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.
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.”