In the latter years of the Victorian era, industrialization gave rise to a growing middle class. A prevailing view in England and America developed that said the most important roles for women were as homemaker, wife and mother. While this ideal of “true womanhood” might have been practiced in some areas, it was never a realistic view of women and the roles they were playing in society. It was especially not true on the frontier of Oklahoma.

Among the Native Americans, women were always regarded as equal partners in the work of survival amidst the wildness of nature. Women worked to grow, gather and preserve food, create clothing and household items and even build and own the homes. Among early white and black settlers who established farms on the frontier, women worked in the gardens, raised chickens and offered canned goods, eggs and butter for their own income or trade at the local mercantile.

When other non-Indians also moved into the territory, many of the women who came were employed and earned salaries. Teaching, cooking, sewing and other occupations were held by women at the early missions established among the Five Tribes. Some women were like Elizabeth Fulton who came to work as a governess for a wealthy Choctaw family before becoming a mission teacher.

One of the professions frequently held by women in frontier towns was that of proprietors of boarding houses. Life expectancy on the frontier was low, and women often found themselves widowed with young children. Opening their home to boarders was a means of supporting the family while still being at home to care for the children. It was a widely held occupation for women both before and after the Civil War.

There are frequent references to women who served meals and offered rooms at early towns like Creek Agency, Webbers Falls and Boggy Depot. One woman, a Creek Freedwoman named Sarah Davis, was described as “the most famous cook in the Creek Nation.” She had used her cooking skills to buy her freedom as well as the freedom of her children and later ran a café and boarding establishment.

Male-dominated occupations such as cattle drover, railroad worker or coal miner brought many young men to the territory. They typically had not the interest, time or inclination to cook, sew or keep house and were appreciative of these services offered at boarding houses. Sometimes called hotels, these establishments were many in mining towns such as McAlester, trading towns such as Eufaula, and cattle towns such as Durant all developed along the Texas Road.

In Muskogee, there were several dozen boarding houses and hotels that catered first to the cattle drovers and railroad workers, then later to the Dawes Commission clerks. This government agency brought hundreds of workers to town, and they occupied the many boarding houses that provided hot meals and clean sheets for a reasonable monthly fee for room and board.

Many women of early Oklahoma never fit the narrow stereotype of the middle class homemaker. The frontier demanded that everyone work for survival, but it also provided opportunities for women to be economically independent and successful in roles outside the home.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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