Several years ago I read a book called Women’s Diaries of the Westward Movement. One thing that became clear from that book and subsequent reading, is that the majority of women took that hazardous journey, not because they wanted to go, but because their husbands went and they were basically dragged along for the ride.
What fascinated me researching this was that it was extremely rare for a woman to go alone. I came across one incident of a woman who traveled alone, and she had to hire men to help her. Her reason for going? To find a husband.
I was intrigued by this lack of women taking on that challenge alone. Since then I’ve felt I have a western story floating around me. I even started one a few years ago with two sisters who take on the journey. But the amount of research needed intimidated me and I never followed through.
Today on NPR I heard a story about a mother and daughter who traveled west on the Oregon Trail without a husband or father. They settled in Oregon and lived out the remainder of their lives. I again was fascinated by this. Two women taking a covered wagon and oxen and their worldly possessions and heading out. Leaving safety and security for the unknown and danger.
Then I realized that the NPR story wasn’t about two women traveling west. It was about two African-American women traveling west. The narrator talked about how most people, when they picture that covered wagon, picture a white family, and how there were a lot of African-Americans who also took on that chance for a new life.
I found myself at first a bit irritated, to be honest. With the knowledge that it was so rare, and so dangerous, for a woman to do this alone, why did race have to come into the story? I wondered when we, as a people, would tell a story without having to define it by race.
And then I thought about these two women. I realized that these two women had to face even more danger, even more obstacles, simply because of their race. So an event that was rare to begin with, became even rarer. These two women stand out in history because of both gender and race.
They must have been incredibly strong women. The NPR piece didn’t explain why the mother and daughter took on this challenge in spite of obstacles in their path. What would have sent them out their door? What did they have to face and overcome and surmount? Did they find happiness at the end of the trail? Did they have regrets?
So many questions. I’d have the same questions no matter what their race.
I wish I could have known them.
I wish I knew their story.