Historic Fort Ontario

Life on a Military Post – Women’s Activities

Life on a Military Post – Women’s Activities

Women’s Activities at Fort Ontario 1868-69

Twentieth-century visitors to military sites, such as Fort Ontario, often ask how the women who lived there spent their time. There is no simple answer, since women of different socio-economic groups occupied themselves differently. Although 19th-century Americans prided themselves on the democratic principle of equality, in reality there were distinct social classes. This was par-ticularly evident around an army post. At the top of the social ladder were the officers’ wives and daughters. Next came the wives of the enlisted men. At the bottom of the ladder were the so-called “bad women.” In the early r1870s, an army doctor’s wife wrote from a post in Sitka, Alaska, about the “bad Russian women; more than two thirds are prostitutes.” There was little social interchange among • these groups of women.

Sarah Hogarty and Margaret Kilpatrick were the only two officers’ wives at Fort Ontario in 1868-69. Sarah was a young wife of twenty-four with an infant daughter, Hattie, when she arrived in the spring of 1868. Her hometown of Horseheads, New York, was about 100 miles south of the fort. Margaret was forty and had been married thirteen years. As far as we know, she never had any children. She originally came from Scotland with her family, who settled in Ohio. Both she and Sarah had been at Madison Barracks in Sackets Harbor, New York, prior to coming to Fort Ontario and undoubtedly knew each other well, although they may not have shared quarters as they did at Oswego. Aside from these few facts, we know little about these two women.

Enlisted men’s wives occasionally worked as servants for officers’ families. They also worked as laundresses for the enlisted men. Mrs. Hoffman, Mrs. McCarty, Mrs. Rogers, Mrs. Henry and Mrs. Hukins, all wives of enlisted men at Fort Ontario, worked as laundresses for the company at various times. The com-manding officer of the post authorized four laundresses per company. These women were paid one dollar per month for each man whose wash they did. Other than dates of employ-ment, we know nothing about these women, not even their first names!

Although an officer’s family was at the top of the social scale on a post, they were on a par with the lower middle class in civilian life. That is, they had the social aspira-tions and values of the middle class but a limited monetary income. While their civilian contemporaries may have tried to impress their neighbors with their worldly goods, to do so in the army would have been not only useless but also frowned upon. Because men in each rank earned the same salary, everyone knew how much. that was and just how far that money would stretch. Living above one’s means was considered wasteful and a sign of poor management.

Women adjusted to the frequent moves and learned how to settle in quickly or be ready to leave on very short notice. One colonel’s wife was greeted by her husband who came into their quarters and said: “Orders have come for the command to go to Jackson, Mississippi. Can you be ready in twenty four hours to move?” Another wife made nine moves in eighteen months. Most of the women mention putting their carpets down and curtains up with very few tacks to make the next move easier. Boxes and packing crates were often covered with pretty fabric and transformed into functional furniture. Mismatched china and glassware were a fact of life. As items broke during transport, they were replaced piecemeal.

Once settled into new quarters, an officer’s wife spent her days much the same as her civilian sisters. In 1867 Elizabeth Burt, wife of a career officer, wrote “…household cares, sewing, writing letters, reading, playing whist in the evenings and exchanging visits now and then with Judge Carter’s family occupied our time during each week.” A few years later she noted, “Frequent inter-views during the day with Mrs. Miller, the care of baby and Andrew [a toddler], in-structing our soldier cook, watching over and schooling Christine [a thirteen-year old maid], together with necessary mending, filled the days for me.”

Household work was as much administration as it was physical labor. All of the wives reported having help, which usually included a cook and housemaid. If there were infants and young children in the family, a nurse was hired as well. The nurse might be little more than a child herself and usually acted as a baby sitter. Lydia Lane wrote that “.. .when we left Austin, Texas, we took with us two black servants, a cook and a small girl as nurse….” It took management skills to keep the various servants doing their jobs. Planning the meals and work schedules, as well as seeing that the work was done to her satisfaction, could take considerable time. When staff was in short supply, the officer’s wife had to do all the rough work herself. One woman had invited the garrison to an evening supper, only to have her cook get roaring drunk, leaving her alone to carry out all the preparations. She went to bed with a migraine just as her guests arrived.
Sewing might include fancy work, but more often it was utilitarian. Garments rubbed with harsh lye soap against a scrub board in very hot water needed frequent mending. In March 1867, one wife wrote, “I am busily engaged in sewing and mending, as my clothes are beginning to give out a little.” Styles altered slightly with each season, and new trimmings arranged on an old dress often made the difference between looking stylish or out of date. Other household sewing included curtains, bedding and afghans. Needlepoint and embroidered slippers were popular items to make as gifts for husbands and fathers, and several women describe making them. A pair can be seen in the Kilpatricks’ bedroom at Fort Ontario.