Book Review: Nothing Daunted, by Dorothy Wickenden

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We often make the assumption that female ancestors lead to brick walls in genealogical research because they left few documents behind. However, this is not always the case. Nothing Daunted is a good example of recreating a female ancestor's life. The story of two women who leave behind their privileged world to brave the "Wild West" and work as teachers in a small Colorado town, their story was recreated by what they left behind, correspondence and photos, but also what the author found by conducting interviews and research.

Imagine living a somewhat privileged life that allows you extended trips to Europe, a college education, and living a life of society events, charitable work and parties. Juxtapose this with a life in the West where you are living as a boarder in a home where if you fall out of the small bed in your small room you could literally roll down the stairs, and where you have to ride a horse to your job and deal with the elements, including the snow. That is the story of Rosamond Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff who in 1916 decide to leave behind the life they know in Auburn, New York and become school teachers serving a small town in Colorado. This event shocks their community; young women of their standing in Auburn did not work. As they set out on their adventure, the reader gets a real sense of how very different this new life was for these young women. Not only is the type of life they have to live different but also the experience of being a teacher for the first time. While they are college educated, graduated from Smith College, they still are challenged by the school curriculum, including having to teach home economics. Up to that point they had never done any cooking or housework for themselves. The woman whose home they live in even starts doing their laundry because it is obvious they do not know how. The town they travel to, Elkhead, Colorado does indeed need teachers, but a hidden motivation of the young man who advertised the positions was also to bring some young women to town who would be potential brides. (It makes you wonder if this could have also been a motivation in other towns in the West.)

This book provides the reader with some of the social history of what it was like to be a school teacher in the early 20th century. But aside from their experience as teachers, we also learn about mining, homesteading, and life on the frontier. The research foundation for this story is the letters left behind by the women, Rosamond Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff, the author's grandmother. Genealogists should also take note of the other types of resources used by the author to reconstruct the women's lives both before and after they arrived in Elkhead, including oral interviews, books, articles, speeches, and unpublished papers.

I would recommend the slideshow of photos available on the author's website Nothing Daunted as a nice addition to the book.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West, by Dorothy Wickenden. New York, NY: Scribner, 2011.

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