Question to consider: 1. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1890 called the conquest of Indian peoples by whites the triumph of “civilization” over “savagery.” Does Becker's lithograph make that point graphically? Or the opposite?
Out on the treeless plains the Indians had adjusted to scarcity of food, water, and other necessities by adopting a nomadic way of life. Their small kinship groups moved each season to wherever nature supplied the food they needed. Such mobility discouraged families from acquiring many possessions. Tools and housing had to be light and portable. Even tribes that raised crops on which to live often moved with the seasons.
Unlike the Indians, farmers, ranchers, and townspeople rooted themselves to a single place. What the surrounding countryside could not supply had to be brought from afar, generally at great effort and expense. For those on the isolated prairie, keeping food on the table was nearly impossible in some seasons. Something as simple as finding water suitable for drinking or cooking became a problem in the West, where the choice might be between “the strong alkaline water of the Rio Grande or the purchase of melted manufactured ice (shipped by rail) at its great cost.”
Gardening, generally a woman's responsibility, brought variety to the diet and color to the yard. The legume family of peas and beans, in particular, provided needed protein. Flowers were much prized but seldom survived the wind, heat, and droughts. To prepare for the lean winter months, women stocked their cellars and made wild fruits into leathery cakes eaten to ward off the scurvy that resulted from vitamin deficiency.
Until rail lines made the shipment of goods cheaper and until Sears, Roebuck “wishbooks” brought mail order to the frontier, a woman's kitchen was modest. One miner's wife in Montana during the 1870s considered her kitchen “well-furnished” with two kettles, a cast iron skillet, and a coffeepot. A kitchen cupboard might be little more than a box nailed to a log.
Without doctors, women learned how to take care of themselves. Whiskey and patent medicines were often more dangerous than the disease, but they were used to treat a range of ills from frostbite to snakebite and from sore throats to burns and rheumatism. Cobwebs could bandage small wounds; turpentine served as a disinfectant. Mosquitoes were repelled with a paste of vinegar and salt. Most parents thought the laxative castor oil could cure almost any childhood malady. Some women adapted remedies used on their farm animals. Sarah Olds, a Nevada homesteader whose family was plagued by fleas and lice, recalled that “we all took baths with plenty of sheep dip in the water…. I had no disinfectant … so I boiled all our clothing in sheep dip and kerosene.”
Gradually, as the market system penetrated the West, families had less need to improvise in matters of diet and medicine. Through catalogs they might order spices such as white pepper or poultry seasoning and appliances such as grinders for real coffee. If a local stagecoach passed by the house, a woman might send her eggs and butter to town to be exchanged for needed store-bought goods such as thread and needles.