“It strikes me as I think of it now — of course, I was a girl, too young then to know much about it — but I think now the mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else. The men had a great deal of anxiety…but still, the mothers had the families.” – Martha Morrison Minto
Any discussion of the role of women on the Oregon Trail is, at its heart, a discussion of the role of mothers in frontier families. Though there were quite a few single men on the Oregon Trail, there were very few unattached women of marrying age, as what are now thought of as traditional (perhaps quaintly so) gender roles were very much mainstream in the United States of the mid-1800s: men were the breadwinners, while women were encouraged to marry a good provider and keep the house in order. On the frontier, the division between the sexes was perhaps best symbolized by the men working the fields and the women tending the dooryard garden. The men were responsible for deciding what to plant in the fields that generated the family’s income, while the women controlled the garden that the family depended on for greens, vegetables, and often medicinal plants needed to prepare folk remedies. Women also included ornamental flowers in their dooryard gardens — believe it or not, in the mid-1800s dandelions were welcome additions to most lawns and gardens, as they reliably provided some of the first edible greens and colorful flowers every spring.