly, as mother, in truth, she will need every one of the virtues."
A French traveler in the course of his wanderings through, the western
wilds of our country, came to a single cabin in one of the remotest and
most inaccessible of our mountain territories. The only inmates in that
lonely home were a middle-aged woman and four girls, ranging from eight to
fifteen. The father was a miner, who spent a large part of the time in
digging or "prospecting" for precious ores, as yet with only moderate
success. The matron did the work of both man and woman. The cabin was a
museum of household mechanisms and implements. Independent of the clothier,
the merchant, and the grocer, their dress was the furry covering of the
mountain beasts; their tea was a decoction of herbs; their sugar was boiled
from the sap of the maple; the necessaries of life were all of their own
culture and manufacture. Yet, thanks to the unwearied toils of the good
woman and her little help-meets, there was warmth, comfort, and abundance,
for love and labor were inhabitants of those rocks.
The girls had already been taught all that their mother knew, and she had
sent out to fight their own battle, three sons, strong, brave, and versed
It was my mother, said the matron, that taught me all that I know, forty
years ago in the forests of Michigan, and I am trying to bring up my girls
so that they shall know everything that their grandmother taught me. They
could read, and write, and cypher. They were little farmers, and gardeners,
and seamstresses, and housewives. Nor had their religious and moral
training been neglected. The good Book lay well thumbed and dogeared on the
kitchen shelf. The sound of the "church-going bell" had never been heard by
those children, but every Sunday the mother gathered them about her, and
they read together from the New Testament. "It is ten years," said the
matron, "since I have seen a church. I remember the last time I visited San
Francisco, awaking Sunday morning and hearing the sound of the bell which
called us to meeting. It was sweeter than heavenly music to my ears, and I
burst into tears." What a suggestion was that, pointing to the unsatisfied
craving of that lonely heart for the consolation of the promises uttered by
consecrated lips! Right and fitting it is that woman, God-beloved in old
Jerusalem, that she, the last at the cross and the first at the sepulcher,
though far from the Sabbath that smiles upon eastern homes, should keep
alive in the hearts of her children the remembrance of the Saviour and of
the Lord's day.
Rove wherever they may, the sons and daughters of the wilderness will find
amid the stormiest lives a safe anchorage in the holy keeping of the
Christian Sabbath, and in the word of God, for these are the best and
surest legacies of a pious mother's precepts. A civilization in which the
early lispings of childhood are of God and Christ, cannot become altogether
corrupt and degenerate, for woman here is the depository and transmitter of
From the earliest times to a comparatively recent period, a large
proportion of the distinguished men of our country have necessarily passed
their first years in remote settlements, if not on the extreme border of
civilization. The lives of those men who have risen to eminence as
generals, statesmen, professional men, and authors, and date their success
from the lessons received from woman's lips in the early homes of their
childhood, would fill volumes. We pass by the first generations of these
pupils, and come to the men of that period from which to-day we date the
birth of the Republic.
The heroic age of American statesmanship commenced in 1776. Of all those
illustrious men who signed the immortal Declaration, or framed the
Constitution of the United States, a considerable number passed their
childhood and youth in secluded and remote settlements. They were the sons
of "Women on the American Frontier." They drew in with their mother's milk
the intellectual and moral traits, and gathered from their mother's lips
those lessons which prepared them in after years to guide the councils of
their country in the most trying period of its history.
Let us commence the list with the deathless name of Washington. Born in a
secluded and primitive farm-house at Bridge's Creek, Virginia, he was left
by the death of his father to the care and guardianship of his mother.
"She," says his biographer, "proved herself worthy of the trust. Endowed
with plain, direct good sense, thorough conscientiousness, and prompt
decision, she governed her family strictly, but kindly, exacting deference
while she inspired affection. George, being her eldest son, was thought to
be her favorite, yet she never gave him undue preference, and the implicit
deference exacted from him in childhood continued to be habitually observed
by him to the day of her death. He inherited from her a high temper and a
spirit of command, but her early precepts and example taught him to
restrain and govern that temper, and to square his conduct on the exact
principles of equity and justice. Tradition gives an interesting picture of
the widow, with her little flock gathered round her, as was her wont,
reading to them lessons of religion and morality out of some standard work.
