She Prevailed

Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse. This will be Jane in old age. Image sent to me by the late Martha MacDonald.

International Women’s Day today, so I thought I’d write a little about a pioneer woman in my family tree, Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse.

Few letters home or journals survive from women pioneers – so it is interesting to know anything  about the day to day lives of those women who upped sticks, crossed oceans, then hit the trail. And Jane left a narrative, currently lost – but which inspired Nelle Greene Strang’s journal-form book,  ‘Prairie Smoke’, published by Jane’s family in 1985, a copy originally sent to me by local history researcher, Martha MacDonald. Martha also put me in touch with my Roodhouse relatives.

Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse (1791-1860) was the daughter of my great grandfather x 5, Isaac  Moses, of Cawood, Yorkshire.  When widowed, she married a widower, Ben Roodhouse – a local farmer who had started life as Cawood’s butcher.

I’m related to both Jane and Ben, descending directly from her brother and his sister as well being related to her first husband, Abraham Wood.

Back in 1820, a Peter Roodhouse  bought a grist mill in the newly settled Belltown, Illinois.  He seems to have returned to England, where he died ten years later, but maybe his tall tales of life in America inspired his nephews, as they started pestering their parents, Jane and Ben Roodhouse, to emigrate.  In 1830, Jane and Ben duly emigrated to America with their nine children; Abraham, William, Isaac and Mary Wood and Jane, John, twins Peter and Ben and James Roodhouse.

The journey was not uneventful. One of the twins fell into the sea when the ship was still docked, in London. He was rescued by older brother, Isaac Wood.  Bearing in mind Isaac’s father, Jane’s first husband, had drowned – this must have been a terrifying moment, for Jane.

After the usual terrifying voyage, the family did what many immigrants did, and left their furniture in storage at the Great Lakes.  They travelled to Illinois, meaning to go back and retrieve their possessions later.  Only to find everything they had in storage had been stolen and the storage hut burned down.

They bought a large farm in White Hall, Greene County, from a fellow English settler, and settled down to farm. Land Tax records show that even after they were established in America, Jane still owned property back home in Cawood, Yorkshire. And this is something historians often don’t write about; the cliche is that women weren’t allowed to own land or property – but of course they could and did. Women were entrepreneurs in the nineteenth century (see current issue of ‘The Knitter’ for my piece on one such York woman).

The family’s first Illinois winter was harsh; a certain Abraham Lincoln also moved to Illinois that year and like the Roodhouses, was later honoured  with the name ‘snowbird’ – like everyone who lived through that viciously cold winter of 1830.  This winter tested the fortitude of the new immigrants.  For over two months, there were furious snowstorms and the wind blew the snow into cabins, between the logs in the walls, so much that people shovelled snow indoors.  Jane had lived a comfortable existence – educated privately in York, as a child, and brought up by affectionate but sometimes stern, Methodist principles.

In 1831, only months after they settled, Ben died of a fever, leaving Jane and the children to run the farm “without a helping hand” as ‘The History of Greene County, Illinois’ (1879) put it. It must have been incredibly tough in the early years and maybe more than once, Jane was tempted to return home to her undemanding life in Yorkshire.  But she persisted, like thousands of other immigrants, the world over – invested in new lives, making a better future for loved ones.

I won’t write at too much length about Jane here – her sons Ben and John went on to found the town of Roodhouse, Illinois, so the family history is well covered, elsewhere.

On International Women’s Day, I just wanted to share a few quotes from a book written by Jane’s relative, Nelle Greene Strang, ‘Prairie Smoke’ which describes Jane’s early days as an English pioneer in Illinois.  Nelle’s unpublished manuscript was found in an attic after her death in 1968. Nelle was Jane’s great x 2 grand-daughter.  

Jane’s journal is known to have still been extant into the 20th century, but is now lost.  It’s thought Nelle Strang may well have been very conversant with it.

It is written in a curious, archaic, not-quite-right for the 1830s, cod British-English; no doubt Miss Strang’s romantic, twentieth century idea of how English people might have sounded.  Yet some passages in it seem to be authentic, including many describing knitting, spinning and dyeing. And they are of interest both to the textile historian and those of us who want to read about women’s documented experiences, throughout history. 

