... Women Took Charge

Alice Kirk Grierson (1828-1888) was nearly 40 when she set out for the frontier with her husband, Benjamin. Thus, life's challenges, more pronounced on the frontier, were no stranger to her.

When men left, so did some of the formal rules and regulations that determined how soldiers and civilians in the fort should interact. There were no formal guidelines for how or where wives fell in the military organization, so they operated as they best saw fit. With fewer men to enforce traditional gender roles, women had ample time and opportunity to create for themselves new identities. They shot firearms, rode on horseback, explored the wilderness, and embodied qualities that were typically reserved for men.1

          Upon arriving at her husband’s first frontier post, Frances Roe was quick to accept offers of support and lessons to sharpen her soldierly skills:

“Lieutenant Baldwin has been on the frontier many years, and is an experienced hunter of buffalo and antelope. He says that I must commence riding horseback at once, and has generously offered me the use of one of his horses. Mrs. Phillips insists upon my using her saddle until I can get one from the East, so I can ride as soon as our trunks come. And I am to learn to shoot pistols and guns, and do all sorts of things.”2

Major General Benjamin H. Grierson (1826-1911)

Officers’ wives felt empowered by these intangible gains in personal agency. Although it carried little official merit, it was common practice to address these women by their husband’s rank: “Mrs. Captain Jones” or “Mrs. Major Smith” gave sufficient deference to social superiors.3

“We had not for many days seen a lady … You may imagine how I was impressed with Mrs. General Custer …” - Charles G. Leland4

Combined with their higher class standing over other military families, officer wives had few reservations about assuming their husbands’ rank to navigate social situations and dictate behavior and affairs around the fort.5 After enduring a particularly difficult ride with an unruly horse, Frances Roe’s riding companions – her husband’s subordinates – recommended that she choose another horse from the stable. Her response highlights how much she has internalized her status in the fort:

"Dismount before Lieutenant Golden, a cavalry officer and Faye’s [lower-ranking] classmate, and all those staring troopers – I, the wife of an infantry officer? Never!"6

          In another instance, while Colonel Benjamin Grierson and his men were away from Fort Gibson, three sergeants were placed under arrest at the direction of Mrs. Alvord. Even though her husband, Captain Alvord, was also away, her association afforded enough authority for her to detain three soldiers in the garrison without question. Alice Grierson wrote about Mrs. Alvord’s reasons for imprisoning the men, revealing a degree of class-based self-importance and arrogance on the latter’s part:

"I expressed my opinion very decidedly to her, and told her that I felt very sure [Colonel Grierson] would disapprove her proceedings, and I thought her husband would also. She thinks [Sergeant] Innes treated her with great disrespect, and impertinence in not hitching up Frank in the buggy so soon as she wished a few days ago.”7

1 Anni P. Baker, “Daughters of Mars: Army Officers’ Wives and Military Culture on the American Frontier,” The Historian 67, no.1 (2005): 33-34.

2 Frances M.A. Roe, Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888 (New York, NY: Appleton, 1909), 9.

3 Michele J. Nacy, Members of the Regiment: Army Officers' Wives on the Western Frontier, 1865-1890 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 42.

4 Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Tenting on the Plains (Norman, OK, 1966), 447.

5 Verity G. McInnis, “Indirect Agents of Empire: Army Officers’ Wives in British India and the American West, 1830–1875,” Pacific Historical Review 83, no. 3 (August 2014): 386.

6 Frances M. A. Roe, Army Letters from an Officer's Wife, 1871-1888 (New York, NY: Appleton, 1909), 61.

7 Alice Kirk Grierson and Shirley A. Leckie, The Colonel’s Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 23.