Did the First American Homesteaders Have Stress?

It was “Kid’s Night” at the fair last summer.  Joshua, my oldest, had written the date on the calendar after reading about it in the newspaper two weeks earlier.  He was looking forward to it so much!  Me?  Not nearly so much.  I had already had a very full day.  I had canned close to 4 dozen pints of peaches in my wood fire canner, picked a bushel of tomatoes from the garden to be made into salsa the following day, fixed the daily meals, and all the other duties of taking care of the house and kids that day.  Just the regular stuff of a homesteading wife in the summer, but I’ll be honest and admit that I was stressed.  It was the end of July and I was overwhelmed with the amount of work stretching in front of me and wondering if I had the time and energy to get it all done.  But for that evening, we had promised to take the boys to the fair as a family, and I would have never backed out.

There were booths with multiple games and giveaways for the kids.  My boys were loaded up with balloons, bubbles, balls, and tons of candy after playing many of the vendor games.  But more than the little trinkets, their favorite thing was watching the balloons that got away from less fortunate kids as they rose higher and higher in the sky.  My boys made a game of “How many can you see?”  It was great fun to be the one who could count the most before they faded away too far to be seen by the naked eye.  The stress of the day melted away as I gazed at the joy on their faces.

A few minutes later, I was reminded of that stress all over again.  My son put the next giveaway prize that he had acquired into my hand.  It was a stress ball.  I looked at it and nearly laughed out loud!  It was so completely ironic and I shook my head in shock.  After my day of peeling, slicing, picking, canning, cooking, stirring, and scooping…my hands were tired.  And here I was holding a stress ball.  I found myself laughing because the very thing for which it was created seemed utterly absurd in that moment.  My tired hands just couldn’t muster enough energy for such an entirely useless activity.  I found myself thinking, if there was ever an item that makes such a striking comment about the difference between modern and old-fashioned life, this would be it.

stress-ballA stress ball, by design, is supposed to help you relieve stress.  You squeeze it, you let it go, you feel stress leaving your body.  Simple.  Does this work for anyone?  Would it help me with my work-tired hands to let go of my stress?  Ummm….no!  This is a product of modern life where stress has nothing to do with physical work.  I understand that there are plenty of stresses that are just part of life.  I totally get that!  But I wonder how many of those stresses would be helped by getting up and doing something physical.  When we first moved to our homestead, the most productive way for me to let out my frustration was doing laundry by hand.  Sometimes I plunged my mobile washer with all my might to let out built up anxiety.  My point is the stress ball only came to be because of the modern workplace where sitting at the computer all day is common and physical activity is largely not possible.  I spent almost ten years of my life working at a computer in an office building.  I’m very grateful that is the past.

Oh, creator of the stress ball, kudos to you!  I salute your entrepreneurial spirit because your creation was really genius and an amazing accomplishment for nothing more than a little ball.  I’m really not being facetious!  You must have made a lot of money on that ball.  My comments are not so much about your creation, but more a commentary on modern life and the way we deal with stress.  You see, I don’t think stress is a modern invention.  Sometimes we look at it that way, like we have a monopoly on it because of the business of our lives in this generation.

I have to wonder what homesteaders of the past centuries would have thought of such a silly little ball?  Would it have helped the apprehensive farmer to squeeze it while wondering if the rains would ever come to water his crops?  His livelihood depended on them and there had been so little rain that year that he feared all would be lost.  While praying for rain, he had worked all day cleaning out the barn, repairing fences, and cutting and dragging in trees from the woods as a head start on firewood for the winter.  Would it have helped a young mother to squeeze a stress ball while anxiously wondering if her husband would ever walk back in the door to return from his latest hunting trip?  Her food was running low and he had been gone so long.  She had been taking care of the homestead and the children, but she was tired and scared and alone.  Every night she sat with her sewing, sometimes making something new and sometimes mending what was torn.  Her hands were busy constantly.

