Museum Mysteries: Rag Doll

At first glance, this doll doesn’t look very lovable; in fact, it looks kind of creepy. But for one little girl from the family of Martha Marsh Sutton, a late Nineteenth-century homesteader in Colorado, it was a favored toy. Most dolls at this time were made by hand from scraps of cloth or old clothes, because toys needed to be rather disposable since most families needed to travel great distances to their new home.

In the late 1850s and early ’60s, America was bursting at its seams because ever since the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 explorers had been sending back intriguing information about the possibilities waiting for intrepid settlers out there in the wild country. Some people quit their jobs, gave up their homes, and gambled everything on the promise of a new beginning, but at first there was no order to the occupation of this huge new frontier. People would just arbitrarily claim a piece of land, whether it was owned or occupied or not. Bitter disputes resulted from this haphazard ownership, which was largely based on inaccurately measured plots and no record. On May 20, 1862, President Lincoln signed The Homestead Act, as defined in the National Archives as, “any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office.”

Most homesteaders built a “soddy,” a house of clay that was roofed with sod or lumber. My great-grandfather cut a niche into the side of a creek, boarded it over, and laid sod over the top. I can’t imagine how cold that would be! Over the next five years, families like mine, who homesteaded near Truckton, Colorado in 1901, would struggle to fulfill the requirements of the Homestead Act. If they could build a home, plant trees, raise crops or cattle, and generally prove that they could handle the job (called “proving it up”), 160 acres would be theirs, free and clear. Sound easy? Throw in blizzards, pestilence, and the Great Dust Bowl. Then see how easy you think it is.

Homesteaders were in for some hard living. Because they had to travel very long distances, everything a pioneer family brought with them had to be disposable in case of a problem during travel, and toys like the rag doll pictured above were near the top of the list. Families had to contend with blizzards, wind, overweight wagons, broken axles, sick pack animals, and illness—and that was just getting to their new home. If a wagon was overweight or needed to be abandoned, luxuries were tossed aside. Dolls like the one found in the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum could be easily re-made, and this one serves as a stark reminder of how tough it really was to grow up in the untamed prairies of Eastern Colorado at the turn of the last century.

Who knows what other mysteries await inside the historic walls of the old El Paso County Courthouse, which now houses the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum? With free admission, there’s no reason not to go find out for yourself.

Other articles in the “Museum Mysteries” series:

Museum Mysteries: Intertwined Hands

Museum Mysteries: Hair Wreaths

Museum Mysteries: Glass Rake?

Museum Mysteries: Parfleche

Museum Mysteries: Death Masks

Photo By: DeLyn Martineau