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A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier.

In 1844, frontierswoman Marianne Gaillard compared her new life in Mississippi with her old one in South Carolina and concluded that "God brought us here to bring us down in the world" (p. 93). Joan E. Cashin's sensitive study of pioneer families on the Southwestern frontier explicates dreary declarations such as this by portraying the westward migration of plantation women as a grueling social and cultural as well as physical ordeal, Simultaneously a contribution to frontier history, women's history, and family history, A Family Venture. Men and Women on the Southern Frontier painstakingly assesses the fortunes of over one hundred families as they moved west, contrasts plantation society on the seaboard with life on the frontier, and vividly documents the revolution in sex roles and family life that the westward movement entailed. Cashin concludes that frontier culture liberated men but only at the expense of women's social networks and emotional ties as well as the integrity of the traditional family.

Cashin's portrait of planter families draws heavily upon the standard resources of Southern women's history - diaries, letters, journals, and reminiscences. But Cashin evaluates the representativeness and even the objective truth of these women's and men's words by reconstructing their broader demographic context from a sample of U. S. Census data. Her sample includes over two hundred plantation families in six Southwestern counties from 1840 to 1860. Cashin supplements these random samples with a selective sample of 113 men in twenty extended families that were divided by the westward movement. This quantitative study puts Cashin's comparison of seaboard and frontier families and her conclusions about the frontier's impact on family life on a firm statistical footing.

Planter families on the seaboard were large and complex, and the customs of visiting, child exchange, and economic reciprocity fostered close emotional ties among both the male and female members. Cashin argues that husbands and wives enjoyed an implicit sexual compromise, a shared paternalism that emphasized the primacy of the family over economic advancement, bound the generations together, muted class distinctions, and ameliorated the worst excesses of a patriarchal society. Seaboard women also relied on extensive kin networks to relieve the paternalism that kept them at home under constant scrutiny. Men were more mobile and developed "linear" relationships with other men over long distances. Women, by contrast, developed geographically circumscribed, close-knit, "circular" relationships with female family, friends, and neighbors.

The movement westward tore planter women from their cherished social networks and thrust them into "a world without kin" (p. 65). Men, who dominated the decision to move, looked forward to economic opportunity and more easily cut their emotional ties. For them, migration meant independence and masculinity. They abandoned the paternalism toward both wives and slaves that had checked their worst impulses but could still re-establish, when necessary, economic and social ties to the East. For women, migration meant social and physical isolation within a now nuclear family that was smaller and less socially central. Women felt "marooned" and plunged into the correspondence that tells us so much about their daily lives. Cashin concludes that the more "modern" society emerging on the frontier granted men new independence and social mobility at the expense of women, who faced greater sexual inequality, and their families, which lost much of their social and cultural relevance.

Deftly blending the verbal evidence of a traditional history with the statistical rigor of a quantitative study, A Family Venture portrays the westward movement as a pivotal force in the shaping of the Southern family. Complex families on the seaboard gave way to starkly smaller and simpler families on the frontier. Such "nuclearization" freed men but virtually enslaved their wives, increasing white women's sympathy with their African-American slaves. Following families from census to census as they moved west allows Cashin to document changes within specific families and lends weight to her conclusions.

A few aspects of this slim volume do limit its conclusions. The author's focus on planter families, those owning at least twenty slaves, precludes generalization about Southern families as a whole, as does her geographical focus on a dozen counties. Even a cursory comparison with a more inclusive sample of Southern families, such as that drawn by James Foust and Fred Bateman, would have benefitted this study. Cashin also sampled only male-headed households, overlooking female heads and perhaps exaggerating male domination of the plantation family as a result. A central assumption of her study, that men virtually dictated the decision to move west, rings true but still deserves more attention than it receives here. Additionally, the author only hints at the impact of the westward movement on slave families and thus leaves the reader wanting to learn much more. The fifteen photographs, mostly of men, do little to supplement the text. Finally, Cashin concludes that frontier planters fared no better than their Eastern brothers. The implication that migrants suffered in vain overlooks the importance of migration in maintaining families rather than enriching individuals. Had the migrants stayed home, the entire family might have withered. In this sense, migrants contributed to their extended families by moving west.

Despite these limitations, A Family Venture is a notable contribution to the history of women, families, and the frontier in the antebellum South and provides a model for future studies of family life in other frontier regions.
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Author:Winkle, Kenneth J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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