The Lives of Six Pioneer Girls

Becky Bartholomew
History Blazer, September 1996

The life stories of six cousins—Clarissa Wilcox, Martha Wilcox, Mabel Wilcox, Luella Hurst, Ida Hurst, and Mary Young—born in three Utah towns between 1863 and 1893 reveal what it was like to be a girl growing up in pioneer Utah.

First memories: Martha was only five years old when someone came to the house to tell her mother that Mormon president Brigham Young had died. Martha remembered that moment all her life.

Clarissa received her first pair of buttoned shoes at age five. Her father, a shoemaker, cut them out of the bootlegs of a man’s discarded hightops because leather was so scarce.

As a young girl Luella was afraid of the Indians who went house to house begging. Actually, Utah Indians by that time were friendly, but Luella had heard stories from male relatives about the Indian wars of previous decades, and they filled her with imaginary terrors.

Play: When not helping their mothers, the girls played games they called nip-cat, pomp pomp pull-away, Sister Parute, and rounders (a ball game). They also played hide-and-seek in the sagebrush.

Treats: For treats the girls ate parched field corn and homemade molasses candy. As an old woman Clarissa confessed, “I couldn’t stand to eat another bit [of molasses candy] to this day.” They also gathered grass and shrubs on which honeydew had condensed during the night and then boiled it down into a sweet syrup. As they grew older and went to community dances; the girls sometimes went at intermission to buy crackers, cheese, and tinned salmon for refreshments.

Clothing: In warm weather small pioneer children mostly went barefoot, especially in towns like Moab where they could not have kept the sand out of their shoes anyway when they went to fetch a bucket of water.

Their mothers made all the families’ clothing. In summer the girls wore calico dresses (not slacks or shorts) and in winter dresses made of a homespun material they called “lindsey” (actually linsey-woolsey). One girl’s mother would get up early on winter mornings and warm the children’s clothes on the stove.

Clarissa somehow got the idea that the only dress appropriate for special occasions was black satin. One year her mother made her a black satin dress, and for the rest of Clarissa’s life she always owned such a dress. The year before she died her granddaughter made her a maroon satin dress. It took some persuading before Clarissa agreed to wear non-black.

Work: Martha, when eight years old, was sent on an urgent errand. But on the way she met a friend, and they lallygagged until Martha’s mother finally sent someone else. When Martha got home, fully expecting to be punished, her mother just told her to go and play. Martha felt so bad she told her mother she needed “a good licking.” So her mother sent her to cut a fresh willow stick. Martha brought back a green one, and her mother gave her several stinging lashes. When Martha yelped, her mother asked, “What’s the matter? Didn’t I give you enough?” Martha answered, “I didn’t think you would whip me so hard.” “Well,” said her mother, “you asked for it.”

At age nine or 10 the girls got their introduction to serious work. Mabel, as the oldest daughter in her family, and Ida, because her mother was a midwife and gone frequently, took over most of their families’ household duties: cooking, cleaning, scrubbing clothes on a washboard, milking cows, and tending the younger children. Early morning and late evening work was done by the light of coal-oil lamps.

By age 10, especially if there were few boys in the family, the girls began to help in the fields. At first they weeded or dug potatoes, then (for 25 cents a day) gleaned the wheat after the harvesters had gone through. By age 14 they were able to help shock bundles of grain or hire out in other peoples’ homes. Since her mother died when Martha was 13, she spent her teenage years cooking and keeping house for her father and older brothers.

Schooling: School was held only a few months a year in one-room, log schoolhouses. The girls started at about age seven and usually quit by 13 or 14 to work. Most did not go past the eighth grade, but they learned the skills needed to survive in their day.

By today’s standards these six cousins had hard lives. They could not even go to the store and buy material to make their own clothes. But they had loving families, lots of friends, and games and dances to enjoy.

Source: Histories of Clarissa Jane Wilcox Meiling, Martha Anna Wilcox Westwood Foy, Mabel Wilcox Johnson, Alice Luella Hurst Nielson, Ida Susannah Hurst Patten, and Mary Ethel Young George; in Montel and Kathryn Seely, Seely History, vol. 2 (Provo: Community Press, 1996).