From Ohio History Central
Women faced many challenges on the Ohio frontier. The first white women arrived in the Ohio Country around the time of the American Revolution, as wives of missionaries and soldiers. The first white child born in Ohio was Johanna Maria Heckewelder, a daughter of missionaries sent by the Moravian Church to convert the Delaware Indians. These early women did not stay permanently in the region.
The first permanent white women settlers arrived in the Northwest Territory in 1788 and 1789. They traveled with their families to the settlement at Marietta, founded by the Ohio Company of Associates. Soon, women helped to populate other regions as well, including the Seven Ranges and the Connecticut Western Reserve.
The trip to the Ohio Country in the late eighteenth century was very difficult for women. Many of them had no choice but to follow their husbands to the frontier. Most women traveled several hundred miles, often on foot, to get to Ohio. Because their wagons had very limited capacity, only absolute necessities were packed for the journey. Sentimental objects, like family heirlooms, china, and most furniture, often had to be left behind.
Once these women arrived in Ohio they faced numerous challenges. They and their families lived in primitive conditions until land could be cleared and a small, one-room cabin built. The climate could be very harsh, and settlers also dealt with annoying insects and dangerous animals. Having left friends and family behind in the East, many women faced homesickness and isolation. In the early years of settlement, women experienced many other challenges as well. Commonly, there were no close neighbors or nearby towns to provide much social interaction. Men were away from the home for long hours, working in the fields or hunting and leaving their wives with no adult companionship. There were numerous accounts of loneliness, depression, and even occasional suicides.
Women made enormous contributions to frontier life in Ohio. They made much of what the family needed to survive, resulting in a self-sufficient farm. In addition to taking care of the home and raising children, frontier women provided medical care, raised livestock, and grew vegetable gardens to supplement the family's diet. They made butter, candles, and soap, preserved food for the winter months, and made their family's clothing, often of cloth that they wove themselves. This work kept women extremely busy. In addition, some women also helped with farm work and also performed other men's duties when necessary. In some cases, a widowed woman continued to farm her family's land after her husband's death, often with only her children's help.
Frontier women also made significant contributions to their communities. Women traveling west tried to maintain many aspects of the culture of the life left behind in the East. In particular, women were influential in developing churches and schools, believing that these institutions had a civilizing effect on frontier society. In some cases, women were employed as schoolteachers, although rarely once they were married. They were commonly paid much less than male teachers. In areas of the Northwest Territory where formal schools did not exist, mothers were responsible for teaching their children at home.
Women also often provided hospitality for strangers traveling through Ohio. When public hotels or taverns were not available, settlers opened their homes to travelers, providing both meals and a place to sleep. Women also operated businesses, either in partnership with their husbands or alone if widowed. There are accounts of women who ran sawmills, gristmills, and inns. Other women took work into their homes to earn extra money for their families, doing such tasks as weaving and sewing.
Life for women on the Ohio frontier was both challenging and dangerous. Women died in accidents and from complications from childbirth. Frontier women did not have a very long life expectancy. Most did not live to see their fortieth birthday. Women faced a difficult life in Ohio in the late 1700s, but conditions did begin to improve as the region became more settled.
- Brehm, Victoria, ed. The Women's Great Lakes Reader. Duluth, MN: Holy Cow! Press, 1998.
- Foster, Emily, ed. American Grit: A Woman's Letters from the Ohio Frontier. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
- Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.