Her favorite volume was Sir Mathew Hale's Contemplations, moral and divine.
The admirable maxims therein contained, for outward action as well as self
government, sank deep into the mind of George, and doubtless had a great
influence in forming his character. They certainly were exemplified in his
conduct throughout life. His mother's manual, bearing his mother's name,
Mary Washington, written with her own hand, was ever preserved by him with
filial care, and may still be seen in the archives of Mount Vernon. A
precious document! Let those who wish to know the moral foundation of his
character, consult its pages."
Among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, the
author of that immortal document; George Wythe, afterwards Chancellor of
Virginia; Francis Hopkinson, the poet and patriot Benjamin Franklin, Samuel
Huntington, Edward Rutledge, and many others, have left upon record
testimonials of their great obligations to their mother's care and
In the second era of American statesmanship, a large number of those most
eminent for public services were also born and nurtured on the frontier. A
cursory examination of the biographies of those distinguished men will show
how largely they were indebted to the early training which they received
from their mothers.
Incidents drawn from the early life of the seventh President of the United
States, will prove with striking clearness the lasting influence of a
During one of the darkest periods of the Revolution, and after the massacre
at Warsaw by the bloodthirsty Tarleton, when the British prison-pens in
South Carolina were crowded with wounded captive patriots, an elderly
woman, with the strongly marked physiognomy which characterizes the
Scotch-Irish race, could have been seen moving among the hapless prisoners,
relieving their wants and alleviating their sufferings. She had come the
great distance, alone and on foot, through swamps and forests, and across
rivers, from a border settlement, on this errand of compassion.
After her work of charity and mercy had been finished, she set out alone
and on foot, as before, upon her journey home. She sped on, thinking
doubtless of her sons, and most of all of the youngest, a bright and manly
little fellow whom she had watched over and trained with all of a mother's
care and tenderness. The way was long and difficult, the unbridged streams
were cold, the forest was dark and tangled. Wandering from her course,
weary and worn with her labors of love and pity, she sank down at last and
That woman who gave her life to her country and humanity was the mother of
Andrew Jackson, and that youngest son, her especial pupil, was the seventh
president of the United States. He had lost his father when an infant, and
his early training devolved upon that patriot mother, from whom he also
inherited some of those marked and high traits of character for which he
was afterwards so conspicuous. She was an earnest and devoted Christian
woman, and strove, like the mother of Washington, to glorify God as much in
the rearing of her children as in the performance of any other duty. She
taught Andrew the leading doctrines of the Bible, in the form of question
and answer, from the Westminster catechism: and these lessons he never
forgot. In a conversation with him some years since, says a writer,
"General Jackson spoke of his mother in a manner that convinced me that she
never ceased to exert a secret power over him, until his heart was brought
into reconciliation with God." Just before his death, which occurred in
June, 1855, he said to a clergyman, "My lamp is nearly out, and the last
glimmer is come, I am ready to depart when called. The Bible is true. Upon
that sacred volume I rest my hopes of eternal salvation, through the merits
and blood of our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ."
If departed spirits, the saintly and ascended, are permitted to look from
their high habitation, upon the scene of earth, with what holy transport
must the mother of Andrew Jackson have beheld the death-bed triumph of her
son. The lad whom she sent to an academy at the Warsaw meeting-house,
hoping to fit him for the ministry, had become a man, had filled the
highest elective office in the world, and was now an old man, able in his
last earthly hour, by the grace of God attending his early pious
instruction, to challenge death for his sting and to shout "victory"
over his opening grave.
It is a faculty of the female mind to penetrate with singular facility into
the true character of the young. Every intelligent mother quickly, and by
intuition, discerns the native bent of her child and measures his
endowments. Evidences of latent talent in any particular direction are
scrutinized with maternal shrewdness, and encouraged by applause and
caresses. The lonelier the cabin, the more secluded the settlement, the
sharper seem to grow the mother's eyes, and the more profound this
intuitive faculty. It is the mother who first discerns the native bent and
endowments of her child, and she too is the quickest to encourage and draw
them out. How many eminent and useful men whose childhood was passed in the
outlying settlements have been able to trace their success to a mother's
insight into their capabilities.
