Some weeks ago, I wrote about the new American migrants, the economically uprooted who are once again choosing mobility over unemployment, work over home.
In particular, I told the story of Anne, a woman whose unemployed husband found a job a thousand miles away. Anne was torn between her children, her aging mother and her job at home, and her husband half-a-country away.
The mail I got was not unexpected. I received letters from wives (mostly) who had made this sort of move and wives who had chosen not to. I heard from people who were sympathetic with Anne's situation, and people who were not.
But there was one curious theme in my mail. At least a third of my correspondents and one irate caller reminded me that this was not the first generation of Americans who had to vote with their feet. Several told me of grandparents and great-grandparents who had moved west in the last century. Two, at least, criticized Anne for not having the grit of her foremothers.
This comparison struck me, because I'd just begun Lillian Schlissel's "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey." Her book is a record of the hardships and, yes, the grit of women who took the overland trail to Oregon and California in the middle of the 19th century.
The women's story is told in the understated words of their own journals. It's a story that had been virtually lost in the frontier history written by and about men. When, recently, women looked in American history textbooks for their own neglected sex they found themselves hidden in classic lines like this; "Pioneers pushed west over the mountains. Their wives and children went along."
But in Schlissel's book, women on the trail were far more than excess baggage riding comfortably in a covered wagon. They were essential partners along this hostile trail. Though one-fifth of them were pregnant at some point in the journey, though most had small children, they did ordinary drudgery under extraordinary conditions. They rolled out dough on the wagon seats, cooked with fires made out of buffalo chips, tended the sick and marked the graves of their children, their husbands and each other.
In comparison, our modern moves, made with a trailer truck along an interstate highway, pale. Yet there is a sense in which the wives and mothers of that migration and this migration -- perhaps any migration -- have much in common emotionally.
You see, at the moment of the original decision, most of our "gritty" foremothers didn't want to go.
The women who went were almost all married. But it was husbands who were captured by the glowing descriptions of the West; wives who were skeptical. Husbands who thought of what could be gained; wives who thought of what would be lost.
As Schlissel describes them: "Riding side by side, sitting in the very same wagons, crossing the continent in response to the call for free land, women did not always see the venture in the clear light of the expectation of success. There were often shadows in their minds, areas of dark reservation and opposition."
For every women who saw this as an adventure, there were a hundred like Margaret Hereford Wilson, the grandmother of Gen. George S. Patton, who wrote in 1850 to her mother, with typical anguish; "Dr. Wilson has determined to go to California. I am going with him as there is no other alternative . . . Oh my dear Mother . . . I thought that I felt bad when I wrote you . . . from Independence, but it was nothing like this."
Schlissel suggests that for men breaking away and moving, the frontier was a pursuit of masculinity, "an expression of testing and reaching." The male pioneers were chasing what our life-cycle plotters today like to call "The Dream."
But women saw themselves as caretakers, keepers of homes, keepers of relationships. For them the separation from parents, home, friends and environment was far more threatening. In fact, they measured their accomplishments on the trail in terms of their ability to keep the family together.
Unlike Margaret Wilson, wives today have different options and responsibilities. More women now choose to test themselves against some frontier; more men nurture their roots. Yet it is still more common for men to embrace moves and women to dread them.
In this new season of migration, when the economy acts like a centrifuge, it is equally challenging to keep a family together, especially when jobs and generations are a thousand miles apart. No matter what my letter-writers say, I suspect that our foremothers in the caravans of covered wagons would understand.