The Reality of Westward Expansionism in 19th Century America Research Paper

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Laura Ingalls Wilder gives some accurate depictions of women's lives when settling the West in the 19th Century but falls short of other key respects.

Brief description of essay: Laura Ingalls Wilder's work is popular at least in part due to its ability to portray a glimpse of women settling in the western United States during the 19th Century. However, she either ignores or merely glosses over other aspects of women's contributions and challenges in the western expansion during that century.

A&E Television Networks, LLC. (2016). Bleeding Kansas. Retrieved from

A&E Television Networks, LLC. (2016). The fight for women's suffrage. Retrieved from

Bailey, F. S. (1891). Twenty years of gleaning: A historical sketch of the Woman's Baptist Foreign Missionary Society. Boston: Woma's Baptist Foreign Missionary Society. (2016). Women in the West. Retrieved from

Brammer, R., & Greetham, P. (2008). De Smet, South Dakota. Retrieved from

Burns, K. (Director). (1996). The West [Motion Picture].

DuBois, E. C., & Dumenil, L. (2016). Through Women's Eyes: An American History with Documents, 4th Ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Kaye, F. W. (2000, Spring). Little squatter on the Osage diminished reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Kansas Indians. Great Plains Quarterly, 20(s), 123-140. Retrieved from

Keller, R. S., Reuther, R. R., & Cantlon, M. (2006). Encyclopedia of women and religion in North America, Vol 2. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Roppolo, K. (2006). The real problem with indian mascots. Retrieved from

Rutter, M. (2005). Upstairs girls: Prostitution in the American West. Helena: FarCountry Press.

Sangster, M. M. (1877). A manual of the missions of the Reformed (Dutch) Church in America. New York: Board of the publication of the Reformed Church in America.

Steinmetz, E. H. (1910). Reminiscences: Being a record of fve and twenty years' progress in the Woman's Home and Foreig Missionary Society of the United Evangelical Church. Harrisburg: United Evangelical Publishing.

Wilder, L. I. (1953). Little House on the Prairie (Little House, No. 3). New York: HarperCollins Children's Books.

C. Introduction

Laura Ingalls Wilder' wrote a series of books centered on her childhood in 19th Century United States, particularly regarding her family's experience of westward expansion during that period. Perhaps one reason her books are so loved and even formed the basis for a successful TV series is that they present an almost nostalgic view of westward expansion. However, whether by artifice or negligence, her writing disregards some key, darker elements of women's importance and challenges during westward expansion. On the whole, Wilder's writing is a short-sighted, white-centered and white-washed tale that neglects a good deal of the richness given to westward expansion by women.

D. Discussion of the historical background of the issue.

The historical background of the issue is Laura Ingalls Wilder's partially accurate version of westward expansion versus the darker, richer reality of women involved in westward expansion. Wilder certainly touches on some aspects that are supported by other sources; however, she either ignores or is ignorant of other genuine aspects of women's western expansion during the 19th Century.

E. Analysis of the issue in historical context, including comparison and contrast.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's family moved to De Smet, South Dakota, when Laura was 11-12 years old (Brammer & Greetham, 2008). The chapter called "Moving In" in Little House on the Prairie describes their experiences and hard work after relocating to De Smet. The chapter accurately gives an idea of the Great Prairie's vastness, wildness loneliness and possible dangers (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, pp. 351-3; Wilder, 1953, pp. 54, 68, 79). In addition, Wilder truthfully depicts the hard work and generally sparse, hard lives of westward settlers (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, pp. 361-2; Wilder, 1953, pp. 61, 65, 68, 72, 79). The somewhat enviable simplicity and scarcity of their lives was also illustrated in Wilder's work (Wilder, 1953, pp. 65, 74-5, 78). Small wonder that Wilder's work is obviously cherished by many Americans, as evidenced by the many sites dedicated to her works to this day.

