What the Heck is a Homesman in the Old West?

When you hear the term “homesman,” what comes to mind?

You might imagine a rugged cowboy with a lasso, riding across the vast plains of the Old West. 

But what does the term really mean, and what role did a homesman play in the lives of early settlers?

In the simplest terms, a homesman was a person responsible for transporting settlers and their families from the frontier back to civilization. This could be due to a variety of reasons: illness, injury, or simply a desire to return to a more settled way of life. The homesman was often a trusted member of the community, chosen for their experience and reliability.

While the homesman was primarily responsible for escorting settlers back to civilization, their role was much more complex than that. 

They were often tasked with managing the logistics of the journey. From securing transportation to ensuring that everyone had enough food and water.

In some cases, the homesman was even responsible for burying those who did not survive the journey.

The Role of a Homesman

In the Old West, the term “homesman” referred to a person who was responsible for escorting settlers and their belongings across the dangerous frontier. 

This was an important role, as the journey was often fraught with danger.

Homesmen needed a great deal of skill and experience to navigate successfully.

The homesman was typically a man who had spent many years living and working in the West. 

He was familiar with the terrain, the weather, and the various dangers that could arise during the journey. 

He was also skilled in the use of firearms and other weapons. As he needed to be able to protect the settlers from bandits, wild animals, and other threats.

The homesman was responsible for leading the settlers’ wagons across the frontier, often for weeks or months at a time. 

He would scout ahead to find the safest and most efficient route, and would make sure that the wagons were properly maintained and repaired along the way. 

He would also help the settlers with any problems or challenges that they encountered, whether it was a broken wagon wheel or a sick child.

The homesman as a source of support

In addition to his practical skills, the homesman was also an important source of moral support and guidance for the settlers. 

He would often lead them in prayer or offer words of encouragement during difficult times.

He would also help to settle disputes that arose among the settlers, and would act as a mediator in any conflicts that arose between them.

Overall, the role of the homesman was crucial to the success of the settlers’ journey across the Old West. 

Without the homesman’s guidance, experience, and support, the settlers would have been much more vulnerable to the dangers and challenges of the frontier. 

It was a tough and demanding job, but one that was essential to the growth and development of the West.

Qualities of a Homesman

Being a homesman in the old west was not an easy job. 

It required a unique set of skills and qualities that not everyone possessed.

 Here are some of the qualities that a homesman needed to have:

  • Physical strength: A homesman had to be physically strong and capable of handling long hours of riding and hard work. They also needed to be able to defend themselves and the people they were escorting.
  • Mental fortitude: The journey of a homesman was often long and arduous, and they needed to be mentally strong to handle the challenges that came their way. They also needed to be able to handle the mental health issues of the people they were escorting.
  • Compassion: A homesman needed to have a compassionate heart and a willingness to help those in need. They were often escorting people who were mentally or physically ill, and they needed to treat them with care and respect.
  • Navigation skills: The journey of a homesman often took them through uncharted territory, and they needed to have excellent navigation skills to ensure that they reached their destination safely.
  • Resourcefulness: A homesman needed to be resourceful and able to handle unexpected situations that arose during the journey. They needed to be able to find food, water, and shelter for themselves and the people they were escorting.

Overall, the role of a homesman was a challenging one that required a unique set of skills and qualities.

It was not a job for everyone, but for those who possessed the necessary qualities, it was a noble and rewarding profession.

Famous Homesmen of the Old West

The Homesman was a critical role in the Old West. 

They were responsible for escorting people who had gone insane or become too ill to travel back to their families and homes. 

These Homesmen were often seen as saviors, as they were the only ones who could handle the difficult task of caring for the mentally ill or physically disabled.

While there were many Homesmen in the Old West, some of them became famous for their exploits and the people they helped. 

Here are a few of the most famous Homesmen:

NameYears ActiveNotable Accomplishments
Mary Bee Cuddy1850s-1860sEscorted three women across the country in “The Homesman” novel and movie
Alonzo Delano1840s-1860sEscorted mentally ill patients from California to New York
George W. Brown1850s-1860sEscorted a group of mentally ill patients from Texas to Illinois

Mary Bee Cuddy is perhaps the most famous Homesman, thanks to the novel and movie “The Homesman.” 

In the story, she escorts three women who have lost their minds back to their families in Iowa. 

Along the way, she faces many challenges, including a dangerous river crossing and an attack by Native Americans.

Alonzo Delano was another famous Homesman who escorted mentally ill patients from California to New York. 

He wrote about his experiences in a book called “Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings.”

George W. Brown was a Homesman who escorted a group of mentally ill patients from Texas to Illinois. 

His journey was also documented in a book called “The Homesman” by Glendon Swarthout.

These Homesmen were brave and compassionate individuals who helped those who were often forgotten by society. 

Their stories live on as a reminder of the importance of caring for the most vulnerable among us.

The Decline of the Homesman

As the American West became more civilized, the role of the homesman began to decline. 

With the establishment of towns and cities, families were no longer traveling across the plains in covered wagons, and the need for a homesman to accompany them on their journey disappeared.

Additionally, the homesman’s role in caring for those who were mentally or emotionally unstable was replaced by the establishment of asylums and hospitals.

The homesman, who had once been a vital member of the community, was no longer needed in the same capacity.

Furthermore, the homesman’s reputation began to suffer as stories of abuse and neglect began to circulate. 

While many homesmen were kind and caring individuals, there were some who took advantage of their position of power and mistreated those in their care.

As a result, the homesman became a less respected figure in society and the position eventually faded into obscurity. 

Today, the role of the homesman is largely forgotten, remembered only in the pages of history books and the occasional western movie.

Soucres, citations and further reading:

Dykstra, Robert R. “Quantifying the Wild West: The problematic statistics of frontier violence.” Western Historical Quarterly 40.3 (2009): 321-347.