Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


"Victorian women travelers" generally refers to professional European and American travel writers, tourists, wives of colonial administrators, and other (mostly) elite women who wrote narratives about their experiences abroad in the nineteenth century. From a "liberal" feminist perspective in Anglo-European scholarship, travel presented one means toward female liberation for middle- and upper-class Victorian women. Many studies from the 1970s onward have demonstrated the ways in which women's gendered identities were negotiated differently "at home" versus "away," thus showing women's self-development through travel. The more recent "poststructural" turn in studies of Victorian travel writing has focused attention on women's diverse and fragmented identities as they narrated their travel experiences. In this framework, emphasis is placed on women's sense of themselves as women in new locations, but only as they worked through their ties to nation, class, whiteness, and colonial and imperial power structures. Much recent work has examined Victorian women travelers' not-so-innocent participation in European empire building, especially in terms of women travelers' ambivalent relationships with Indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

In the North American context, attention has been drawn to Victorian women's narratives of travels throughout the American and Canadian West, portions of which describe the Great Plains. (This was stimulated at least in part by western historians' long-standing interest in women settlers' relationships with the land.) Coinciding with advances in transportation technology, particularly in the steamship and railroad, the American and Canadian West was opened for wide-scale tourism and travel by the middle or upper classes in the later Victorian period (1870s in the United States, a decade later in Canada). Oftentimes, foreign visitors from Europe came to the United States and Canada as part of a world tour, and they, as well as east-coast North Americans, took "grand tours" of the continent when the transcontinental railroad lines were completed. For many travelers, the Great Plains was a place en route to the welladvertised scenic attractions of points farther west, such as Yosemite or Vancouver, rather than a destination in its own right. Thus, while many Victorian women travelers commented on the scenery, people, and economic development of the Great Plains in their travelogues, they did so without ever leaving the trains during the portions of their journeys through the region.

There are many exceptions, though. The Englishwoman Lady Rose Pender, for instance, traveled with her husband to inspect the family's investments in Wyoming ranching, and they participated in a cattle roundup in the Niobrara River valley–camping out and "roughing it" for the first time in her life. Pender thoroughly enjoyed this "wild rough life"–the clear air, the stirring scenery, and her feeling of physical well-being and "utter freedom." Mrs. Cecil Hall's 1884 narrative describes her three-month visit to her emigrant brother's farm in Manitoba. Again, what these and other Victorian travelers wrote about the Great Plains depended to a large extent on their routes and destinations. Women's travels through the Plains often followed the transects of the railroads; thus, for instance, those riding the Union Pacific Railroad wrote about Kansas City, Omaha, and Cheyenne, as well as the farms, settlements, train depots, and open country in between. Since it took up to several days to travel from Chicago to Denver by train, oftentimes the women wrote about the (in)adequacy of the train compartments themselves or described their primarily visual (and often bored) experience of passing landscapes. Many travelers expounded at length on the situation of Native Americans, especially Native women, who they sometimes encountered at train depots. British Victorian women travelers' rhetoric about Native peoples often resembled that of Indian reformers of the period.

Karen M. Morin Bucknell University

Hall, Mrs. Cecil. A Lady's Life on a Farm in Manitoba. London: W. H. Allen, 1884.

Hardy, Lady Duffus. Through Cities and Prairie Lands: Sketches of an American Tour. Chicago: Belford, Clarke and Co., 1882.

Pender, Rose. A Lady's Experiences in the Wild West in 1883. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

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