I love to read historical accounts about settling the West. After finishing a book or primary source, I can’t wait to see visit the locale mentioned. Recently, I’ve driven an eighth of the approximately 2100 mile Oregon Trail where it winds along the Platte in Nebraska and Wyoming. During an overnight stop along the way, I read a pamphlet explaining that settlers camping along the river near modern day Guernsey, Wyoming, named that site Emigrant Washtubs. I easily imagined dust-coated women eagerly awaiting a chance to scrub dirty laundry.
Modern travelers quickly learn that a day in a car where windows magnifying sunrays and fine prairie dust sifts through cracks and crevices leads to funky odors and gritty skin. Imagine folks walking long hours under summer sun as they trailed wagons that raised a perpetual Pig Pen-style dust cloud. The resulting scents and filth had to have been atrocious. To make it worse, those nomads didn’t have multiple changes of clean clothing to start their days. Babes in diapers had it even worse.
Lillian Schlissel’s Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey helped me understand these pioneer journeys. The diarists’ words and Schlissel’s commentary bring their travels to life. The author explains women couldn’t maintain regularly scheduled washdays. Instead, they laundered when they camped for more than a day near a substantial body of water. If they were lucky, they’d find enough fuel to heat water. If not, they settled for cold. Without clotheslines, bushes or rocks served to dry wet clothing. One writer mentioned they wore their clothing as it dried.
One diarist, a Rebecca Ketchum, bemoans her skin condition prior to and after laundry day. “Our hands are blacker than a farmer’s and I do not see there is any way of preventing it, for everything has to be done in the wind and sun.” She explains that washday only compounded the damage. “Camilla and I both burnt our arms very badly while washing. They were red and swollen and painful as though scalded with boiling water.”
Jane Gould Tortillott offers another example of laundry difficulties. One Saturday, as her party made camp along the Platte, she tells us, “Gus and I took my clothes to the river to rinse them. Was a little island covered with wild bushes nearby. Gus tried to wade over to it—to hang the clothes but it was too deep so we were obliged to hang them on some low bushes close to the river.”
Catherine Haun, an emigrant from Iowa, anticipated problems and wore a dark woolen dress through most of her journey. She tells us it “protected her from the sun and wind and economized in laundrying which was important considering the lack of ‘wash day’ conveniences.”
My stop at Emigrant Washtubs and subsequent reading of these diaries made me better appreciate these uprooted women who followed their men west. Not only did they live for months under open skies in unfamiliar and frequently dangerous landscapes, they also managed their laundry without the conveniences of home. I’m more than grateful for my automatic washing machine.