Eden Prairie News Column
To “quell the hordes of insect foes” Ellet’s traveling companions constructed a “smudge,” a short-lived primitive solution to stave off biting insects. The method used to subdue the intruders, according to “Western Parlance,” was to “kindle brushwood covered with leaves and turf.”
Did it work? Real fires need constant replenishment. Ellet’s group lacked a long-lived smoke screen which would require the felling of many more trees. They resorted to a “shanty” to house the five women in the party and the men were left with “buffalo skins for cover” and “the sky for a roof.” This is a telling quirkism of nineteenth century mores: was the female constitution unfit to rough it under skins and sky?
For Ellet “camping out” was the “less agreeable part” of exploring Minnesota, as she endured a sleepless night infiltrated by field mice “feasting on the remnants of their repast.” And there were the horses with their audible chewing of hay, switching of tails, beating of hooves with final desperate leaps to avoid skeeters. “So wore away the night,” according to Ellet.
And though Ellet found discomfort along the way, if her book Summer Rambles in the West tells us anything about her, it’s a glimpse into the mind-set of a nineteen century female observer who couldn’t abide by the male convention that women were not up to participating in the exploration of the country, just because they couldn’t sit a carriage.
Three parties of men went out to appease their curiosity about the discovery of “Mide-tonka,” or the “Big Lake,” as it was called by local natives. It was a body of water so close to St. Paul, yet it remained undiscovered. There were no roads and travel was impractical by carriage. The notion of women going along was “hooted as quite out of the question… and perfectly impossible,” so the men said, but they couldn’t impose any restrictions on Ellet.
Ellet described their refusal to allow women to participate as “masculine selfishness, attempting to appropriate the first sights of this remarkable lake” and the “honor of discovering it” by displaying an “overbearing exclusiveness.”
Despite continued attempts to deter Ellet and other women in her party, the “croakers,” as Ellet referred to them, did not succeed in dissuading her. She joined another group and on August 11th, 1852 set out for the long journey, “setting aside the roughness of the way….. passing beyond the limits of civilization.”
It’s doubtful that Ellet’s steadfastness was put in context with the book she had just penned, The Women of the American Revolution, first published in 1848 by Baker and Scribner. Her assertiveness was in keeping with her views about women’s equal participation and her commitment to truth in history.
Other than the fact that she was one of the best known and most prolific female writers in her day, Ellet, like no other women before her, defined the female heroes of the American Revolution, who healed the wounded, raised the children, baked the bread and even fought along side their men. Despite her scholarly quest in discovering the feminine contribution in Revolutionary times, Ellet clung to the early nineteenth century Romantic ideals of women: she would not trespass on their domesticity and piety. However, in a day when heroes’ wives appeared as mere mentions in their biographies, Ellet bestowed profiles of feminine courage that promoted an equally patriotic portrait of women.
Back when there were only inklings of women’s rightful place in history, Ellet obtained private letters and interviewed relatives with Revolutionary ties; she was the first American female historian to write exclusively about women’s history. Much of our country’s past was written by men about men. Ellet wrote about women’s struggles and the heart and backbone with which they faced them.
Linda K. Kerber, the May Brodbeck Professor in Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Iowa’s Department of History, gave a presidential address in 1987 entitled: History will do it no Justice: Women’s Lives in Revolutionary America. The title of her lecture was attributed to her observation of Elizabeth Ellet’s depiction of the relationship between women and the American Revolution.
Kerber writes that “Ellet deduced that there had been at least two sets of equally authentic wartime experiences, documented in different ways.” The public record portrayed that the actions of men stood out in prominent relief.
Kerber’s version of the day, more analytical and revealing than Ellet’s, reflected the sheer numbers of women’s combat involvement: Kerber said “If the army is described and analyzed solely from the vantage point of central command, the women and children will be invisible.” Women were not given official status by General Washington, but at the end of the war the ratio was one woman for every 15 men in a regiment.
Name some of the women Ellet wrote about in her book Women of the American Revolution. Send in your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org The first entry that names the most female participants in the Revolutionary War will receive a poster the day of the official opening of the Elizabeth Fries Ellet Trail this summer.