3 generations worked on stories of pioneer women

05/24/2010 5:59 AM

05/24/2010 5:59 AM

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

In the 1920s, Lilla Day Monroe asked Kansas women — many who homesteaded the prairie — to share their stories. She collected more than 800. But it wasn’t until a half-century after Monroe’s death that many of the stories became well-known. In 1981, Monroe’s greatgranddaughter, Joanna Stratton, completed and published Monroe’s project as “Pioneer Women.” The letters were then donated to the Kansas Historical Society and are available to researchers.

The stories spoke of prairie women who survived border wars, hot winds, torrential rains and blizzards, cowboys and outlaws, grasshoppers and coyotes.

In one story, S.N. Hoisington recalled the summers of 1872 and 1873 when the gray wolves and coyotes were so numerous, no one went out on the prairie without a weapon of some kind.

The neighbor “was frightened because the wolves would scratch on the door, on the sod and on the windows, so my mother and I started to sit up nights with her . . . the odor from the sick woman seemed to attract the wolves, they grew bolder and bolder.”

Hoisington recalled how one wolf got his head between the cabin’s door casing and the sod and, as he was trying to wriggle through, “mother struck him in the head with an axe and killed him. I shot one coming through the window.”

It took three generations of Monroe family members to bring the stories to light.

First, there was Lilla Day Monroe, who came to Kansas in 1884 and began working on her law degree. She passed the bar in 1895, becoming one of the first women to argue before the Kansas Supreme Court.

In 1902, she moved to Topeka and became active in the women’s suffrage movement. She founded the Good Government Club and started her own magazine, “The Club Member,” to inform women about the suffrage movement, pending legislation and other news.

She served as president of the Kansas State Suffrage Association.

After the 19th Amendment was passed allowing women the right to vote, Monroe continued to advocate for women and children’s rights particularly for welfare, labor and property laws.

In 1921, Monroe started a monthly newspaper, the Kansas Woman’s Journal.

It was then that she started collecting the stories of Kansas pioneer women.

She wrote of the project:

“The reason which seemed to me not only good . . . was the fact that no history, not even the archives of our State Historical Society . . . carried a good portrayal of the pioneer housewife.”

Before she could complete the project, Monroe died in 1929.

Her daughter, Lenore Monroe Stratton, typed, indexed and annotated each of the 800 stories and filed them away in her attic.

Years later, Joanna Stratton brought the stories to book form in “Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier.”

In the forward of the book, Joanna Stratton wrote:

“As I sat poring over the carefully penned writings, a human pageantry came alive before my eyes. . . . Some accounts bemoaned the trials of homesteading and the loneliness of pioneer life, others recaptured the excitement of frontier towns and the joys of prairie childhoods.æ.æ.æ. I was gripped by the candor of these women.”

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