Nancy Hendrickson describes the lives of Army officers’ wives on the frontier.
MARTHA SUMMERHAYES CROUCHED in the bottom of an Army wagon as it bounced towards Sanford Pass. Her husband, Jack, rode alongside, keeping a sharp lookout for marauding Apache. Her three-month-old son lay helplessly beside her. As the wagon lurched through the narrow cut in the mountains, Martha wondered if she could carry out Jack’s instructions — in case he was wounded, she was to use her loaded derringer on their son and then on herself.
A year earlier, Martha was just back from an extended stay in Germany and marriage to Lieutenant Jack Summerhayes. While in Europe, Martha had fallen in love with the romance and chivalry of the army. The handsomely uniformed men “lent a brilliancy to every affair”. She remembered saying to a German general’s wife, “Oh, how fascinating it all is!” and was puzzled at the response. “Life in the army is not always so brilliant as it looks; in fact we often call it glaenzendes Elend — glittering misery.”
Now, stationed far from home in “that dreaded Arizona” and steeled for an Apache attack, the glitter seemed a lifetime away and the misery too close for comfort.
Life on the Frontier
The Army wives who followed their husbands West well understood the irony of glittering misery — it was the construct of their lives. They lived in settlements so remote that a sack of onions was a treasure, and a dozen eggs were guarded as closely as a payroll. George Custer’s wife, Libbie, chronicled her many attempts to grow fresh vegetables, all of which were thwarted by prairie heat and grasshoppers. When fresh fruit was available, it was something to write home about. Only once in her years on the frontier did Libbie have fresh strawberries — a gift which she carefully divided and doled out for each of her guests. “When one goes on year after year,” she wrote “and one forgets even the taste of fruit and fresh vegetables, it becomes an event when they do appear.”
The normal diet of Army beef was supplemented in summer with wild game, but in spite of the lack of fruit and vegetables, most of the officers and their wives were exceptionally healthy. This proved fortunate, as post doctors were far more skilled at removing arrows than caring for women and children. Most wives feared getting pregnant because of the possibility of a difficult birth or postpartum complications. After the birth of her son, Martha Summerhayes suffered through a prolonged recovery, while Emily FitzGerald, a doctor’s wife, contracted a postpartum infection that lingered for days. Methods of contraception were a popular topic of discussion.
Like their city peers, children in the West suffered from scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, influenza and cholera. Many children did not live past childhood. Emily FitzGerald wrote home “I have such a horror of scarlet fever that I feel like picking up the babies and flying.” When a child died, the wives drew close, each knowing that the next casualty could be in their own family.
Death on the frontier was commonplace, if not from disease or hostile Indians, then from barroom brawls or extremes in weather. In Dakota Territory, ferocious winter storms blew icy air through holes in the floor. When George and Libbie Custer first arrived in Dakota they were trapped inside a cabin during a raging blizzard without firewood or supplies. Libbie was certain they wouldn’t survive the night.