Dutch Frontier Women in the North American West
This blog post will resonate with anyone familiar with the Little House on the Prairie novels and TV series. The “little House” stories were based on the real history of the Ingalls and Wilder families but altered by Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane to make them palatable for young readers and to encourage faith in American values. (If you’re curious about the story of how the “Little House” novels got written check out this essay and this book.)
Below, you’ll find the stories of two Dutch sisters-in-law and their families, one who immigrated to the Great Plains in the US, the other to the Canadian Northwest. Both families faced struggles. And you’ll read about their experiences in their own words. But first a bit about frontier farm families during this era.
The promise of frontier West in North America was almost utopian, as the advertisements at the top of the blog post reveal. The reality was often harsh. (Notice how one of the ads is in Dutch and targeted potential immigrants from the Netherlands.)
If you pay close attention to how often the Ingalls family moved in the “Little House” books and TV series, you’ll realize that that they repeatedly failed in their attempts to successfully homestead and make their living as farm families. This was a common experience on frontiers in the US and Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
For example, on the Great Plains, grasshoppers, hail, and drought could destroy crops. Or good crops would sell a such a low price that farmers could not pay off loans and other expenses, because farmers in, Canada, the US, Russia, and Argentina all had bumper crops and there was a glut of wheat in global markets. Banks, grain elevator companies, country stores, and railroads controlled frontier economies, not farmers. And disease and accidents often ravaged families, including the Ingalls family. No surprise, farm protest movements were common in the late 1800s.
Life for frontier women and their families was hard, more a matter of endurance and survival than conquest and triumph. And yet, we must remember that these families chose their lives and lived on their terms.
Historian Gilbert Fite was the son of homesteaders. Both the Fites and and his maternal grandparents, the McCardles, experienced success and failure in the early twentieth century West, losing their land for good during the Great Depression.
Fite says of his grandfather, “By any economic criteria, Frank McCardle was an economic failure. A pioneer settler on the last frontier, he won some initial successes, but after farming for more than forty years he died a virtual pauper in 1948, twelve years after his wife’s sudden death in 1936. He experienced only one fairly prosperous period, the era of World War I. Otherwise, it was a constant struggle with debt, and he experienced that final humiliation feared by every farmer—loss of his land.”
But failure is not the story. It’s this: “Yet until he gave up farming in 1934 at age seventy-two,” Fite observes, “Frank McCardle and many other pioneer farmers on that last frontier had enjoyed a fairly decent standard of living for the times. He and his wife raised three children, all of whom eventually left the farm for better things. The McCardles paid taxes to support schools, roads, and other needed facilities, and they helped organize the political and social institutions of their community. They contributed to nation-building by helping to open up the vast cattle and wheat lands valuable to the country’s welfare.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder lived a similar story, with Ma and Pa Ingalls and with her husband Almanzo Wilder. Laura and Almanzo achieved financial success only late in life, more on money made by Laura’s writing than their many years of farming.
In an essay on women on the frontier published in Origins in 1996, Herb Brinks told the stories of two Dutch immigrant women–Maria van der Vliet and Jantje Enserink–excerpting material from their letters to family back in the Netherlands.
Both women left their parents and siblings behind in the Netherlands, along with their extended families. They followed their husbands to the North American West in the early 1900s. Van der Vliet married Jacobus Verbrugge and lived a long life in Minnesota, renting a farm in Leota and owning farms in Chandler and Edgerton. Enserink married Maria’s brother, Cornelis van der Vliet. The Enserinks migrated to northern Ontario, in Canada, working in railroad camps to make money, looking for land in Manitoba and Alberta. Jantje got sick and spent time in Minnesota with her sister-in- law Maria to recover. Cornelius died soon after, while looking for land in Alberta, and Jantje went back to the Netherlands.
Maria and Jantje’s letters reveal the excitement and fears that came with frontier life. They also reveal the role of women in creating communities in the West. Here’s two excerpts from their letters.
The first is from Maria, describing threat of illness and injury. The first paragraph is from 1916, the second from 1919.
Last week Jacobus and two of the children were weak from heat exhaustion, but that is now over. It has been an amazingly hot summer and that without let up. Some crops need a good rain. The garden plants are dry but we have enough and have already canned beans, cucumbers [pickles] and purslane. The endive must still grow more. The grain has been harvested and has dried well. We had some hail damage but nothing like last year. The corn is still growing and indications are that it will be ready for harvest in October and November. Even though it is hot and dry the cows are producing well. We can sell eggs from the chickens regularly and use some for ourselves. Everything is expensive here and wheat is becoming especially expensive. That is obvious when you bake your own bread and need quite a lot for a large family like ours.
. . . each day my strength is increasing…. With the little one, everything goes well. The birth was very successful, and we were all happy and thankful together . . . in about fourteen days I was able to be at the table again. Everyone was happy to have mother in the room again and [had no idea] that joy would rapidly turn into concern. Last week Jacobus and James were planning to go to the hay field together. . . . They left with the mowing machine but before going to work Jacobus injured himself so severely that we had to call the doctor immediately. You can easily imagine how fearful that was and also the possibility of infection. Fortunately the Lord mercifully spared us from that and we expect that Jacobus will recover. The neighbors finished the haying for us.
The second is from Jantje, describing life in the towns of Fort William and Campbell, in northern Ontario, in June and July 1909:
While walking I passed the Presbyterian church and went inside. Of course I could enjoy only the music. A choir of boys and girls sang first and then the whole congregation sang while standing. The choir girls were all dressed in long black gowns with wide sleeves – like a toga with white strips for the neck and their heads covered with very small caps. The boys wore ordinary clothes. I have seen at least five large churches – Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran and Roman Catholic. All the stores are closed on Sundays and there is no postal service.
The scenery here is beautiful but the “ongedierte” [probably mosquitoes and black flies] are terribly bothersome. On Thursday the men were covered with bites. Harmen’s [van cler Lee] face was very swollen. If I go walking in the woods I will have to keep my face covered. I have packed away all the clothes which I do not need. Otherwise it is bothersome to hang them on the many nails we have pounded in the walls. I will also put my bedspread away for the time being. Yesterday we laid in a supply of necessities, and the men ate breakfast here for the first time. Before that they came here only to wash and then ran back to camp for food. This noon I cooked a pot of Sunday Wilnis stew with some pudding. It is too much work here to cook separate dishes . . . .
For more from Maria and Jantje check out “Home Builders: Women on the Frontier?” by Herb Brinks, in Issue 14:1 of Origins: Historical Magazine of the Archives (Spring 1996).
The letters of Maria and Jante were collected and translated by Frank Verbrugge, the son of Maria and Jacobus. He was born in 1913. He graduated from Calvin College and the University of Missouri and was a physicist. His story, and that of his mother, reminds me a bit of Gilbert’s Fite’s story of his family. You can find a collection of material from Frank’s and the Verbrugge and Enserink families in Heritage Hall.
William Katerberg is professor of history and interim curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.