The Frontier America / Soldier Life

The Frontier Soldier in the Old West

Many times when we consider the frontier America we see pictures of the frontier infantry soldiers and cavalry soldiers fighting the Indians of the plains. The military certainly was involved with Indian Wars for decades in the 1800’s which, as most historians believe, finally ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee. What really hasn’t had the same publicity as the Indian Wars was what the other duties the rank and file soldier was involved in, and there were many.

frontier army mail pouch

Army Mail Pouch on display at Fort Stockton Texas

A lot can be learned by visiting some of the old west forts that today are National Historical Sites. Some of the best include Fort Stockton in southwest Texas, Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico and Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas. These are just a few, but they are fascinating to visit. Everyone of these former frontier forts feature great artifacts of the old west military days and you can really get a good feel for what the duties and everyday life was for a soldier in frontier America.

When settlers moved west in earnest, and alot of this was during the time of the California Gold Rush, two army forts were critical in aiding overland travelers. Those were forts on the Platte Road, Kearney in Nebraska and Laramie in Wyoming. Kearney stood as the first well provisioned fort after the journeys were begun, mostly from towns in western Missouri. Laramie stood further west at the junction of the Bozeman Trail which ran northwest to Montana. To be sure, both forts were established to provide a degree of security for the emigrants and that meant to protect them against Indian raids. Many cavalry soldier battles were fought in the Powder River region of Montana and further south into Wyoming. The most well known being the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the Fetterman Massacre. Those were two which seemed to receive the most publicity. The Little Bighorn Battle probably the most. There were many others that occurred from Arizona to Montana to Idaho.

cavalry saddle

Cavarly saddle at Ft. Stockton TX

Aside from engaging Indians, what some may not realize was that the frontier America soldier also was a common laborer, helping to construct forts and keeping the trails open physically. That meant moving stones and boulders and cutting down trees. It also meant constructing bridges and repairing trails after floods. This was all in addition to protecting settlers.

Settling Civilian Disputes

Although it could get complicated and not relished by the military brass, the frontier soldier  became involved in civilian matters on the trail. One example was an officer serving as judge during a dispute on the Platte Road between two groups of emigrants. The group wanted to split up but couldn’t agree whose property and provisions were who’s. The cavalry officer made the decision and the groups traveled on. Both Kearney and Laramie were well provisioned to sell supplies to the travelers but there were times when the soldiers had to find supplies in emergencies when people found themselves stranded without food. It’s thought that a good many of the settlers provided poorly for a 2,000 mile journey in a lot of cases. Many purchased mules that weren’t fit for the trip. In general, many left on the journey ill equipped. A lot of things can go wrong on a long journey through an unforgiving land.

1875 army battery gun

1875 Army Battery Gun, on display at California State Military Museum, Sacramento CA

Both forts, Kearney and Laramie provided medical care. In many cases for serious conditions such as gunshot wounds, broken legs and contagious diseases. The forts and it’s cavalry soldiers obviously provided a sort of oasis in an otherwise desolate and dangerous land. These forts and all frontier forts actually served a dual purpose. One charge was to try and protect the settlers and at the same time help facilitate their westward advance.The government wanted people to settle the west.

The Soldier as a Lawman

The cavalry soldier also became a quasi lawman when the military was called upon by the locals to hunt down outlaws. The new small settlements typically had inadequate law enforcement short of vigilante groups.  Mostly the army became involved if there was a high profile crime such as a train robbery. The train carried U.S. mail and from that a case could be made for legal military involvement.

Soldiers Involvement in Labor Strikes

The soldier being used as a strikebreaker was probably the most controversial use of troops. In the late 1800’s there were several labor disputes at western mining camps. Many times violence and bloodshed ensued and when either the local militia or the private detective agencies hired by the mine owners couldn’t restore order, the President was asked to send in the military Serving in this manner however was a no win situation. Either side would accuse the army of being at service to the other, usually the army being accused of aiding the mine owners.