These are the kind of situations that pioneers who settled the American frontier faced.  Recently, I’ve been doing a lot a research about American homesteaders’ lives over the previous centuries.  They have so many lessons to teach us.  They were real life people with real life struggles and triumphs.  They took nothing for granted, especially their survival.  And they let nothing stop them from obtaining their dream of living a life of freedom on their own land.  Through my research I discovered the story of my own great-great-great grandmother Olive Harriet Otto.  She was part of the Mormon migration of pioneers to settle Utah in 1851.  Her story is well-loved in our history because of the courage that she demonstrated.

wagon-homesteadingOlive left St. Louis for Utah as a young bride.   After making it through a treacherous journey and many struggles on the frontier, she decided to return to the east.  She didn’t leave Utah because she lost her drive to keep going under harsh conditions.  She wasn’t faint-hearted or tired of homesteading.  She was disillusioned with her husband.  After she had birthed two children, he decided to marry a second wife.   It was her tenacious spirit and drive to do what needed to be done that caused her to pack a covered wagon and set out alone with her two young children to cross back over the Rocky Mountains.  Her courageous spirit was remarkable and I’m proud to know her history!  Olive later staked a claim with her parents in Nebraska as a result of the Homestead Act of 1862, when the government was offering incentives for homesteaders to settle the frontier.  She met her new husband there and had more children.

I can’t begin to envision the stress that Olive must have felt setting out as a young woman alone, wondering if she would make it alive.  Everyone’s situation is different and we all feel stress in different ways, but I just can’t help but feel guilty when I think of Olive while complaining about the stress in my own life.  She was a truly courageous pioneer.  She fought and overcame things that I can never even imagine.  She fought for her very survival and that of her children.  I can’t picture a bigger stress.  No…stress is not a modern invention.

How did the homesteaders of previous generations deal with their stress?  How did Olive deal with the stress of her ordeals over the course of her journey alone?  I don’t know, but I can speculate.  I think she must have cried, but only after her children were asleep and couldn’t hear her fear.  I think she must have prayed with all her might.  I think she must have held her children close, gaining hope and purpose by looking into their innocent eyes.  Most of all, she kept going.  She had lost her husband to another woman, but she did not have the luxury of letting stress and depression overtake her, causing her to wilt in a corner.  She had to get up and keep going no matter what.

I think Olive and our other homesteader ancestors would have given you a blank stare after you explained the function of a stress ball.  Their lives were full of physical labor all the time.  Yes, there is stress in life, pressure to constantly get things done and meet deadlines.  It’s astounding to me how fast time flies by.  But when I get stressed, I’m really trying to remember the hardships my ancestors faced in order to help me keep a healthy perspective.  I also make it a point to try to put the stress behind me and keep going with the tasks in front of me.  Dwelling on it too much is just not productive.  Work hard and put your feet up at the end of the day.  I imagine that’s how they dealt with stress.  It almost seems too simple.  And I’m not trying to negate the stresses in any of our lives.  Some of them are extreme.  But the point is to get up, keep going, and don’t let circumstances stop you from doing and being who you are supposed to be.

About JaimieB

Jaimie lives with her husband on their off-grid homestead known online as An American Homestead. They live with their two sons and her parents Tim and Joann on 50 acres located deep in the American Ozark Mountains.

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  1. Great point!! Well said, Jaimie. Frontier women are inspirational, I think you can put yourself in that category now 🙂

  2. Wonderful article! We are just starting building our house on our new homestead. I am the main builder as well as needing to take care of all my other normal duties of wife and mom. Stress was creeping up big time last Fall and we hadn’t even started building yet! I finally told myself to let go. If the house takes longer than hoped for because I refuse to kill myself to get it done “on time” that’s ok. The physical busyness I find myself in these days is hard, but good. And I refuse to let myself get stressed over things not going right or taking too long. And I take time to enjoy the pleasures around me. I, and my family, are much happier that way!

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