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Staking a claim The Chrisman sisters pictured by a sod house in Lieban Creek, Nebraska, in 1886. Many women travelled west to claim territory on the Great Plains; Lizzie Chrisman (second left) bought her land from the government around the time this picture was taken, paying $2.50 per acre

Women stretched the limits of convention, changing their costume, habits and daily activities to fit the needs of the trail

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around slavery and secession, that figure had mushroomed to close to three million square miles.

Involved in this dynamic story of territorial conquest and associated political, economic, social and environmental transformation were thousands of women – migrants from across the world, who made the West their home. In the traditional telling of the frontier story, female characters were either invisible or consigned to the role of supporting player and gender stereotype: sun-bonneted helpmates, school ma’ams or sassy saloon girls. A glance at the ‘women’s West’, however, presents a much more complex story – one of resilience and adaptation, loosened social conventions, inventive directions in female empowerment and a ‘hidden history’ of gender unorthodoxy.

Although the decision to travel west was typically made by men, many women, too, greeted the possibilities of overland migration with excitement and interest. Some were fearful of the unknown, their fears fed by a contemporary literary digest rich in tales of damsels in distress taken captive by Native Americans, and of a savage landscape roamed by hungry wolves and angry bears. Others, though, relished the adventure and embraced the ethos of westering possibility.

On the road, women routinely stretched the limits of convention, either by necessity or inclination, changing their costume, habits and daily activities to fit the needs of the trail. For some, the casting off of etiquettes and the assumption of new roles and duties provoked fears about losing feminine identity in the uncivilised wilds. However, for others, abandoning long petticoats and gloves in favour of riding astride horses, driving wagon trains and shooting game was to be relished. One such woman was Sarah Raymond Herndon, who was 24 or 25 when she emigrated with her family to Virginia City, Montana, in 1865. In her 1902 memoir Days on the Road: Crossing the Plains in 1865, she wrote effusively of trailside foraging, fishing, riding out on her horse and dispensing with her long skirts.

For many migrants, the objective was land, and many women travelling within family units aimed to claim territory under the auspices of the Homestead Act (1862). Significantly, one in 10 homestead cla ims were fi led by single women (including widowed and divorced women) who, under the rules of the federal

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