Probably the biggest involvement of U.S. Army troops in a labor strike was the one involving the Pullman Company in Chicago, manufacturer of the famous Pullman Rail Car. Pullman had essentially a company town outside Chicago where workers lived and worked. The town was owned by the company. The strike occurred in the summer of 1994 during a time of national economic depression. Eventually the strike spread across the U.S. and virtually shut down the railroads as other workers sided with the strikers. Violenec Nelson ensued and President Cleveland called in the army with about 12,000 troops under the command of the famous frontier cavalry soldier, General Nelson Miles. Miles made a name for himself during the Indian Wars of the prior decades.

pullman company in chicago illinois

The Pullman Company, Chicago, circa 1900

This was a delicate situation because of the Posse Comitatus Act which restricted civilian involvement by the military. What’s ironic about this situation is that the rank and file army soldier probably had much more in common with the striker. Many of the frontier soldiers were immigrants just as many of the strikers were. Intervening in labor disputes was probably the army’s most trying of assignments both tactically and legally.

While the Indian engagements were certainly a big part of what the U,.S. Army was involved in, it should be noted that there was much more a soldier had to contend with.

Three additional articles and photos on Trips Into History you’ll find interesting are the Surrender of Crazy Horse and how it all came about…the Mountain Howitzer, one of the most powerful cavalry weapons on the western plains and The Resting Place of the Alamo Defenders.

Some of the best old west forts that today have large exhibits of the old west and how it related to the frontier American soldier include...Fort Sill in Oklahoma which is still a busy military base.

old infantry Barracks at fort sill oklahoma

Old infantry barracks at Fort Sill Oklahoma

Fort Sill has the best collection of military weaponry found anywhere. Fort Stockton in southwest Texas has great exhibits including stone buildings that include a realistic showcase of a frontier army barrack. Fort Concho in San Angelo Texas was a large frontier fort where today you can see many of the medical supplies and instruments used during the 1800’s. Fort Union in northeast New Mexico happened to be built where two routes of the old Santa Fe Trail intersected. The fort buildings are now adobe ruins which are a popular attraction on a walking tour. Fort Union also displays authentic wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail days. Another good one is the old Fort Union on the Missouri River at the North Dakota / Montana border. This fort was originally a trading post for the American Fur Company.

Pullman Company and Fort Sill photos are in the public domain. Remainder of photos from author’s private collection)

Frontier Women

The American Frontier Woman

I think it can be said that the vast majority of stories about our American West have been written from the perspective of the male. A journey to and inside the old American frontier west was filled with dangers and perhaps because the male was considered the protector and usually the provider, the stories were a reflection of those challenges.

One of the most significant dangers faced by white settlers during the days of the old west was the Indian menace. This again was the responsibility of the male to protect against. Certainly the stories of Indian Wars and buffalo hunting are what popular western novels and historic pieces are made of, but the contribution of females on the western frontier, although very under publicized, were equally important in many aspects. In most cases the women traveled to the frontier after the males, such as the first gold prospectors in California and the fur traders before that, but they did emigrate there and in greater numbers with the among the Oregon Trail wagon trains. Some historians contend that true civilization didn’t come to the western frontier until the pioneer women made their presence. On top of all the other duties of a pioneer woman, there is no doubt that the pioneer women cooks changed the living standards much to the better. The image below is of Narcissa Whitman, a missionary who was massacred with her husband by Indians after an disease outbreak in the year 1847 near present day Walla Walla Washington.

The contributions that women made to the frontier are as complex as those of the male. Just like with the male, the women pioneer came from all backgrounds and with many different goals. Some frontier women displayed extreme bravery in the face of danger. Some helped provide for their frontier family as much as their male partner. On the other hand, some women of the west were filled with as much mischief as the Likewise, there were some women who matched the males in mischief and criminal activity.The painting below is of a Nebraska wagon train by C.C.A. Christensen now in the public domain.

I think it’s safe to say that history books have publicized the women bent on mischief and thievery somewhat more than the woman of virtue. The reason might simply be that it makes for more colorful copy and sells more books. For the most part characters such as Belle Starr, Calamity Jane and Pearl Hart seem to garner more copy than perhaps the hard working frontier woman trying to care for her family while on a six month journey over the Oregon Trail from Missouri to California.

