To keep our faces toward Change

Determined to experience an extraordinary life, Frances Mack married her fellow comrade and adventurer Fayette W. Roe on August 19, 1871. The young and dashing second lieutenant had graduated from West Point in June 1871, and ordered to begin his army service at Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory.  Fayette was the only child of Rear Admiral Francis Asbury Roe and Eliza Snyder Roe with ties to the American Revolution (Eliza Synder lineage include George Washington). Rear Admiral Roe’s prestigious Civil War naval career and Arctic expedition on the Vincennes had overshadowed Fayette’s lackluster Army career. But the chance to settle the new frontier and explore Nature’s pristine cathedral draped in all its adorned beauty could not be usurped by the distant naval decorated father. Thus, the letters speak volumes about Frances and Fayette, two comrades who signed up for an adventure far away from family and friends.

The letters open with newly married Frances and Second Lieutenant Fayette Roe, who immediately embark upon the exciting escapades of army life in the “far West.”  Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, is about rugged nature on isolated army posts starting with Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory. The homestead act of 1862 had heralded Westward Expansionism, and droves of immigrants came in search of land and fortune. Consequently, the push Westward escalated tension and conflicts with the indigenous tribes.  The quickly built Army posts protected the settlers newly usurped tribal land, and secured the rapidly decreasing borders between the settlers and Native American territory.  Early letters enumerate clear impressions of Kit Carson, Colorado Territory, a stop on their way to meet Faye’s company “G” of the Third Infantry.  She writes a frightening description-

Not one woman, but dreadful looking men armed with big pistols and leather belts full of cartridges.  The houses were worse than the men….huge cakes of clay and low roofs made of dirt.

  Most women would have been ready to turn around and scamper back East to civilization.  Yet, what truly upsets Frances more than the hostile environment of the dangerous Wild West desperadoes is the fact that only one of her trunks can be taken on the stage to Fort Lyon-

I am all upset! Faye has just been in to say that only one of my trunks can be taken on the stage with us, and of course I had to select one that has all sorts of things in it, and consequently leave my pretty dresses here, to be sent for–all but the Japanese silk which happens to be in that trunk. But imagine my mortification in having to go with Faye to his regiment, with only two dresses. And then, to make my shortcomings the more vexatious, Faye will be simply fine all the time, in his brand new uniform!

  

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-19367

Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory: 1866-1877. William Gunnison Chamberlain. Courtesy of  Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-19367.

“The buildings are very low and broad and are made of adobe–a kind of clay and mud mixed together–and the walls are very thick. At every window are heavy wooden shutters, that can be closed during severe sand and wind storms. A little ditch–they call it acequia–runs all around the post, and brings water to the trees and lawns, but water for use in the houses is brought up in wagons from the Arkansas River, and is kept in barrels.” Frances M.A. Roe

Finally arriving at Fort Lyon, Frances quickly learns through trial and error about military decorum, protocol, and rank salutations. In the Army a lieutenant was addressed as Mister, and all other officers by rank. Confusion of correctly addressing an officer’s rank led to the first dinner blunder with Captain Brevet General Phillips (actual name is General William H. Penrose) by calling him “Mister!”

General William H. Penrose 1860-1865. LC-BH831- 914 [P&P]

General William H. Penrose 1860-1865. LC-BH831- 914 [P&P]

The faux pas mortification was highlighted by an enraged General, an embarrassed Faye, and all around snickering of a child and soldiers, with Roe wanting to “run some place, to hide.” Consequently, she does the safest thing and calls all brevets and officers “General,” so if another mistake is made, “it will be on the right side, at least.” 

Roe offers witty criticisms along with a blend of salient observations about historical events, personalities, desperadoes, military forts, camps and unfettered land that no longer exist. Even more so, she is the central character of her letters exemplifying  the unforgettable markers of a strong and independent woman who captures the readers imagination transporting us far away and back to the time of the lionhearted western woman.

To be continued:

The Observations of Women upon the Position of Woman 

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