In one of the forest homes on the skirts of civilization in Pennsylvania,
Benjamin West, the greatest historical painter of the last century, showed
first to his mother's eyes the efforts of his infant genius. The picture of
a smiling babe made on a summer's day, when the little painter was but a
child of seven, caught his mother's delighted eyes, and she covered him
with her kisses. Years after, when Benjamin West was the guest of kings and
emperors, that immortal artist was wont to recall those electric caresses
and say "my mother's kiss made me a painter."
Daniel Webster's childhood home was in a log-cabin on the banks of the
Merrimac, in a sequestered portion of New Hampshire. Here he passed his
boyhood and youth, and received from his admirable mother those lessons
which formed his mind and character, and fitted him for that great part
which he was to play in public life. She recognized the scope of his genius
when she gave him the copy of the constitution on a pocket handkerchief.
She pinched every household resource that he might go to Exeter Academy,
and to Dartmouth College, as if she had had a prophetic vision that he
would come to be called the defender of those institutions which his father
fought to obtain. And when in after years he had grown gray in honors and
usefulness, he was wont to refer with tears to the efforts and sacrifices
of this mother who discerned his great capacity and was determined that he
should enjoy the advantages of a college education.
It is the affectionate and noble ambition of many other pioneer mothers
besides Mrs. Webster which has secured to their sons the benefits of a
thorough academical training.
The next step from the home-school is the district-school. The cabin which
shelters a single family is generally placed with shrewd eyes to its being
the point around which a settlement shall grow up. Wood and water are
contiguous: the soil is rich: not many seasons roll away before other
cabins send up their smoke hard by: children multiply, for these matrons of
the border are fecund: out of the common want rises the schoolhouse, built
of logs, with its rude benches: here the school teacher is a woman—the
grown-up daughter, or the maiden sister of the pioneer.
How many of our greatest men have learned their first rudiments from the
lips of "school marms," in their primitive school-houses on the frontier!
Population increases by production and accession. There is soon a dearth of
teachers; all along the frontier the cry is sent up to the east, come and
teach us! Woman again comes to the front; the schools of the border
settlements have been largely taught by the faithful and devoted female,
missionaries in the cause of education from the east. These pioneer school
mistresses bore the discomforts of remote western life patiently, and did
their duties cheerfully. Most of them afterwards became wives and mothers,
and have in both these relations done much towards building up the
settlements where they made their homes. Others have enrolled their names
among the missionary martyrs. The toils, hardships, and privations incident
to a newly settled country have often proved too heavy for the delicate
frames reared amid the comforts and luxuries of eastern homes, and they
have fallen victims to their noble ambition, giving their lives to the
cause they sought to promote.
One of these martyrs was Miss M. She was one of that band of lady-teachers,
numbering several hundred who, nearly thirty years ago, went out to the
then far west under the auspices of Governor Slade and Miss Catharine
Beecher, to supply the crying need of teachers which then existed in that
section of our country.
This, it should be remembered, was before railroads had brought that region
within easy access from the east. That wild, primeval garden had been, as
yet, redeemed from nature only in plots and patches. On the boundless
prairies of Illinois the cabins of the settlers were like solitary vessels
moored in a waste of waters, and between them rolled in green billows,
under the wind, the tall, coarse grass. The settlers themselves were of the
most adventurous and often of the roughest class. Society presented to the
cultured eye a rude and almost barbarous aspect.
Man, while grappling, almost unaided, with untamed nature, and seeking to
subdue her, seems to gravitate away from civilization and approach his
primitive state. Everything is taken in the rough; the arts and the graces
of a more settled condition of society are cultivated but little, because
they are non-essentials. The physical qualities are prized more than mental
culture, and the sentiments and sensibilities are in abeyance during the
reign of the more robust emotions.
During the onset which the pioneer makes upon the wilderness he and his
entire family bear the rugged impress which such a life stamps upon them.
