The Wild West through the eyes of "Libbie" Custer
Wolves, rattlesnakes, floods, fire, and stampedes—these are just some of the many dangers faced by women on the American frontier of the 19th century. Life in the Wild West required great adjustments. The sights and experiences of the frontier, ranging from dust storms to buffalo hunts to meetings with iconic figures like Wild Bill Hickok and Jim Bridger were unlike anything these women had experienced in the East. One of the women who ventured into the vast territory of the West, to follow her husband serving in the military on the frontier, was Elizabeth Bacon Custer. She dedicated her last years to preserving the memory of her husband, Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer, who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Elizabeth Custer, affectionately known to her friends as "Libbie," published four books detailing her life in the West. In 1912 she donated to the Smithsonian a number of invaluable objects related to the Custers' experience of military life in mid-19th-century America.
When circumstances permitted, women like Libbie left their homes in the East and joined their husbands on marches, in camps, and in forts across the western United States. There, women held their households together with very little. Libbie recounts living in tents or in unfinished, undecorated quarters, and like other army wives, she struggled with the unavailability of key foods like milk and eggs. The wives of enlisted men served as laundresses, responsible for washing and mending the clothes of their husband's companies, and also as cooks, performing demanding labor for meager pay. Officers' wives, Libbie included, devoted themselves to the care of army men and their families. While these duties were only semiofficial, given the fact that officers' wives were not recognized by the army, women contributed much to army life on the frontier.
In her book Following the Guidon, Libbie writes "we women occupied ourselves mostly in finding amusement for the men, who looked to us for diversion in their leisure hours." For an officer's wife, this meant taking part in any number of activities. Libbie writes in Boots and Saddles, "It made no impression if we were speechless—the dearth of women made the men far from critical." Libbie often describes the care and attention paid to women at army forts, noting that women of all ages and marital statuses were asked to participate in walks, rides, or dances. Common entertainments held at the home of the post commander included dinner parties, concerts, singing, and card games—or grander entertainments like balls, operas, concerts, and theatricals.
In addition to supporting the men of their forts, a large part of women's time was spent caring for generals and settlers alike. A post commander's wife was responsible for hosting visiting officers, such as General Philip Sheridan and General William Sherman, who encouraged officers' wives to document their experiences on the frontier. And though it was a frequent source of stress, the post commander's wife also took pains to feed and house any traveling clergy, westward moving migrants, or wayward train passengers who happened to appear at their doorstep, or even at the mouth of their tent. Indeed, inBoots and Saddles, Libbie recounts being told by her husband that "as the wife of the commanding officer" that their "house should be hospitable upon principle." Creating a home on the frontier, a home for all those who lived on the fort, was a tall order. However, pioneering women like Libbie Custer were able to do so with few resources and much hard work.
Nancy O'Neil completed an internship in the Division of Armed Forces History. She is an undergraduate at Harvard University.