Feisty frontier women hoed a rough road

Kristi Heasley, of Jessamine County, Kentucky, is passionate about frontier history and...
(Laura Strange/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT)
Story by Mary Meehan
(McClatchy Newspapers)
Wed, May 2, 2012
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RICHMOND, Ky. — Standing in her plain cotton skirt, rifle slung on her shoulder, precious seeds tucked into a dried-out gourd, Kristi Heasley looks every inch a woman ready to take on the Kentucky frontier.

A barely seasoned chicken hangs on a stick over a low fire, and the smoke seems to follow Heasley as she tends the flames and talks about the hardships of being female on the frontier.

There was little shelter. Families might live under a lean-to for months. Everything you needed, you had to make. There was no corner store because there were no corners.

Some early pioneers to Kentucky literally wore rags that used to be their clothes, and they couldn’t find a way to fashion new ones, she said. Children would sometimes wear “green” furs: pelts that had been removed from an animal but not fully cured or cleaned.

It was hard living, and women did everything from tending crops to chopping wood and raising children.

“Women had to do all that and sometimes take up a rifle,” Heasley likes to say.

Over many years as a history buff and re-enactor, Heasley has collected a wealth of knowledge that she shares as part of a Women on the Frontier program, at Fort Boonesborough, Ky.

The weekend events are a Cliff’s Notes version of the kinds of adventures undertaken throughout the year by Heasley and her friends, who like to spend primitive weekends in the woods, hike in period clothing, catch and kill game to eat, and occasionally shoot at each other with old-fashioned firearms. The women don’t use ammunition, just black powder to create a bang and some smoke.

Visitors learn the many skills a woman needed to survive in the mid- to late-1700s, a time when would-be settlers were walking through the Cumberland Gap because the trail couldn’t accommodate wagons. The skills include packing for the journey to “Cantuckee,” learning primitive cooking methods and learning how to spin wool and fire a flintlock.

Men, of course, are welcome, but they might have to do some “women’s work.”

Finding food was a constant challenge back then, Heasley said. And mothers, as they often do today, would do without in order to make sure their families were fed.

The first thing pioneers would have done after finding a place to settle is to plant corn, the seeds carried from back East in a hollowed and dried gourd. In fact, she said, planting corn was a condition for claiming title to land.

Although women couldn’t own land or vote at the time, there was some greater measure of freedom in the wild, Heasley said. Women working in the fields would sometimes abandon the prescribed layers of dress to work in their gown-like underclothes instead of dragging the floor with skirt hems that might sneak up past their ankle.

Infection from burns suffered while cooking, often from petticoats catching flames, was a leading cause of death, she said.

The fort’s living historian, Bill Farmer, said the annual event provides, like many events at the fort, an important insight into frontier life.

Heasley, a mother of two who sells advertising in her modern life, said there are few records or diaries that show what life was like for these early Kentucky settlers, but it’s clear that without frontier women, there would have been no frontier.

For information: Fortboonesborough livinghistory.org.

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