Today is Tuesday, August 18, 2020. One hundred years ago today was the day that the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting voting rights to white women. Women of color still had to fight to gain their rights. But all American women have been acknowledging this date as extremely significant in their quest for equality.
We are reminded of our own women, here in Fairview Township, who were important in the development of our community. The earliest of these are the pioneer women who came with their men to settle a wilderness. Jane McEwen Sturgeon, Catherine Boggs Swan, Jane Moorhead Sturgeon and Elizabeth Canon Eaton are four names that come to mind.
Trails were established from the Harrisburg/Lancaster area where many started their journey. Some trails led to the Pittsburgh settlement, then followed the waterways to Meadville and beyond. These women left behind established homes that were located in areas where amenities of that time were available. They selected the best, or, more likely, most useful of their belongings to pack onto a wagon, and began a trek through the wilderness to arrive at this new opportunity, the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, with lush soil for planting and a lake that would provide unending water.
Comfort Inns or even tourist homes did not exist. There were no McDonald’s or Wendy’s for a fast meal. During their journey, their men drove the wagons, tended the animals and hunted for food, while the women tended the children, the meals, the sick, sometimes assisted in driving the wagons and handled any other daily chores needing attention.
Everyday life continued each day on their journey from their former home to the wilderness where, once arrived, the men would build log cabins for the family’s first homestead. Until then, they and their family would sleep inside the wagon if possible, or on the ground underneath it.
Of these four women Elizabeth Canon Eaton may have had more than her share to bear. She was a bride, married to the young minister who would serve the Presbyterian congregations in two locations. Canonsburg (her former home) was well settled, yet she chose to share the life of “poverty and privation” with this young man and accompanied him to his future home. They were supported by their congregations and sometimes the food they were given as payment was rancid. Johnston acquired farmland near the Fairview settlement by Walnut Creek where he could grow some of his own food. Sometimes they were expected to shelter church folks who were traveling, provide meals for them from their own meagre supplies, and lay out mats by the fireside for their night’s shelter. The first church west of the Erie settlement was called “Lakeside.” Johnston Eaton was the minister.
When Johnston was in Erie serving as unofficial chaplain to the fleet and the fleet builders during the War of 1812, Elizabeth, like other women left behind, was called upon to care for the crops as well as her own household chores. A book called Lakeside, written by their son Jonathan, described their adventures and the further hardships Elizabeth bore when she had to prove herself worthy of being a minister’s wife to his congregation. Some women objected to her wearing ribbons in her hair. Some thought she was too pretty and not hardy enough to survive the trials of frontier living. She bore it all with good nature.
Often alone when the rumors about Indian attacks were rampant, she did her part to comfort others.
Elizabeth and Johnston had five children, the youngest, a girl, died of illness while Johnston was away from home. She bore her grief alone.
We recognize these pioneer women, especially Elizabeth Canon Eaton, who was 98 when she died, as our earliest Outstanding Women.