Women on the Texas Frontier
Deborah Liles, University of North Texas
In October 2015, I was a participant in a roundtable panel discussing the importance of “Why Rural History Matters” at a meeting of the East Texas Historical Association. I confess that I had never thought about myself as a rural historian, but what struck me more than anything was that the other two panelists, Drs. Andrew Baker from Texas A&M – Commerce and Perky Beisel from Stephen F. Austin State University, did not either. We just studied history, not specific locations, but there we were discussing the topic that we had never considered was our field but that others clearly connected to us.
Among the prompts asked by Dr. Scott Sosebee, our moderator, was “How would you respond to this statement: A reliance, or emphasis on rural history is one of the paradigms that allows Texas, Texas history, and many Texas historians to keep a focus on the ‘Texas Myth’ and ‘Texas Nationalism,’ the traditional narrative of a state steeped in Anglo-dominated glory and legendary heroes such as Alamo heroes, cowboys, and those ‘rugged individualists’ which shapes stereotypes and perceptions of Texas.” An interesting question, no doubt, but one that was admittedly male centric in a way that was probably not intentional. Women are not traditionally associated with heroes from the Alamo (excepting Susanna Dickinson and a few Mexican women who were survivors but not heroes in the same sense), or cowboys, or, generally, those rugged individualists, and so they are often personae non gratae in the rural or frontier narrative.
I primarily research the frontier region, where ‘savage’ Indians traditionally clashed with Anglo civilization; a zone where women’s defenselessness was often used to further men’s ambitious designs in the livestock industry. At the same time, it is a region where the traditional norms of Victorian womanhood were absent, more-often-than-not, as many women worked alongside their men, or led their men in the work that needed to be done, rather than sitting around in ridiculous dresses and sipping mint julips. Historian of western women, Susan Butruille, wrote “Frontier women themselves recognized the masquerade of True Womanhood – the ridiculousness of trying to be helpless and submissive when the very lives of [their] families depended on the swiftness of a blow, the accuracy of a gunshot … the strength to butcher a whole hog, or heft countless loads of wet wash.” These rural women made living on the frontier a possibility, not just in Texas but throughout the history of westward expansion. Surely they should be included in the myth?
Rather than survivors or individuals with agency, I often find frontier women listed as victims. As we well know, a victim and a survivor are two completely different individuals that often spring from the same circumstances. Victims retreat but survivors forge ahead. Martha Loring, who arrived in Cooke County, Texas, in 1856, is a perfect example of a woman in a rural environment who was both a survivor and a woman with agency. Her second husband, and the father of her nine children, died after he drunkenly beat Martha’s one armed slave for cutting wood too slowly. The ax ‘accidentally’ landed in his skull, which left Martha a widow a few days later. Rather than retreat, Martha surged forward. She became a successful rancher, was a money lender, educated her children, and managed her affairs. When she remarried, she had the fourth largest cattle holdings in the county, suggesting she did not need a man to complete her but rather that she wanted a partner. Martha is but one example of a strong rural woman who is not included in the Texas Myth narrative. Her place in the history of Cooke County is not mentioned in any book, but it should be. Her life and actions impacted those around her in ways that changed and contributed to the successes of many men, including her husbands, merchants, teachers, doctors, and her male offspring.
This brings me back to the statement posed at the roundtable, or actually, a variance of that statement to make it a question. How do the women fit into the reliance and emphasis on rural history, and what does that do to the traditional ‘Texas Myth’ and ‘Texas Nationalism’ narrative? When we include the native women, the Tejanas, the Germans, and the many women of multiple nationalities who migrated to rural areas to stand by their men, or to stand without a man, how does that revise the perception of male Anglo-dominated glory and legendary heroes? As a female immigrant who knew nothing of this Texas Myth or Texas Nationalism until a few years ago, I can’t subscribe to Anglo-dominated glory or the fallacy that it was all about the men. I also don’t see cowboys as anything other than businessmen who often wrote their own version of the law to benefit themselves. What I do see is the women in the rural regions, who toiled and adjusted, who birthed and raised children in remote environments, who lived long distances away from family and friends, who often became widows and had to survive or move, and who were frequently involved in frontier economics to provide for their families. These women are the unspoken strength and power behind the myth. Their inclusion is vital and, while it will probably not change the myth for those who currently subscribe to that narrative, it will add to it and conceivably adjust the perceptions of future generations. It is up to us to rediscover their stories, so that the woman’s place in rural history is undeniable. When that is done, then we can revisit the paradigm.
Deborah Liles earned her Ph.D. from the University of North Texas in 2013, where she currently serves as a lecturer. She is a co-editor with Angela Boswell of Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi (UNT Press, 2016). Current projects include Southern Roots, Western Foundations: Livestock and the Peculiar Institution on the Texas Frontier (LSU Press, 2017), which examines slavery in the livestock industry, Women Ranchers in Texas (Texas A&M Press) an anthology with Leland Turner and Cecilia Venable, and Oliver Loving: Dean of the Texas Trails (Texas A&M Press, 2017).
 Susan G. Butruille, Women’s Voices from the Western Frontier (Boise: Tamarack Books, 1995), quote from 87.