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What Kids Did On the Western Frontier

Ever wonder how children had fun when the wagon train stopped for the night? Or what the big event was for pioneer families on Friday nights?

By Kristina Lanier / February 24, 1998



What do you like to do on the weekend? Rent a movie? Play video games? Or do you run down to the community center with the rest of the neighborhood to take part in a fast-paced spelling bee?

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Spelling? For fun? If you were growing up on America's Great Plains in the 1800s, you'd consider a spelling bee a boot-stompin' good time.

Children and adults "would come from all over to see a spelling bee," says Priscilla Clement, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Imagine what it was like growing up 100 years ago in places like Kansas, Wyoming, or Wisconsin before there were big cities, paved roads, or McDonald's.

Perhaps you've gone on a camping trip or eaten dinner by candlelight when the power went out on a stormy evening. Maybe you've read books about frontier life like Laura Ingalls Wilder's famous "Little House" series. (The pictures on these pages are from those books. They were drawn by Garth Williams, who also illustrated "Charlotte's Web" and "Stuart Little.")

Historian and author Harriet Sigerman says the account of pioneer life in the "Little House" books is pretty authentic though somewhat romanticized. "She creates a sense of community that is authentic," Dr. Sigerman says.

Settling on the frontier was exciting for children, but it was also hard work. "Work really shaped their lives," Sigerman says. "Even young girls were accustomed to roping cattle and doing farm work."

Moving west wasn't like stopping at the nearest real estate office or keeping an eye out for "for sale" signs. Families were settling in undeveloped areas where they had to build their own houses and grow their own food.

To understand how children lived, it's important to understand a little history.

People pushed westward in search of free land and new opportunities. Some were immigrants from Europe trying to escape poverty and religious persecution. Others sought riches or adventure.

By the 1840s, settlers had reached California. But it wasn't until the 1860s that the Great Plains - the grasslands between the Missouri River and the Rockies - were safe for settlement.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered a quarter section (160 acres) of land to anyone who agreed to improve it over a five-year period. Thousands of families piled their possessions in wagons, hitched up horses or oxen, said "giddyap!" and jolted their way west.

Parents depended on their children to help out. A quarter section of land is the size of 120 football fields! "Kids were expected to work," Dr. Clement says. "They didn't do the same things adults did, but they could weed, garden, tend cows, ride horses."

CHILDREN'S days would begin at first light, Clement says. "They would go to the well, lay a fire, bring in wood, and boil water. The children would then milk the cows and collect eggs." (Quite a difference from being asked to tidy your room, take out the garbage, and turn down the TV!)

Without electricity or running water, everyday chores took longer. Doing the laundry might take an entire day. And you'd never hear your parents demand that you take a bath every night!

"Bathing didn't happen very often," Sigerman says. "Putting together a bath was a big undertaking." Parents did strive to "maintain a sense of decorum," though.

Children learned to cook, bake, make soap and candles, sew and spin. "Young children did household chores together and then around the age of 9 or 10 they started to work in the field - boys and girls."

For girls, working alongside boys was a big change. In more settled parts of the country, girls were expected to do only household chores. "Girls had freer lives in the West," Clement says.

But just because TVs and Monopoly didn't exist, it doesn't mean pioneer children didn't have fun. Instead of playing Frogger, they might have gone outside and actually caught frogs. And instead of inviting the neighbors over for a barbecue, your parents might have them over to, well, make cheese.

"Cheesemaking became a community activity because it was very difficult," Sigerman says. "Families would share chores and turn them into a holiday."

Toys were expensive and not widely available, Clement says. So when children weren't working or going to school, they would use their imaginations - just the way you do - and make up games.