Women faced many challenges in early Ohio. The first white women arrived in the Ohio Country around the time of the American Revolution, as wives of missionaries and soldiers. The first white child born in Ohio was Johanna Maria Heckewelder, daughter of missionaries sent by the Moravian Church to convert the Delaware Indians. These early women did not stay permanently in the region.
The first permanent white women settlers arrived in the Northwest Territory in 1788 and 1789. They traveled with their families to the first official settlement at Marietta , founded by the Ohio Company of Associates. Soon, white women helped to populate other regions as well, including the Seven Ranges and the Connecticut Western Reserve.
The trip to the Ohio Country in the late eighteenth century was very difficult for women. Many of them had no choice but to follow their husbands to the frontier. Most women traveled several hundred miles, often on foot, to get to Ohio. Because the wagons had very limited capacity, only absolute necessities were packed for the journey. Sentimental objects, like family heirlooms, china, and most furniture, had to be left behind.
Once these women arrived in Ohio they faced numerous challenges. They and their families lived in primitive conditions until land could be cleared and a small, one-room cabin built. The climate could be very harsh, and settlers also dealt with annoying insects and dangerous animals. Having left friends and family behind in the East, many women faced homesickness and isolation. In the early years of settlement, women experienced many psychological challenges as well. Commonly, there were no close neighbors or nearby towns to provide much social interaction. Men were away from the house for long hours, working in the fields or hunting and leaving their wives with no adult companionship. There were numerous accounts of loneliness, depression, and even occasional suicides.
Women made enormous contributions to life in Ohio. They contributed to the family’s economic well-being by making much of what the family needed to survive, resulting in a self-sufficient farm. In addition to taking care of the home and raising children, frontier women provided medical care, raised livestock, grew vegetable gardens to supplement the family’s diet, made butter, candles, and soap, preserved food for the winter months, and made their family’s clothing, often of cloth that they wove themselves. This work kept women extremely busy. In addition, some women also helped with farm work and also performed other men’s duties when necessary. In some cases, a widowed woman continued to farm her family’s land after her husband’s death, often with only her children’s help.
Women also made significant contributions to their communities. Women traveling West tried to maintain many aspects of the civilization and culture of the life left behind in the East. In particular, women were influential in developing churches and schools, believing that these institutions had a civilizing effect on society. In some cases, women were employed as schoolteachers, although rarely once they were married. They were commonly paid much less than male teachers. In areas where formal schools did not exist, mothers were responsible for teaching their children at home. Women also played an important role in reforming the wild frontier. They organized various reform movements, such as temperance associations, to try and instill good moral values in their fellow Ohioans. They also played important roles in other reform movements, including abolition and prison reform. During the 1840s and 1850s, some women organized to push for women’s rights. In the Civil War, women became nurses to sick and wounded men in the military. A handful of women also disguised themselves as men and went to war. Most importantly, women provided their loved ones in the military with clothes, blankets, and other supplies through organizations such as the United States Sanitary Commission.
Women often provided hospitality for strangers traveling through Ohio. When public hotels or taverns were not available, settlers opened their homes to travelers, providing both meals and a place to sleep. Women also operated businesses, either in partnership with their husbands or alone if widowed. There are accounts of women who ran sawmills, gristmills, and inns. Other women took work into their homes to earn extra money for their families, such as weaving and sewing. Once factories began to open their doors in Ohio, many women sought employment there. Men disliked the regimented schedule required in factory work. Women usually willingly went to work to help their families make ends meet. Other women rejected marriage and welcomed the opportunity to earn their own paycheck to support themselves.
Life for women during Ohio’s early history was both challenging and dangerous. Women died in accidents and from complications from childbirth. Women did not have a very long life expectancy—most did not live to see their fortieth birthday during the frontier era. Women faced a difficult life in Ohio in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, but conditions did begin to improve as the region became more settled.