Review: Brave Hearted:The Women of the American West by Katie Hickman

Review by Luanne Clark

Books and books have been written about the American West of the nineteenth century. Most of these are oversimplified accounts of the dominance of man over nature (and other men). Well, move over all you trappers, cowboys, miners, prospectors and soldiers. Katie Hickman gives us a history of the Westward Expansion that tells of the lives of the “ordinary” women of the time.  Using diaries, journals, letters,  and memoirs as primary sources, and supplemented with factual exposition written with the flair of a novelist, Brave Hearted is both gritty and heartfelt. 

The determination and resilience of these women are portrayed against the backdrop of the desolate and unforgiving wilderness of the American West. And Hickman’s stories are all-inclusive. We are very familiar with stories of the Oregon Trail, but the author includes the histories of the Native American women of the era as they battled the ravages of cholera and the loss of their traditional way of life. Hickman also relates the stories of African American women, both slave and freed, as they become part of the new American frontier. Asian women, predominantly Chinese, are a big part of the new California, as are the Mexican women who were there before and after the Mexican American War.

 

Her book begins with stories of which we here in Washington are very familiar.The first is  the story of young Narcissa Whitman and her husband as they build the Whitman Mission and ultimately experience annihilation at the hands of the local indigenous people. We then learn about Marguerite McLoughlin, the half-Cree wife of the factor of Fort Vancouver, John McLoughlin. Both these women had say and sway in their households and left indelible impressions on our history.

I enjoyed learning a little more about these well-known women, but I enjoyed more the stories of the commonplace women traveling the Oregon Trail. Hickman uses diary entries to illustrate just how extraordinary these ordinary women must have been. At the same time she is explaining about the hardships of the overland trail, she is also able to bring the reader to understand the drastic changes that the Oregon Trail brought to the indigenous tribes of the area. All our women bore children, buried children and husbands, and suffered loss and deprivation. One of my favorite stories from this section of the book is the story of the Donner Party as told through the journal entries and letters of Virginia Reed, one of the eighteen survivors of that ill-fated expedition. 

 

There are stories of women following their husbands to the gold and mining camps, some of them becoming wealthy entrepreneurs in their own right. There are stories of the wives of Army officers, sometimes being one of 8-10 women in a fort of 400 soldiers. There are stories of women journeying to utopias like Salt Lake City or the lesser known Kansas Vegetarian Colony. All these are written in a well-researched yet captivating style.  I’m not generally a nonfiction fan, but I found myself looking forward to each time I could sneak in a page or two of reading.

One of my favorite stories was that of Biddy Mason. She was one of the first African American women to travel west. She was brought to California as a slave in 1851. Although California had declared itself as a free territory, if owners didn’t reveal that fact, their slaves were none the wiser. Biddy, however, came in contact with Robert Owens, a successful Black businessman, and he became her champion. He helped her navigate the legal system and ultimately secure the freedom of Biddy and her family. Following her court case she remained in the Los Angeles area and became one of its first non-Mexican residents. She worked as a midwife for ten years to save enough money to buy property and build a home for her family, thus becoming one of the first African American women to own property in her own right. She was instrumental in setting up the Los Angeles branch of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. By the time of her death in 1891 she had become one of the most respected and prominent citizens of Los Angeles. 

As Hickman relates the stories of white, African American, Chinese and Mexican women she continues to reveal the extinction of the Native American way of life brought on by the onslaught of the newcomers. She ends her book with a history of Native American women during this time period. There were several memoirs written by these women upon which she depended for the bulk of this section. These memoirs tell a devastating story of loss. Loss of life through cholera and other diseases. Loss of land with the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the discovery of gold. Loss of a way of life through government reservations and the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo. 

Brave Hearted is not a study of the triumph of women over nature or circumstances. Instead, it’s a well-researched, well-presented documentation of how “ordinary” women, from Christian missionaries to sex workers, struggled and lived within the confines of nature and circumstance. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m happy to be sharing it with you. And what I learned from Brave Hearted? There are no ordinary women: we are all extra-ordinary!