Most nineteenth century women of most social classes, spent time knitting endless stockings, if nothing else. To have a stocking on the go would be analagous to a contemporary woman having a mobile phone to hand:

We did set an red dye and I did card a bit of wool whilst Mary did wrap the silver and did store it away in the chest. I did set up an stocking and did finish it by early candlelight… MAY 1834

Jane wrote of family friends’ sons visiting from England – poignantly, one of the boys died whilst staying with the Wood/Roodhouses in Illinois. And she wrote of everyday life; missing the ‘lanthorns’ that had been stolen from their storage; planting crops, looking after animals, and seeing a famous itinerant Methodist preacher (who was indeed at that place at that time). 

Jane had hoped to see native Americans, when on the trail to her new home; but her only sighting, disappointing her, was of some distant smoke, across the prairie.   Her lanthorns might have been lost but her spinning wheel must have travelled with her  (York was a place where some beautiful spinning wheels were indeed made, during Jane’s school years and beyond).  I have not been able to find out if Jane’s spinning wheel is extant but it is possible, as her portrait is, and the family continued to farm the same land well into the late 20th century.   In England, professionally dyed yarn could be bought at the shops, in town, or from pedlars who tramped from village to village, selling their wares. In America, Jane had to master new skills she’d never have needed back home.

Jane learned dyeing with new-to-her plants, from her servants.  A gentleman’s daughter, in England, by around 1800, would have had no reason to learn to spin. Yet Jane could, maybe speaking to the frugality and common sense of her Methodist family.

 Years after they settled, they paid an architect to reconstuct their house in Cawood, Yorkshire, going from Jane’s memory. I can find one house in Cawood that looks similar – but can’t be certain it’s the original.  They named the new, brick house “Cawood”.  I have found no evidence any of the Wood or Roodhouse children ever returned to Yorkshire, but they must have grown up hearing about “home” and the older children would have memories of their own.  A subsequent generation shared some family names with my own family in Cawood, which suggests to me that we were possibly still in contact with our American cousins, decades on.

Ben’s brother, Peter, died months after the family left for Illinois. He left a clock to his family “in America”.  How the will’s executors got the clock sent off, we will never know, but it may be this once glimpsed in ‘Prairie Smoke’:

The English clock does tick on these strange walls as it did in the Old World in the days of mine youth.  May, 1837

Jane was a middle aged woman with nine children when she came to Illinois.  She was often homesick for England. In describing the everyday details of pioneer women’s lives – the endless sewing, cooking, dyeing, spinning, and workaday knitting and the descriptions of the material culture of the pioneer home, Nelle seems fairly reliable.  The Roodhouses and Woods mixed with other English ex-pats; often lawyers and minor gentry.  As Methodists who had grown up in Wilberforce’s constituency, it is unlikely they will have had slaves in fact, they are highly likely to have been abolitionists, given their background in Yorkshire – Yorkshire Methodists were at the heart of the English abolition movement during Jane’s early years and her relatives were prominent Methodists.

The household did include servants, though, who Jane referred to as her “family”; including Jennie, who taught her about dye plants. In England, domestic dyeing was rarely done and only then, by miners’ or farm labourers’ wives; most knitters used undyed natural colours or bought commercially dyed yarn.  By 1830, few British people spun yarn at all as it was spun by the mile, by machinery and had been for decades.

Naturally dyed wool including wools dyed with lac and logwood.

From ‘Prairie Smoke’ by Nelle Green Strang:

The lads do assist in the felling of the trees and with the care of the stock whilst Mary and I do spin and knit. Jane does mind the small lads for they are ever in mischief as small lads do ever seem to be. Many stitches must be taken for we do number nine and no seamstress is at hand as in the Old World. I do wish to have a sufficient supply of garments and Lottie is most willing in all manner of labor. Strange does it seem as I do gaze about me but I have a stout heart and will not be always looking back over mine shoulder on the days of mine youth in England. Sept 1830



…Verily I do lose count on the days that do pass so quickly by but I do mark this day. I was spinning by the open door for the air was soft and balmy and daughter Mary was combing her brown curls before the mirror when I did espy an horseman coming out of the timber… Oct 1830


Then there’s this:

… I do see William’s newly wedded wife spinning at the cabin door so she may oft look towards the field where if William and his brothers are busy with the grain… June 1832

And, from November 1834:

… Already I have an vast number of socks and stockings knit. Mary has knit mittens and she did double-hook and peg an pair far each lad and she is now knitting braces for the lads to present them at Yuletide.

