Pilgrim and Pioneer Mothers: Courage to Weather the Winds of Change

Woman must be the pioneer in this turning inward for
strength. In a sense, she has always been the pioneer.

- Anne Morrow Lindbergh


In November 1929, just one month after the famous stock market crash which set in motion the Great Depression, an editorial in The Household Magazine encouraged their readers to take heart and have courage as they faced the unknown.  

“Thanksgiving Day was meant to be something more than
a mere period of time between Wednesday and Friday of the last week in November.  It may be something more than a holiday, or it may have none of the characteristics of one.  What it is depends on the state of mind.

The number of things for which we may be thankful has nothing to do with the observance of the day…ThanksGIVING or thankFULNESS.  There may be a world of difference between the two…”

By the third Thanksgiving of the Great Depression in Novemer 1932, American homemakers and the women’s magazines they read had passed through the same desperate psychological stages a person experiencing profound loss endures—shock, denial, anger, bargaining and great grief –before settling in for what is often the longest stage of any traumatic change—depression.  A new Democratic president-elect, Franklin Delano Rooseevelt, was getting ready to take over the White House, but it would be another few month before FDR’s rousing Inaugural Address which reminded Americans that "all they had to fear is fear itself.”

There would be seven more lean Thanksgivings of economic uncertainty followed by five years of world war.  How did our grandmothers and great-grandmothers drag themselves out of bed to make biscuits for breakfast?  An image of my Kentucky grandmother rolling out dough in her salmon-pink chenille bathrobe has come to represent grace under pressure in the archives of my heart.

My Grandmother, Lucy Lyttle Donnelly White

My Grandmother, Lucy Lyttle Donnelly White

You might be approaching this Thanksgiving with dread for the future and sorrow for what is happening now.   When deep discouragement comes, I comfort myself by thinking of the long line of heroic women who came before me—not only those in my family, but every woman settler, explorer, adventurer and homemaker who tamed wild lands and wild times around the world.  I particularly love to meditate on the first band of Pilgrim women.  There were 18 women on the Mayflower, and although none of them died during the crossing from England to Massachusetts, by the time of the first “Thanks Giving” meal, a year later in 1621, there were only 4 women who had survived the brutal winter, spring sowing and autumn harvest.  Four very tired women who needed to take care of 50 men and children daily.

With the men almost entirely focused on building houses and the village, the women had so many chores, they performed in shifts.  For aside from cleaning and cooking, there was plowing and planting, preserving and putting away, caring for livestock making soap and candles from tallow (animal fat), tending the sick and creating herb medicinals.  There was so much work that they lived on one portion’s grace and if they didn’t drop down dead with their hand to the plow or wither away in a nighttime sweat from a succession of diseases contracted on the voyage, they took it as a sign that God meant for them to go on.  And you know, they were right.

I love the bare bones simplicity of this truth.  Sometimes in life, all we can do is put one foot out of the bed and then in front of the other, literally.  I figure if you wake up in the morning, you’re meant to go on—continue at what you’re doing, and ask Heaven to show you what you’re doing wrong, if you are.  Since God knows we’re not meant to manage alone, Providence will be there to help if we ask for it. 

Or instead of our Pilgrim Mothers, I’ll meditate upon the legacy of our Pioneer Mother Mentors, such as Margaret Reed.  Here was a woman who enjoyed a charmed life of comfort and culture with a lovely, large home in Springfield, Illinois.  But one afternoon in July 1846, her husband James, who was a wealthy furniture manufacturer, came home for tea and told her to get ready they were headed West along with their 4 young children and her ailing mother.  There was gold in those California hills and he was going to get this share!  You can imagine the conversation they had before the weeping and wailing, slammed bedroom doors and walls of silence.


Much of James Reed’s success in persuading Margaret lay in his promise that she would travel in unsurpassed luxury and style, with all her prized possessions.  He kept his word.  Never before had a covered wagon been built like the Reeds’ and never would one be built like it again.  Two stories high, with a sleeping loft, it was outfitted with spring seats just like the best stagecoaches with an iron stove, velvet curtains and her cherished organ.  Her children dubbed it “The Picture Palace Car.”  It was stocked with six months’ supply of the best food and wine money could buy.  As the wagon pulled into formation with the rest of the Donner Party to head West, it was difficult not to stare, gasp and feel envious.

The tragic saga of the Donner Party is the most indelible tale of triumph and despair ever written in the history of the American West.  Twenty-five hundred miles away and only two days from safety, 31 men, women and children were stranded for an entire winter in the Sierra Nevada mountains by a succession of the worst blizzards on record.  Out of provisions and starving, some members resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.  

But Margaret and her children were not among them.  She kept them all alive on snow, bark, and leather broth until James, who had left the group to ride on ahead to California seeking a rescue party, returned.  The fact that her family did not perish—physically or spiritually—had absolutely nothing to do with the worldly goods she had counted on, for the wagon and all it carried had to be abandoned along the way because it was too heavy and cumbersome to travel through the mountains.  The possessions that saved Margaret and those she loved were of Spirit—her wits, her faith and her courage.

These are the same gifts all women are endowed with.  We are born with a blessed DNA—the genetic code of resilience,  strength, ingenuity, creativity, perseverance and determination.  Our Destiny, Nature and Aspirations are Heaven endowed, so why wouldn’t we be given the wherewithal to fulfill them?

So this Thanksgiving week as you go about cooking and laying the table, as you make preparations for gathering together with friends and loved ones, whenever anything happens that triggers the feeling of angst or distress, take a deep breath and silently ask yourself a few questions as I do when I’m experiencing a panic attack.

    Is my family safe today?
    Is there a roof over our heads, today?
    Do I have to chop wood to keep warm, today?
    Today, do I have to carry water in a bucket from a creek 2 miles away?    
Did I have to shoot the turkey for our meal, today?

One of my favorite quotations is from the Ladies Home Journal in October 1932.  “When money is plenty this is a man’s world.  When money is scarce it is a woman’s world. When all else fails the woman’s instinct comes in.  She gets the job.  That is the reason why in spite of all that happens, we continue to have a world.”

Thank Heavens, somethings never change, Babe.  This Thanksgiving week, just remember we are the Homefront.
Sending you dearest love, a prayer for your peace and plenty and blessings on our courage.