- The First We Can Remember: Colorado Pioneer Women Tell Their Stories by Lee Schweninger
This book presents sixty-seven women’s narratives elicited by Colorado Work Progress Administration (WPA) oral history interviewers in 1933–34. Lee Schweninger has organized the book by geographical region, which provides a sense of coherence to settlers’ experiences, be they among mining camps or semi-arid grasslands, early or late in Colorado’s Anglo settlement. Schweninger’s introduction and bibliography succinctly summarize over three decades of major scholars’ arguments for including women’s experiences in western history. In the context of a lively historiography that has evolved from a focus on famous/infamous women, through debates about pioneer (i.e., white) women’s westering, to a complex multicultural study of interrelationships, The First We Can Remember may seem a throwback. The WPA interviews that make up the book are, with few exceptions, the stories of white women in nineteenth-century Colorado. This limitation was due to WPA selection, not Schweninger, who addresses their bias head-on: “Thus an important and regrettable lacuna results from the paucity of narrators who do not trace their roots to northern Europe. The absence of such narratives is especially unfortunate in that Hispanic settlement is important to what became Colorado” (xxxviii).
While records of the interviewers’ questions no longer exist, the similarity in narrators’ topics given to the same interviewer suggest the listener guided the story rather than the speaker. For example, narrators from the Durango region often included stories of whites’ misdeeds that provoked Indians, while most of the narrators from other regions were not sympathetic at all toward Indians, especially the Utes. In his introductory essay, Schwenginer provides this telling example of the resulting imperialist nostalgia: “Today, as many as fifteen streams are called Ute Creek; there are three Ute Mountains, and in Boulder County there is a Ute Peak. There are five Ute Passes, four Ute Canyons, four Ute Lakes, two Ute Gulches, and a Ute Ridge. Despite the ubiquity of such place-names, the Utes themselves were confined to reservations during the nineteenth century” (xxvii). [End Page 412]
Given the ethnic/racial limitations and the unattainable information about interviewers’ biases, what do the narrations tell us? They almost matter-of-factly describe the random accidents that killed or maimed loved ones: a house falling, an unseasonable storm, the ill-chosen crossing of a river. They also give details of women’s achievements in supporting their families, whether it be from selling eighty dozen eggs or fishing for trout to sell to restaurants. The women’s voices, their choice of words, are sometimes quite revelatory. Kate Smith Myers criticized the fearfulness of fellow settlers who needlessly fled from Indians to a stockade. “White settlers who did not bother the Indians or the Mexicans were not molested” (199). Cynthia Fisher remembered, “One time Mr. Fisher took a pail of potatoes to Walsenburg, and there sold the potatoes for two calico dresses for me. To have two dresses at one time, and these both of calico, placed me on a high level among the people of the frontier” (92).
It is also revelatory, however, that this reviewer and the book’s editor selected many of the same quotations to characterize women’s heroism, character, and intercultural understanding. The pithy, memorable phrase was a welcome rare peak among many of the rather flat narratives. Another challenge Schweninger faced was the unevenness of the WPA narratives. The short length of many of the stories—some only three pages long—sometimes made the reading experience seem like speed-dating, a too-brief encounter. Despite the drawbacks these WPA narratives present, this collection of women’s first-person accounts highlights two aspects of the American West. First, there is the visceral hostility voiced by the settlers toward generalized Indians, despite the occasional dissenter who recalled a pleasant interaction. Second, there is the background, the undergirding of male violence—livestock raids and massacres by whites and Indians—that left women...