O Pioneers!

Don Graham on Sallie Reynolds Matthews.

In The Great Plains, famed historian Walter Prescott Webb granted the role of women in the settling of the West a total of one and a half pages out of 525. Webb, who was more interested in weather than women, writes that “many a family was stopped on the edge of the timber by women who refused to go farther.” A perfect antidote to such male hegemony in frontier Texas is Sallie Reynolds Matthews’ memoir, Interwoven: A Pioneer Chronicle . Published in 1936, it is the work of a remarkable woman who lived her entire life, as she said, on “the edge of things,” by which she meant a succession of ranches in West Texas. Although she intended the book to be a private family history, even addressing her audience in one place as “you children,” its value as a historical document quickly became apparent. J. Frank Dobie held that “ Interwoven, more than any other ranch chronicle that I know of, reveals the family life of the old-time ranchers.”

Born on a small ranch in 1861 near present-day Breckenridge, Matthews spent her childhood on a colorful, dangerous, and rapidly changing frontier. The plains were still crowded with buffalo (she recalls one winter when a thousand tongues hung in the family smokehouse), and Indian raids were a constant threat. Though the Indians mostly sought horses, they sometimes killed men and kidnapped women and children. But Matthews sympathizes with the native tribes and argues that whites often unfairly judged them: “I, for one, believe a good bit in the inherent nobility of the Red Man.”

The book is full of episodes drawn from a turbulent history, but the telling is never that of the shoot-’em-up school. Matthews relates one incident in which a young cowboy’s gun accidentally went off and killed an infant in its mother’s arms. The child was buried on the prairie where it died, and the man nearly went mad from grief and guilt. Matthews’ simple, unembellished style and her always clear-eyed warmth are the triumph of a writer whose literary tastes were shaped by the Bible and classics such as Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. The title is a fine metaphor for describing the “interwoven” lives of two families, who through friendship, business partnerships, and social activities ranging from parties and marriages (many marriages!) to the building of schools and churches, helped transform a wild frontier to a settled community. And the women were right there at the center of things: integral and necessary and as brave as any weathered cowboy or dime-novel gunslinger.

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