Pioneer Women and Girls


Pioneer Family by Chris L. Waddle, corner of Center Street and Main Street in Springville Utah

July 24th is an official holiday in the State of Utah. It is known as Pioneer Day and commemorates the entry of the first Mormon Pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. They were part of a much larger pioneering effort where men, women and children from all walks of life moved westward to the fertile valleys and plains of an expanding Untied States. Prominent among these pioneers were women and girls who, literally in some cases, pulled their own load.

One of these women was Margaret Ann McFall Caldwell. As a recently widowed woman in Scotland, she and her four children set sail to America in 1856 where they joined the Willie Handcart Company that traveled westward late in the season to the Salt Lake Valley using cheaper and faster hand-pulled carts. Men were often the primary pullers of the handcarts, but for the Caldwell family it was a female endeavor. Unable to help were oldest son Robert (age 16) who was assigned to drive one of the supply wagons and Thomas (age 14) who broke his collar bone early on in the trek. That left Margaret and Christina, a young single woman traveling with the family, to pull the cart the full 1,300 miles across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Helping push while the older women pulled were 11 year old Elizabeth and 9 year old Agnes.

Margaret was a master at providing for her family. Her daughter Agnes remembers: “Winter came in October with eighteen inches of snow, but in spite of this we did not suffer from hunger, due to Mother’s careful and frugal planning. In Iowa City Mother sold a quilt and a bedspread for the sum of twenty-four cents. With this she bought food. She had a way with Indians: she traded trinkets for dried meat, which proved to be of great help to us on the journey. Frequently it would be stormy so that a fire could not be built; then mother would allow each of us to have a piece of dried meat on a piece of bread. As food became more and more scarce and the weather colder, she would stew a little of this meat and make a delicious gravy over it.”

In remembering the journey, Margaret remembers that she “tried to be industrious, thrifty and, most of all, courageous.”  These qualities most likely saved her family. When early snows trapped the pioneers on the high plains of Wyoming, 68 of the 404 members in the company died of cold and starvation, none were from the Margaret Caldwell cart.



Equally tenacious in making the journey was nine year old Agnes. She writes: “Just before we crossed the mountains, relief wagons reached us, and it certainly was a relief. The infirm and aged were allowed to ride, all able-bodied continuing to walk. When the wagons started out, a number of us children decided to see how long we could keep up with the wagons, in hopes of being asked to ride. At least that is what my great hope was. One by one they all fell out, until I was the last one remaining, so determined was I that I should get a ride. After what seemed the longest run I ever made before or since, the driver…called to me, “Say sissy, would you like a ride?” I answered in my very best manner, “Yes sir.” At this he reached over, taking my hand, clucking to his horses to make me run, with legs that seemed to me could run no farther. On we went, to what to me seemed miles. What went through my head at that time was that he was the meanest man that ever lived or that I had ever heard of, and other things that would not be a credit nor would it look well coming from one so young.  Just at what seemed the breaking point, he stopped. Taking a blanket, he wrapped me up and lay me in the bottom of the wagon, warm and comfortable. Here I had time to change my mind as I surely did knowing full well by doing this he saved me from freezing when taken into the wagon.” (Susan Arrington Madsen. I Walked to Zion, Deseret Book, 1994).


Agnes Caldwell Southworth

Agnes eventually married and had 13 children. My grandmother Veara Southworth Fife was the 13thchild.

Margaret and Agnes are wonderful examples of the pioneering spirit of women. They ventured forth into unknown lands in hopes of finding a better life. In the process they worked against seemingly insurmountable odds to survive. Women and girls of today confront different, but equally challenging obstacles. They seek for fairness in the work place, equal representation on councils, boards and parliaments, security in their homes and on the street and the opportunity to attend school.

One recent and amazing example of a modern day pioneer girl is 16 year old Malala Yousafzai. Her continued calls for the education of girls in Pakistan were opposed by the Taliban.  When she refused to be silenced they tried to kill her with two bullets to the head. Gratefully she survived this act of terrorism and is once again calling, in defiance of her misogynist opponents, for the education of girls. In a July 12, 2013 speech at the United Nations that was passionate and powerful, Malala spoke of the world she envisions and of the world that she is working for. She proclaimed:

“Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child’s bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education. No one can stop us. We will speak up for our rights and we will bring change to our voice. We believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the whole world because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.” For a full text of the speech go to:



May the pioneering spirit of Margaret, Agnes and Malala continue to inspire us to forge forward in making this a better world for all.

by CFE


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