And maybe my favourite:

Jennie’s mother did make promise to set the dyes for us for it is soon we will need the garments stitched for mine household. She does handle the dyes with much skill. Each year she does go questing about in search of madder and logwood and sassafras also. She has even used the dark juice of the pokeberry and she knows even goldenrod and iris will yield up a bit of juice for her use. Sept 1835

One of the grandchildren played a trick on the elderly Jane, when resuming her knitting:

Whilst the frolic did go on I did slip out to fetch mine knitting and when I did open up the chest an voice from within did say “Woman,what seekest thou?” I did draw back afrighted and did bang down the lid. I did return to mine chair and did sit a bit and did ponder on it and I did think mine ears had deceived me and I did again go to the chest and the voice within did say — “Woman,why fleest thou from thy fate?” Quickly I did turn about and when I did return

I was greeted with an shout of laughter. The lad did then come to me and did plead for mine forgiveness for his trickery and when I did grant him this he did make the fire — dogs hark and an robin did chirp upon the window sill and there was an mewing beneath the table and no pussy-cat was there. He did have the power to cast his voice where he did choose and did much enjoy playing tricks on those about him.   Jan, 1852


Jane was capable as thousands of less documented nineteenth century pioneer women. In the words of another relative, L.W. Roodhouse, “she built an estate, she educated her children, she prevailed.”

Mudag of naturally dyed fibre. Jane and family may well have had to learn to weave simple baskets for their own use – another pioneer skill. Mudags coming soon from us, here:

Of Cardinals, Monks, and Rampaging Vikings

Cellarium, Fountains Abbey. CREDIT: Nate Hunt

On one of our regular dog walks, close to home,  we pass a flock of Norfolk Horn sheep.  They graze on a corner of Cawood Garth, a piece of common ground owned by the folk in the next village. It used to be where Cawood Castle stood (only the Gatehouse remains). This was where Cardinal Wolsey came to live, in 1530 but was here only a short while before Henry VIII had him arrested for high treason.  He died on his way to trial in that vortex of doom that is Leicester.  By all accounts he was very popular with the locals in Yorkshire and I grew up in a nearby village where every other street had the word ‘Wolsey’ in it.  The Garth was rescued from developers when Greater Crested Newts and Star of Bethlehem wildflowers were found – there are also some old varieties of apple growing there.


Norfolk Horns are an ideal breed of sheep used for ‘conservation grazing’ and the fact they are on the Garth is good news for its flora.  I have many happy childhood memories of Cawood, where my mother grew up and her aunties still lived. So to get some fleece from the sheep who graze there – and, of all places, on the very site where Cardinal Wolsey once lived – is a rare privilege indeed.  My ancestor, Isaac Moses, left a piece of land in Cawood his will, in 1820, called ‘The Close’ which may have been nearabouts and he lived yards away at Market Square.  This may or may not have been a bit of the Garth.

Washing Norfolk Horn in a dolly tub.

I managed to get talking to the sheep’s farmer, and she kindly set aside some of her clip for me.  I’ll be spinning some in the next month.   Having so much wool to wash or scour, we borrowed a dolly tub.  Scouring = a good, thorough clean with detergent and hot water.  Washing = a slight opening up of the locks, and then soaking for a few days in cold water, to get the worst of the muck out.   I tried a small amount of neck wool on the wool cycle of my washing machine, as I’d read Norfolk Horn was reluctant to felt. It instantly felted.  Luckily, only a couple of ounces lost!  For links to info about wool scouring, check out:

Fountains Abbey, Credit: Nate Hunt

The wool is short-medium staple and mostly looks to be white, but one fleece has some grey and others grey bits near the margins where the sheep have markings.  Fleeces were well skirted and rolled, and quality sorted. The wool looks to be a typical 54s-56s; and finer sections of the one I unrolled this morning had lovely crimp, and looked ‘lacy’ when held up to the light.  The wool has a fair bit of grease, too. By another coincidence, they were stored in a barn on my Grandfather’s old farm, where my mother grew up, so it was strange going to pick them up and thinking “She once stood here and this was all where she played.” My mother would have loved to know one day her daughter would be standing there, buying wool.

We sorted the fleeces, labelled them clearly and have stored them in the little loft of our shed – formerly the kids’ playhouse)so it had a tiny ‘upstairs’.  I’ve put the best fleeces towards the front and will process in quality order, ensuring the better ones, at least, are stored clean before winter. The wool on the ‘moderate’ ones looks to be very lovely, as well, though.