There of course were exceptions such as the many stories of the famed Annie Oakley but Annie Oakley’s fame really surfaced during the late 1800′s and early 1900′s, many years after the days of the wagon train and the great Indian Wars of the West.

Traveling on the American western frontier presented new challenges for the female who really saw her role change dramatically. In many cases she had to take on many of the tasks a man would solely assume back east during the era. While traveling overland it was more important to get things done than spend time deciding who would do it. A woman might have to drive a team of mules while her husband was busy with another task. A woman might have to learn to shoot a gun where this might have been unheard of back home. A woman on the frontier had been placed in what many thought to be a man’s world. Learning new skills was a necessity more than a choice.

There are some excellent locations where you can learn more about the pioneer womans history in helping to civilize the American western frontier. One in particular is the Pioneer Woman Museum located in Ponca City Oklahoma. The address is 701 Monument Road. Ponca City is in far north Oklahoma. The location is at the intersection of U.S.-77 and Highland, 22 miles east of Interstate-35. The museum is now 10,000 sq ft and showcases the contributions made by women to the state of Oklahoma and the nation as a whole.

Another interesting article we have on our Western trips site is the story about the famous female California stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst.

There is another interesting historic site near Barlow’s Pass Oregon. The site is named Pioneer Woman’s Grave, pictured at left. It has been established as a memorial gravesite to all those who lost their lives enroute to Oregon. A survey crew discovered the grave site in 1924. The site is on the Barlow Hiking Trail. Pioneer Woman’s Grave is off of Hwy 35 a little under one mile past the intersection of Hwy 26 and Hwy 35 on FS Road 3531.

A third excellent location to learn more about the pioneer woman is the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles California. In 2002 the Women of the West Museum merged with the Autry National Center. The site offers programs, exhibitions, collections, research, and education about women’s experiences in the American West. According to the museum their goal is to gain a new understanding, not simply of what women have done but of why it matters for the West—past, present, and future. The Autry Center is located in the Griffith Park area of Los Angeles.

Many of the stories from common hard working pioneer women are now found in diaries of the era. It’s quite amazing that there was time to keep a diary under the circumstances but they did. Many of the diaries tell the story of hardship, much of it having to do with sickness along the trail. This was a time before antibiotics and of course a doctor would have been hard to find. Many were lost to epidemics along the way and a good deal of this is chronicled in diaries kept by the pioneer women. Following is an excerpt from the diary of Samantha Jane Emmons Dillard published by her great grandson John Christopher Stone. This excerpt concerns part of the journey west near Fort Kearney Nebraska which was the last fort before the much more perilous journey westward. Their journey was from Illinois to Oregon.

“Our next main stop was at Ft. Kearney, Nebraska, where we were held until a sufficient number of emigrants had arrived to make up a train to start our journey across the plains. We had traveled alone until we reached here and It had rained almost all of the time and the water was high. Here we were joined by enough emigrants to make up a train of twenty-two wagons, as it was necessary to have this many in the train in order to make a corral. There were four wagons pulled by oxen and the rest by horses. Since the ox teams traveled a good deal slower than the horses all hands In the morning would get the ox teams started ahead first and of course during the day we would pass them and go on ahead and when camping time came we would have things ready for the ox teams when they arrived. Our Captain had been across the plains before and knew just what to do, so at night we would all drive our wagons in a big circle and make a big corral and our stock was all put inside this corral and we would keep fires burning all night, and two men stood guard every night. When It came my father’s turn to stand guard, the next day I would have to drive our four horse team and wagon. I was thirteen years old then and small for my age. Our Captain knew where all the watering places were and the distance between these places largely determined the number of miles traveled each day by the train, which averaged from ten to twenty-five miles per day..”

I think it’s safe to say that the pioneer woman possessed a lot of bravery to travel over the frontier west looking for a new and better life. The bravery and sacrifice of the ordinary settler compares equally to any of the more famed characters and celebrities during the frontier and wild west days.