Frances M. A. Roe’s childfree life on the frontier is a topic which remains profoundly silent in her letters unlike women diarists of her time. We know about Hal, her beloved greyhound- his coat is brindled, dark brown and black, and fine as the softest satin, he’s swift, loving, and smart too. There’s Billie the pet squirrel, and the many horses that are a running conversation in the letters. Frances proudly shares distinct traits, remembering their gait and color. Other pets make an appearance too. Lieutenant Baldwin’s greyhound Magic- you old villain, Magic will wag his tail a little, which in dog language means, You are pretty smart, but I’m smart too!
Roe’s love for animals is an ongoing theme; letters are filled with heartfelt compassion and care for her pets. The hunting of game- she won’t shoot the old buffalo out of respect for his long life; and many more incidents illustrate her care and compassion along the way. Yet, when we encounter children in her letters, they are often the topic of bad behavior without any feelings of endearment or sadness.
Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife opens with a short letter, quickly followed by a second letter where we meet a small boy. In a comedic retelling of a dinner faux pas, Roe frankly finds the General’s little son ill-mannered. Here’s the excerpt:
FORT LYON, COLORADO TERRITORY, October, 1871
I called General Phillips “Mister!” It so happened, too, that just that instant there was a sound in the room, so everyone heard the blunder. General Phillips straightened his back in his chair, and his little son gave a smothered giggle—for which he should have been sent to bed at once.
Sentimental values encapsulated in 19th and 20th century literature often characterized women’s primary goal and ultimate achievement was to climb atop the pedestal of motherhood. Era literature promoted the idealism of motherly duties and responsibilities in the continuity of lineage and ensuring future citizens, while proudly wearing the Republican Mother badge of honor on their bosom. It appears motherhood was not high on her list, nor her objective to portray herself with the idealistic qualities of a loving, caring and nurturing model of potential maternalism.
When all is said and done, Roe neither addresses her ‘motherless state’ nor concerns herself with the values of motherhood beyond observations and opinion about women and their children. Judgements are meted out on a long road trip with two small boys and their mothers, Hal- her greyhound pup, and the model of manners traveling with the third infantry to Camp Supply:
FORT LYON, COLORADO TERRITORY, May, 1872
I am to ride in an ambulance with Mrs. Phillips, her little son and her cook, Mrs. Barker and her small son. There will be seats or only four, as the middle seat has been taken out to make room for a comfortable rocking-chair that will be for Mrs. Phillip’s exclusive use! The dear little greyhound puppy I have to leave here. Faye says I must not take him with so many in the ambulance, as he would undoubtedly be in the way. But I am sure the puppy would not be as troublesome as one small boy, and there will be two small boys with us.
OLD FORT ZARAH, KANSAS, April, 1872
I must tell you at once that I have the little greyhound. I felt that the battle was half won, for I knew that if I could once get the dog in camp [Burt] would take care of him, even if I could not.
Burt brought him and kept him in his tent that night, and the little fellow seemed to know that he should be good. Burt told me that he did not whimper once. (Faye) is quite as please as I am, now, to have the dog, for he gives no trouble whatever […] He is certainly much better behaved in the ambulance than either of the small boys who step upon our feet, get into fierce fights, and keep up a racket generally. The mothers have been called upon to settle so many quarrels between their sons, that the atmosphere in the ambulance has become quite frigid.
I felt that it was not dignified in me to submit to the treatment I was being subjected to, and decided to rebel. Mrs. Barker and her small son had been riding on the backseat, and I felt that I was as much entitled to a seat there as the boy, nevertheless I had been sitting on the seat with Mrs. Phillip’s servant and riding backward. After thinking it all over I made up my mind to take the small boy’s seat.
When I returned to the ambulance after the next rest—I was careful to get there first—I sat down on the back seat and made myself comfortable, but I must admit that my heart was giving awful thumps, for Mrs. Barker’s sharp tongue and spitfire temper are well known[…] not one word did she say directly to me, but she said much to her son—much that I might have resented had I felt inclined. The small boy sat on his mother’s lap and expressed his disapproval by giving me vicious kicks every few minutes.
Not one word was said the next morning when I boldly carried the puppy to that seat. Mrs. Barker looked at the dog, then at me, with great scorn, but she knew that if she said anything disagreeable Mrs. Phillips would side with me, so she wisely kept still. (Hal) lies so quietly in my lap— I am sandwiched in with rocking-chairs, small boys, and servants.
In all fairness, childlessness may not have been a choice. Miscarriages, still births, and so on were not discussed in polite society much less a book. In consideration of this debate, I would like to add another possibility, Frances and Faye may have decided to be childfree. Both grew up without brothers or sisters (no source validation of siblings). Other than abstinence, medicinal, herbal inducements, and banned prophylactics, what effective contraceptive methods were available? Perhaps, the answer lies with Richard Carlile, an obscure nineteenth century physician.
A crusader of Women’s Rights, Carlile, along with his young friend John Stuart Mills published a birth control pamphlet in 1828, Every Woman’s Little Book; or, What is Love? Published for the first time in the English language was specific contraceptive advice. For many years afterwards, copies of Every Woman’s Little Book flew off the shelves at a rate of fifty per day. Carlile’s press could not keep up with the demand. The women’s bible of salvation was quietly hidden under mattresses and in sewing baskets– thumbed, tattered, and dog eared, saving many a woman’s life.
Decades later, another sexual reformer, Dr. Edward B. Foote, published in 1876 a book that had sold over 250,000 copies, Medical Common Sense; Applied to the Causes, Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases and Unhappiness in Marriage. In a section titled, “The Prevention of Conception,” contains the most important sentence written by a nineteenth century doctor, I shall be wiling to direct married people in this important matter, who apply in writing. Author, Paul Collins writes about the marketing and dispensing of 19th century birth control by Foote, “it was a veritable Sears catalogue of the latest radical idealism of 1870.” Foote sold birth control devices from his Manhattan office where business was booming, an entrepreneur in the matters of love without the inconvenience of pregnancy. The popularity of the book had squarely found Dr. Foote in the target sights of postal inspector- Anthony Comstock, but that is another story.
In adding my two cents to the child debate, childbirth was a dangerous proposition, especially on the western frontier. It’s very likely Frances Roe’s childfree marriage was a matter of choice with the help of Dr.‘s Carlile and E.B. Foote.
See- links, sources, notes & publications for more information*