I’m also about to get a couple of Castlemik Moorit fleeces from a prize-winning flock.  With all our efforts going towards covering the cost of shearing at the Museum of Farming, earlier in the year, it feels good to be doing something to keep the rarer breeds of sheep going, in another way.  This will be a Norfolk-Horn crazed Spinzilla.


More Norfolk Horn info here:


Norfolk Horn Breeders’ Group.


Here’s hoping for a few weeks of sunny, windy weather, to get at least some of the wool scoured and dry before autumn sets in.  We bought a few metres of cheap muslin and have made some new drawstring bags to hang drying wool from the line.   I’m trying to get the first fleece scoured and carded, so I can see if my old David Barnett drum carder is OK with it, or whether I’m going to need a higher TPI drum carder to process it.  (Hand carding works better but I want to get a shedload carded before Spinzilla…)

I’m still dithering though, whether to enter Spinzilla – if I do, it will be as a Maverick. The year before last I was only 30 odd yards from winning the Mavericks, and as I hadn’t planned on entering the competition til the day before entries closed, I hadn’t cleared my schedule so lost a day of that week to appointments, and unavoidable things that could have been avoided with more notice!


As I card and spin this wool, in the run up to Spinzilla (or Not Spinzilla), I’ll report back how it’s looking as I know this is a breed of sheep a lot of spinners haven’t had the chance to try.


In other news, we just had to do an emergency harvest of our dye garden after it was trampled by some viking re-enactors (which, on the bright side, gives us the rare distinction of being possibly the first people to suffer financially from a raid by inconsiderate vikings, in almost 1000 years…)

Our dye garden area had an impromptu fence around it.  But apparently, the vikings had to urgently work on something that involved them being our side of the fence, and walking about on what they must have assumed were worthless ‘weeds’.  In fact, the madder we were hoping to leave undisturbed another year or two.  The weld – greatest tragedy – was two weeks or so off coming into flower.  We have just grubbed everything up, hung it up to dry in the shed, and will see what colours we salvage, when we get time to dye with them.  I would have had double the madder, I guess, leaving another year.  Anyway, we’re now going to have to re-locate to a place where rampaging vikings won’t do a dance on our crop.  (Quite ironic as they were doing ‘living history’ at the time but clearly with more of a 21stC sensibility where anything that isn’t petunias or roses = weeds…)  The dye garden was 2 years’ worth of effort put in by four people. A shame to see it go. It will rise, phoenix-like, from the Viking pillage – but in a Viking-free zone.

Green Man, Fountains Abbey. Courtesy Nate Hunt

Talking of Viking-free zones, the other week, we were at the stunning Fountains Abbey, fettling their Great Wheel which is having some teething troubles. (Nothing major – a slight problem with the leather bearings). We’ve had the wheel fixed for them by an expert and will be returning the mother-of-all and spinning head, down the week.

I’ve never fallen in love with a place on sight, so much as I have Fountains. Any excuse to get back there in the coming months, I think!  I’ve been reading about its history.  Only nine years after the Cardinal was captured, and marched away to die, Fountains Abbey was surrendered at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The Cistercian monks are of course, of great interest to anyone who is into woolly history. There was a woolhouse on the site, too.  (I’ll explore that the next chance I get and share in a future post).  On the ground, you can see how the landscape helped with the wool-growing and wool washing/processing. The abbey is sited in a sort of ravine – like so many Cistercian monasteries; put out of the way of humankind, in places we romantically perceive as ‘wild’ and ‘beautiful’ but medieval society perceived as ‘hostile’ and ‘barren’…
At the moment, I feel like I’m living the monastic life in my own personal woolhouse; constantly washing and scouring wool, and now preparing to card it for spinning, during the autumn/winter.  Sick of plastic bins splitting under the strain of wool washing, I hit upon the idea of using a dolly tub. Borrowed one, but it has to go back soon so I’ll be on the lookout for my own as it’s proving to be perfect for the job!


Look out for us demonstrating spinning/Yorkshire Dales knitting at the Cawood Craft Festival, this weekend.

We’ll also be demonstrating Dales knitting,  the Great Wheel and/or the Chair Wheel at Masham Sheep Fair, 24th/25th September.  Look out for us upstairs in the Town Hall!