Even as her work is highly regarded, Wilder's work ignores some of the West's richest elements, as well as some key contributions and challenges of westward expansionist women. Some of those contributions and challenges are presented here in no particular order of importance. First, Wilder's work fails to address the westward movement of some women as missionaries determined to teach Christianity to the Native Americans (Burns, 1996). The actual interaction of westward expansionists and Native Americans was cruel and devastating for the Native Americans (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016, pp. 351-4). Wilder also neglects to mention that the missionary work of some female westward expansionists was ultimately cruel and devastating for them, as well. Upon hearing of the non-Christian religions practiced by Native Americans, some Christian women uprooted their lives in order to move west, endure all its hardships and baptise Native Americans into various Protestant sects and Roman Catholicism. Female missionary work was not confined to one or two religious sects. Single laywomen and nuns from the Reformed (Dutch) Church (Sangster, 1877), Baptist Church (Bailey, 1891), United Evangelical Church (Steinmetz, 1910) and Roman Catholic Church (Keller, Reuther, & Cantlon, 2006) all ventured West before, during and after the period covered by Wilder's work to "save" the Native Americans. In their view, the unbaptised Native Americans were headed for Hell; therefore, they viewed their westward expansion as a blessed mission ordained by God to save the eternal lives of Native Americans (Burns, 1996). Unfortunately, their treatment of Native Americans and non-Christian religion resulted in the rejection of Christianity by some Native Americans and even in the murder of some proseletyzing westward-moving men and women (Burns, 1996). In that respect, the westward expansion of women was compelled by an unrealistic, ultimately arrogant worldview and poor preparation for dealing with the people who were endemic to the western United States during the 19th Century.

Wilder's work also neglects to address women's lack of rights during westward expansion. Women who joined in the westward expansion of the 19th Century could not buy or sell property with full rights of ownership, divorce their husbands, serve on any jury or vote (, 2016). In fact, only Idaho and Utah finally extended the right to vote to women by the very end of the 19th century (A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2016). Those rights were eventually won by the considerable determined efforts of women, some commencing before the period covered in Wilder's work but none coming to fruition until after that period. Consequently, Wilder neglects to address the near-powerlessness of women as adult members of a vital, growing society. That nearly ineffective position of women militates against the notion of a warm, nostalgic image of westward expansion for women.

A third neglected category in Wilder's work is prostitution. While farms were often populated by married people and their children, there were also a number of ranches and mining towns established during westward expansion. In those communities, which tended to be populated by single men, the few women who ventured in were usually prostitutes who basically followed the money and the desire for sex (, 2016). This was particularly relevant to North Dakota, as gold was found in the Black Hills in 1870, setting off a tsunami of prospectors and the establishment of many mining towns (Burns, 1996). Prostitutes who relocated during the westward expansion led a dismal existence, rife with alcoholism, drug addiction, venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies, physical abuse and poor wages (Rutter, 2005), and suicide became one of the their leading causes of death (Burns, 1996). The lives of the prostitutes who populated the fringes of mining towns and ranches during 19th century westward expansion were miserable existences completely ignored in Wilder's work.

Wilder's work does not mention the high-pitched, bloody battles waged in the west over slavery during westward expansion, either. Prior to 1854, the Missouri Compromise used geographic latitude as a border between slave territory and free territory; however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 replaced the Missouri Compromise with "popular sovereignty," which allowed a territory's residents to decide whether their area would allow slavery. As a result, a large section of the west suffered "Bleeding Kansas," an extremely violent, bloody border war involving Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, which widowed a number of women settlers, left some homeless and murdered others during westward expansion (A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2016).

Finally, though these atrocities involved an entire ethnic group, including its women, Wilder's work makes no room for the abominable treatment of Native Americans by westward expansionists. This treatment is particularly relevant to the geographic area discussed in Wilder's works because her family were actually squatters on land given to the Osage tribe by federal treaty (Kaye, 2000). The Wilders' ignorance/negligence regarding sovereign Native American land was indicative of widespread disregard for the terms of federal-Native American treaties. Furthermore, the Wilders occupied the West at a time of "ethnic cleansing" in which white settlers believed in and joined the near-genocide…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

A&E Television Networks, LLC. (2016). Bleeding Kansas. Retrieved from

A&E Television Networks, LLC. (2016). The fight for women's suffrage. Retrieved from

Bailey, F. S. (1891). Twenty years of gleaning: A historical sketch of the Woman's Baptist Foreign Missionary Society. Boston: Woma's Baptist Foreign Missionary Society. (2016). Women in the West. Retrieved from

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