Despite the fact that women made up about ½ of the population of 19th century Northeastern Oklahoma, there isn’t much information documenting their activities, just incidental mention.
Records indicate that Joe Bogy, the founder of Three Forks was married to Marie Duplassy at Kaskasia, Illinois and later, Nathaniel Pryor married Osage Chief Cashesegra’s daughter at Arkansas Post but the women’s life history’s are not recorded. Mention is made of John Ross’ wife Quatie dying enroute to Indian Territory as well as a few others, but biographers concentrated almost entirely on male pioneers.
Of course there are the usual tawdry tales of relationships between men and women. For example, the marital and extra marital activities of A.P. Chouteau, Jean Chouteau’s son, who really developed the Chouteau industries in Northeastern Oklahoma are well documented. Raised in St. Louis, Auguste married Sophia Labbadie and the couple had nine children.
But Auguste is also credited with extra-marital affairs with at least four Osage women who also bore him 12 offspring, insuring propagation of the Chouteau name on the new frontier.
But aside from this bit of information and, with the exception of research conducted by the Works Progress Administration who interviewed former male and female slaves in the 1930s, little is known about the lives of women in Northeastern Oklahoma as it was developing.
Historically, the lives of women, unless they became queen, were recognized as influencing particular men, or were martyred for some cause, have never received equal billing to men, But that was not true of Cherokee women, prior to removal, at least through the early 1800s.
The Cherokee are a matriarchal society. Women were venerated for maintaining the existence of the tribe. Their bloodline dominated. Women farmed and controlled the fruits of their labor. They kept the household and raised the children. They were the center of tribal customs, the very reason for the existence of the village.
Men hunted and defended the village for the tribe, but women were its lifeblood. That is until Caucasian traders arrived. Unfamiliar with tradition or simply disregarding it, they treated and traded with their male Indian counterparts. As intermarriage occurred, although the tradition of bloodline continued, Cherokee women’s role in their society was diminished.
Missionaries touting Christian principles also contributed to the declining influence of women. They were troubled by the Cherokee tradition of men having more than one wife, if they could adequately support them, as well as the manner in which marriages could originate or be dissolved.
Their efforts to promote “Christian marriages” often alienated both the mixed blood Cherokee and their full blood counterparts who chose to maintain tradition. A report in the Cherokee Phoenix in 1830 noted that out of a total Cherokee population of 15,000, only 1,000 men and women belonged to organized churches.
So when removal to Indian Territory was complete, these two ideologies continued to compete against each other, further marginalizing the role of women. Still some aspects of the matriarchal society were maintained, for example if a Caucasian man married a Cherokee woman, a fairly common practice, the husband could not sell any part of the wife’s property without her consent.
The Civil War and post Civil War chaos were extremely difficult times for women, unsung heroes who attempted to maintain a home and raise children, quite often without the assistance of any adult male on the premises. Still, unprotected, without sufficient supplies or work animals with which to farm, they prevailed laying the foundation of determination for their 20th century counterparts.
But change would occur. In 1854 Alice Mary Robertson was born in Indian Territory and early in the next century would become Muskogee Postmaster from 1905–1913.
She then would be elected 2nd district Congresswoman in 1921, the first to be elected after passage of the 19th Amendment. What more recently has been dubbed “the glass ceiling,” was broken and women began a slow but undeniable march toward equality.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.