The wife, in the practice of the sterner virtues of courage, self-denial,
and fortitude, may become hardened against the access of the quick
sensibilities and tender emotions of her more delicately reared sisters.
The children, bright-eyed, strong, and nimble, run like squirrels through
the woods, and leap like fawns on the plain. The mother's tutelage has done
much, but more remains to be done in the schooling to be had from books.
After the first victory has been won over the forest and the soil, and the
pioneer reposes for a season upon his laurels, in comparative ease, he
discerns the needs of his flock, and craves the offices of one who can
supply the place of the weary mother in schooling the children.
Out of the void that exists the appliances of education must be created;
the nurslings of the plain must be brought together and taught to subject
themselves to the regular discipline of the district school; and who but
woman can best supply such a discipline!
Such was the condition of frontier society and education when Miss M. came
to Illinois. Her immediate field of labor was a wide prairie, over which
were thinly scattered the cabins of the pioneer families. There were no
books, no school house, no antecedent knowledge of what was needed. But
under the advice and suggestions of this intelligent young lady every want
was, in a measure, supplied. A rough structure, with logs for seats, and
planks for benches, was soon prepared, books provided, and the children
gathered together into the comfortless room, where Miss M. made her first
essay as a preceptor of the little pioneers.
The children were like wild things caught and confined in a cage. Their
restlessness was a severe tax to the patience of the delicate girl. The
long walk to and from the school room in all weathers, through the snows of
winter, the mud of spring, and against the blast which sweeps those plains,
formed no small part of her labor. Luxuries and even comforts were denied
her. They gave her the best they had, but that was poor enough. Her chamber
was an unplastered loft; her bed a shakedown of dried grass. The moonbeams
showed her the crevices where the rain trickled in, and the snow fringed
her coverlid. Her fare was of the coarsest, and her social intercourse, to
her sensitive nature, was almost forbidding.
But she never swerved from the course she had marked out, nor shrank from
the labors and duties incident to her mission. Her body, extremely fragile,
was the tenement of an intellect of premature activity and grasp, a native
delicacy, sensibility, and great moral force. She was a born missionary,
and in the difficult and trying career which she had chosen, she showed
courage, self-denial, tenacity of purpose, which, combined with a sweetness
of disposition, soon made her beloved by her scholars and enabled her to
soften their wildness, smooth their rudeness, and impress upon their minds
the lessons of knowledge which it was her study to impart.
In sunshine or storm her presence was never wanting at her post of duty. On
the dark mornings of winter she could have been seen convoying her little
protégés through the driving sleet, or the snow, or slush, and those
rough but not unkindly parents scarcely dreamed that her life was waning.
The vivid carnation of her cheeks was not painted by the frosty air, nor by
the scorching heat of the iron box which warmed her little charges as they
gathered beneath the ethereal splendors of her eye in the school room. The
destroyer had set his seal upon her, but her frail body was swayed and
animated by the spirit whose energies even mortal disease could not subdue.
The discovery of the sacrifice was too late, though, all that rude kindness
and unlearned thoughtfulness could do was lavished upon her in those few
days that remained to her. Months of exposure, hardship, solitude of the
soul, and intense ambition in her noble mission had done their work, and
before the light of the tenth day after she was driven to her couch, had
faded, surrounded by a score of her pupils, she passed away, and was
numbered in the army of missionary heroines and martyrs.
Those brave labors and that noble life was not for nought. The lessons
taught those pupils, the high example set before them, and the life
expended for their sake were not lost or forgotten. Some of those little
scholars have grown to be good and useful men and women, and are now
repeating, in other schools, farther towards the setting sun, the lessons
and example of devotion which they learned from the teacher who gave her
life that they might have knowledge.
The place which woman, as an educator, now fills, and so long has filled
upon the frontier, is not bounded, however, by the home-school, nor by the
district school, in both of which she is the teacher of the young. She is
the educator of the man. She moulds and guides society.
