Fort Lyon – Colorado Territory

October 1871

After months of anticipation and days of weary travel we have at last got to our army home! The day was glorious, and the atmosphere so clear, we could see miles and miles in every direction. But there was not one object to be seen on the vast rolling plains–not a tree nor a house.

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection,  X-19367

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-19367

The post is not at all as you and I had imagined it to be. There is no high wall around it as there is at Fort Trumbull. It reminds one of a prim little village built around a square, in the center of which is a high flagstaff and a big cannon. 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.   Frances M.A. Roe -Excerpt from “Army Letters from and Officer’s Wife, 1871 – 1888.”

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-19367

Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, X-19367

Just as Roe described in Army Letters from an Officer’s Wife, 1871-1888, this up close view of Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory shows the adobe and stone buildings with the Arkansas River flowing by. Also, there are  Native American tepees -tribe unknown alongside the buildings. The photo of Fort Lyons -Colorado Territory was taken between  c. 1866 – c. 1877.  Fort Lyon’s military units consist of four companies, three infantry and one troop of calvary.

Soon after Roe arrives, she commences practicing how to shoot pistols and guns, I was a soldier at target practice,  They taught me to use a pistol in various positions while standing; then I learned to use it from the saddle. After that a little four inch bull’s-eye was often tacked to a tree seventy-five paces away, and  I was given a Spencer carbine to shoot, and many a time I have fired three rounds, twenty-one shots in all, at the bull’s-eye, which I was expected to hit every time.

From October 1871 – September 1888, Roe’s letters are filled with her accomplishments. She’s the only woman on a Thanksgiving buffalo hunt along with Lieutenant Baldwin, Second Lieutenant Fayette Roe and a party of enlisted men. She embraces life in the far West seeking adventure and competitive sportsmanship. Whether its hunting buffalo, antelope and jackrabbits with the military and greyhounds, or outrunning wolves, she’s learning to ride the army way, tight in the saddle, jumping cavalry hurdles and ditches; and at the same time, mastering survival skills. 

What makes this book of letters unusual for nineteenth century non-fiction literature is the woman’s rarefied accolades of a competitive drive and athletic accomplishments. Gender limits were less structured out on the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, and allowed women to breathe more freely in the openness of the land. Dorothy Gray notes in her book, “Women of the West,” The “code of the West,” dictating that all women be treated gently, as “ladies,” could be stretched therefore to allow women to be strong, assertive, and competent.  It is likely that men…engaged as they were in so much activity that clearly demonstrated their masculinity, felt less challenged by strong women than did their Eastern counterparts.

Whether Roe’s letters were intentionally chosen to demonstrate a woman’s athletic ability and competitive drive against the standard definition of the day; she effectively gave birth to a new era of women’s patriotism in the most dominant patriarchal bastion; the Army.  Her extraordinary commitment to westward expansionism is fully embraced and all that came with army life. Frances wholeheartedly signed up for army life according to the later slogan, “Be all that you can be.” 

Unwilling to allow a prescribed destiny to decide her fate, Roe chartered a life not yet drawn and mapped out but by a handful of women. Her life out on the frontier with the army provided the opportunities to do her personal best in outdoor sports, and confidently write about her achievements.  They were the stepping stones of Roe’s extraordinary life to excel and create new possibilities for women who stepped beyond the prescribed nineteenth century woman’s sphere groomed for the roles of wife and mother.

The fact that past scholars have tempered Army Letters… in the canon of Army “mothers and wives” domestic writings must be revised and recategorized; not as women who kept house for their military husbands, but as women who sought the freedom out in the far West away from the societal restraints back East.

We will never know Roe’s impetus to seek out life on the western frontier, but certainly it was her definitive action to eagerly step outside the woman’s sphere to live the uncommon life.