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Researching the Real Harvey's Girl

Much of what we know of women’s involvement in westward expansion has been gleaned from the eyewitness reports penned in the pioneer journals. Those accounts have revealed much of women’s roles in taming the wild nature of the western frontier of the 1800s. As researchers dig deeper into the “civilizing” dynamic of women, it becomes clear that there were those who traveled west in capacities other than as dutiful wives, supporting their husbands’ dreams.


Research for my historical fiction has opened some doors where I’ve learned of remarkable events and social upheavals involving women. Because I prefer to cast strong females as protagonists, I’m intrigued by these historical figures who demonstrated courage in our rather recent American past. The names of many that should be honored have been lost in the shadows of those stories of the more notorious. Recently, one of those doors opened into the world of the Harvey Girls.

The title for a novel has already presented itself along with the character outline of its fictional heroine. You may be familiar with the 1940 Judy Garland movie called appropriately, “The Harvey Girls”. As entertaining as that fictional film was, I hope to anchor my character a bit more authentically to the facts. Those are interesting enough to carry the story.


The first Harvey House was opened in Topeka, Kansas in 1876.


In the late nineteenth century, an ambitious business venture by visionary, Fred Harvey, offered single young women opportunities to escape the crowded cities and miserable factory jobs and earn a respectable living along the network of rail lines throughout the Southwest. Under the protection of the Harvey system, a working woman could earn a level of respect unknown in eastern cities. High expectations were placed upon her to live by Harvey’s strict code of behavior 24 hours a day. For the most part, the system worked. Wages were good and working conditions far more satisfactory than those they’d left behind. They were more than waitresses. They brought with them what the west lacked, eastern refinement in the form of hospitality.

I first encountered the Harvey name a few decades ago when visiting the Grand Canyon. His legacy is still very much tied to the majestic El Tovar Hotel on the canyon rim, which was built in 1905.

Over the next few months, I intend to post the success stories of these women and their impact on the westward expansion experience. Did they really "civilize" the west? I hope you’ll join me.

You can learn more about the extensive Fred Harvey enterprise here.


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