The home where she rules is the center and focus from which wells out an
influence as light wells out from the sun. The glow of the fireside where
the mother sits, is a beacon whose light stretches far out to guide and
The word "home," as used among the old races of Northern Europe, contains
in its true signification something mystic and religious. The female
patriarch of the household was regarded with superstitious veneration. Her
sayings were wise and good, and the warrior sat at her feet on the eve of
battle and gathered from her as from an oracle, the confidence and courage
which nerved him for the fight; and today the picture of an aged mother
sitting by the hearth, and the recollection of her counsels, is a source of
comfort and strength to many a son who is far away fighting the battle of
life. The home and mother is the polar-star of absent sons and daughters.
She who sat by the cradled bed of childhood, "the first, the last, the
faithfulest of friends," she, the guardian of infancy, is the loving and
never to be forgotten guide of riper years. As far as thought can run upon
this earthly sphere, or memory fondly send back its gaze, so far can the
influence of a mother reach to cheer, to sustain, to elevate, and to keep
the mind and heart from swerving away from the true and the right.
One who received his early training from a mother's lips in a frontier
State, and afterward attained to wealth and influence in one of our
mountain republics, lately told the writer that he kept the picture of his
mother hanging up in his chamber, where it was the last object which his
eyes lighted on before retiring, and the first upon rising; and whenever he
was about to adopt any new course, or commence any new enterprise into
which the question of right or wrong entered, he always asked himself,
"what will my mother say if I do thus and thus?" That mother's influence
was upon him though a thousand miles away from her, and the thought of her
in the crises of his life was the load-star of his strong heart and mind.
We may well imagine those hardy sons who are now building up our empire in
the Rocky Mountains, as finding in a mother's portrait a tie which binds
them fast to the counsels and the love of their earliest guardian, and that
as they gaze on the "counterfeit presentment" of those endeared features,
they might long to hear again the faithful counsels which guided their
youth, exclaiming with the poet,
"O, that those lips had language! life has passed
With me but roughly since I saw thee last."
We have elsewhere spoken of the refining and humanizing influence of woman,
amid the rude and almost barbarous atmosphere of frontier life. The mother
moulds and trains the child, the wife moulds and trains the husband, the
sister moulds and trains the brother, the daughters mould and train the
father. We speak now of moulding and of training in a broader sense than
they are embraced in the curriculum of books. The influence exerted is
subtle, but not the less potent. Woman is the civilizer par excellence.
Society in its narrower meaning exists by her and through her. That state
of man which is best ordered and safest, is only where woman's membership
is most truly recognized.
Man alone gravitates naturally towards the savage state. Communities
of men, such as exist in some of our most remote territories, are mere
clubs of barbarians. They may be strong, energetic, and brave, but their
very virtues are such as those which savages possess.
Into one of the loneliest valleys in the Rocky Mountains, some years since,
fifty men, attracted by the golden sands which were rolled down by the
torrents, built their huts and gave the settlement a name. There were
cabins, a tavern, and a bar-room. There were men toiling and spending their
gain in gambling and rioting. There was rugged strength and hardihood.
There was food and shelter, and yet there was no basis for civil and social
organism, as those terms are properly understood, because no wife, no
mother, no home was there.
Those strong and hardy men clove the rock and sifted the soil, and chained
the cataract, but their law was force and cunning, and the only tie they
recognized was a partnership in gain. What civilization or true citizenship
could there be in a society in which the family circle and its kindred
outgrowth—the school and the church—were unknown! The denizens of that
mountain camp slid, by an irresistible law of gravitation, away from civil
order, from social beneficence, and from humanity. They gorged themselves,
and swore, and wrangled, and fought, and like the "dragons of the prime,"
they tore each other in their selfish greed for that which was their only
Into this savage semi-pandemonium entered one day, two unwonted
visitors—the wives of miners who had come to join their husbands. Polite,
kind, gentle, intelligent, and pious, their very presence seemed to change
the moral atmosphere of the place. All the dormant chivalry of man's nature
was awakened. Their appearance in the midst of that turbulent band was a
sedative which soon allayed the chronic turmoil in which the settlement was
embroiled. The reign of order commenced again: manners became softened,
morals purified: the law of kindness was re-established, and slowly out of
social chaos arose the inchoate form of a well-ordered civil society.
