Joanna Stratton Finds a Treasure in a Kansas Attic and Turns It into a Heroic Saga of Pioneer Women

updated 04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/27/1981 01:00AM

The hardships of the pioneers are the stuff of American legend. Grizzled and venturesome, they braved droughts, prairie fires, floods, blizzards, tornadoes and days of locusts as they trekked toward America's manifest destiny. The men who made this bold journey have been chronicled and documented by scholars, poets, novelists and screenwriters for decades. But the women might have been largely forgotten—save for an obscure turn-of-the-century feminist named Lilla Day Monroe.

A lawyer, journalist, lobbyist and manager of the successful campaign to ratify the Kansas suffrage amendment, Monroe in the 1920s solicited 800 memoirs from women who migrated to the state between 1854 and 1890. She then set to work compiling them for publication, but her death, at 70, in 1929 caused a 52-year delay. Just five years ago Monroe's great-granddaughter, Joanna Stratton, stumbled upon the manuscripts while visiting the attic of the family's Topeka home. "I sat there for hours just reading them," says Stratton. "I was overwhelmed by the candor of the women." Joanna first turned the study of these documents into a Harvard course project, and she has now, at 26, published them as a book, Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier (Simon and Schuster, $16.95).

"Occasionally voices ring out that historians never expected to hear," Arthur Schlesinger Jr. says in the introduction—and, indeed, the bold wives' tales Stratton has collected provide a fresh perspective on the pioneer experience. They include vignettes of an ax-swinging homemaker fighting off wolves, of an unlicensed surgeon stitching together a scalped man's skin with fiddle string and needle, and of the election of the U.S.'s first female mayor (Susannah Medora Salter of Argonia in 1887).

While women seemingly rose to such occasions matter-of-factly, the loneliness of the plains left others desperate. Pioneer Allena A. Clark got to sleep not by counting sheep but by going outside and lying among them for company. Some stories are picaresque: Theoline Plummer once put up an "ungainly-looking woman" for the night only to find out later that "she" was clean-shaven outlaw Jesse James. And while sex is never discussed openly, there is the tragic saga of Anna Brewster Morgan. A bride of only a month, she was kidnapped by Sioux warriors in 1868. After one unsuccessful escape, she married a kindly Indian chief and became pregnant. But before she gave birth to his son, an unwanted rescue returned Anna to her legal husband. "I often wished they had never found me," she lamented.

The woman who first inherited these sometimes haunting stories after Lilla Monroe's death was Joanna's grandmother, Lenore Stratton, now 94, who tried—and failed—to publish them. "People didn't think much of the stories in those days," she reflects. "After all, the woods were full of pioneers who wanted to write." Her granddaughter later found that times had changed: Four publishers showed interest in her proposal, and Simon and Schuster editor Nan Talese offered a $50,000 advance to clinch it. Joanna took three years to assemble the book, sandwiching it between her graduation from Harvard, with a degree in economics cum laude in 1976, and her enrollment in Stanford University's MBA program in 1979.

Joanna's own childhood in affluent Chevy Chase, Md. was informed by her pioneer forebears. "My great-grandmother was a legend in my home," she recalls, "but I come from a family of very dynamic women." Joanna's own mother, Lydia, 57, is a Yale-trained lawyer who raised three children when her husband died. "I think all of us matured quite young because of it," says Joanna, who was 12 at the time. "My mother really held the family together." Both her brother, Jairus, and her sister, Cynthia, have joint law and business school training; Stratton will receive her Stanford MBA this spring. She hopes to find a management job in communications—and, although she is putting any plans for a writing career on hold, she does believe that doing Pioneer Women has left her better able to deal with the business world. "The women I wrote about went through the most incredible hardships," she says, "yet they kept this indomitable spirit. They didn't seem to look at their lives as being as hard as we do ours."

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