This illustrates woman's influence in one of the peculiar conditions of our
American frontier communities. But in all other phases of true pioneer
life, her influence is as strongly, if not as strikingly displayed as a
humanizing, refining, and civilizing agent.
We have said that woman is the cohesive force which holds society together.
This thesis may be proved by facts which show that power in all those
relations in which she stands to the other sex. In cultured circles she
shapes and controls by the charms of beauty and manner. But in the lonely
and rude cabin on the border her plastic power is far greater because her
presence and offices are essentials without which development dwindles and
progress is palsied. There, if anywhere, should be the vivified germ of the
town and the state. There, if anywhere, should be the embryonic conditions
which will ripen one day into a mighty civil growth. A wife's devotion, the
purity of a sister's and a daughter's love, the smiles and tears and
prayers of a mother—these make the sunshine which transforms the waste
into a paradise, the wild into a garden, and expands the home by a law of
organic growth into a well ordered community.
The basis of civil law and social order is the silent compact which binds
the household into one sweet purpose of a common interest, a common
happiness. Woman is the unconscious legislator of the frontier. The gentle
restraints of the home circle, its calm, its rest, its security form the
unwritten code of which the statute book is the written exponent.
The cross is emblazoned on the rude entablature above the hearth-stone of
the cabin, and where woman is, there is the holy rest of the blessed
sabbath. She, who is the child's instructor in the truths of revealed
religion, is also the father's guide and mentor in the same ways. Faith and
hope in these doctrines as cherished by woman are the sheet anchors of our
Law is established because woman's presence renders more desirable, life,
property, and the other objects for which laws are made.
Religion purifies and sanctifies the frontier home because she is the
repository and early instructress in its Holy Creeds.
The influence that woman exerts on man is one that exalts: while she
educates her child she elevates and ennobles the entire circle of the
If we cast our eyes back over the vast procession of actors and events
which have composed the migrations of our race across the continent, from
ocean to ocean, we are first struck by the bolder features of the march. We
see the battles, the feats of courage and daring, the deeds of high
enterprise in which woman is the heroine, standing shoulder to shoulder
beside her hero-mate. Again we look and see the wife and mother worn with
toils and hardships, and wasted with suffering which she endures with
unshaken heart—a miracle of fortitude and patience. Then we behold her as
the comforter and the guardian of the household amid a thousand trying
scenes, soothing, strengthening, cheering, and preserving.
Grand and beautiful indeed are such spectacles as these. They rivet the
eye, they swell the breast, they lift the soul of the gazer, because they
are an exhibition of great virtues exercised on a wide field, in a noble
cause—the subjugation of the wilderness, and the extension of the area of
civilization. The hero who fights, the martyr who dies, the sufferer who
bleeds, the spirit of kindness and sympathy which comforts and confirms are
objects which call for our tears, our praise, our gratitude. But after all,
these are incidents merely, glorious and soul-stirring indeed, yet scarcely
more than superficial features and external agencies of the grand march,
compared to the moral influence which emanates from the wife and mother in
a million homes and through a million lives with a steadfastness and power
and beneficence which can best be likened to the sunshine.
We praise it less because it is everywhere. We hardly see it, but we know
that it is present, and that society—frontier society—could not long
exist without that penetrating, shaping, elevating force. And so while we
applaud the heroine we may not forget the patient and often unconscious
When the philosophical historian of the future collects the myriad facts
upon which he is to base those generalizations which show the progress of
the race upon this continent, and how that progress was induced, he will
draw from woman's record a noble array of names and virtues, and a vast
multitude of good, kind, and brave deeds, but he will not forget to take
note also of the silent agencies, and the unobtrusive but ever-present
influence of woman which will be found to outweigh the potency of the
stronger and more brilliant virtues with all the acts that they have
And so it is to-day. As we gaze fixedly on the great expanse which the
record of our time unrolls, we see high up on the majestic scroll a
thousand bright and speaking evidences of woman's silent agency in the
building of a new empire upon our dark and distant borderland.
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