The Army may have traveled on its stomach, but it was the washer women who followed the troops across the country into the frontier that kept them clean and comfortable.
Many of these women were “camp followers,” single women who traveled with the military and earned their living offering services such as cooking, nursing and sometimes more intimate amenities. Most were poorly educated and had no other means of support for one reason or another. Some hoped to snag a military man as a husband who could then provide for them, while others were just trying to survive.
Then there were the wives of enlisted men who earned additional income for their families as laundresses, traveling with their husbands from one post to another, adding a few dollars to their husbands’ meager salaries.
Enlisted men made about $10 to $13 a month, barely enough to provide for themselves, not to mention their wives and children.
The military provided transportation, rations and housing for the enlisted family, but the accommodations were usually of poor quality and hardly fit for occupancy on some of the early posts.
At both Camp McDowell and Fort Yuma, married enlisted men were often ensconced in adobe huts covered with brush, unhealthy accommodations by any standards.
Jane Earl Thorpy followed her enlisted husband, John, whenever she could, bearing six children as she traversed the country. To help support her growing family, she became a laundress for the military.
Jane and John married in Dublin, Ireland, July 24, 1854. A week later, John left for New York, promising to send for Jane once he was settled.
In January 1855, John enlisted in the Army and sent for his bride. Initially stationed in New York, he was ordered to Texas where their daughter, Mary Ann, was born at Fort Belknap on Sept. 25, 1857.
The following February, John was relocated Camp Floyd, Utah, but Jane did not join him until September 1859, when she traveled with 75 other laundresses along the Oregon Trail, reuniting with John at Camp Floyd.
Jane washed the clothing of enlisted men who were single as well as those of officers, their wives and families, earning from $1 to $2.50 a month per person. If she was lucky to procure an entire family’s laundry, she could make about $7 a month.
Jane had to make her own soap, using a combination of lye and meat fat. Lye was made from a mixture of water hauled from the nearest stream or river and ash, preferably from a hardwood tree such as oak. As the liquid was drawn off, more ash was added before pouring the liquid back over the ash. The more often this process was repeated, the stronger the lye.
Next, meat fat was cut into small pieces, heating it until liquefied, straining the mixture to remove any solids left on the fat (which were later cooked into a meal), and then adding the lye mixture. When sufficiently boiled, the concoction was poured into molds and left to harden.
The entire process took hours to complete, standing over boiling caldrons.
Although often separated from her husband as he was ordered from one post to another, Jane followed as soon as she could.
“I was always with him,” she said, “and my occupation was doing laundry work for the officers and comrades of the company.”
Son John Jr. was born in “Alberkirk,” New Mexico, in 1861; William followed at Fort Union, New Mexico, in 1863.
John was mustered out of the Army in 1864, and the Thorpys returned to New York until John re-enlisted in 1865 at the rank of sergeant. By November, they were on their way to Southern Arizona’s Fort Mason by way of the Isthmus of Panama, traveling steerage for $165 per person and $96.75 for each child.
A month later, the family landed in San Francisco and headed across the desert, arriving at their destination March 1, 1866, with three children in tow and Jane heavily pregnant with their fourth. Son James arrived on May 5, 1866, two months after they arrived.
Fort Mason, located just south of the Tumacacori mission and originally named Camp Moore, lay at the site of the Mexican Presidio de Calabasas. It became Fort Mason in 1865 and was abandoned in 1866. While serving there, John and Jane were probably housed in a tent or one of the old, abandoned buildings scattered across nearby Gandara Ranch. Jane is listed as a laundress on the Fort Mason books.
With the abandonment of Fort Mason, John was sent to Camp Lowell near Tucson. He was discharged from the service at Camp Wallen in 1868.
He and Jane bought property in Tucson near Camp Lowell, probably the first house they ever owned. The second John Jr. was born in Tucson in 1870. (The first John Jr. died sometime before 1870.) Three of the Thorpy children, William, James and John, Jr., were baptized at Tucson’s San Augustin Church.
Why the Thorpys decided to sell that home and return to New York is unknown. They finally had a decent place to live and a growing family, but with the outbreak of smallpox in Tucson, and the death of the second John Jr., perhaps from the epidemic, they left Tucson and spent their remaining years in New York. Their last child, daughter Jane, was born in 1873 in New York City, but she did not survive.
For his service in the military, John received a pension of $8 a month and after his death, Jane was given a widow’s benefit of the same amount. Jane died in New York City on Feb. 24, 1905.
On June 19, 1876, an act of Congress canceled the authorization of laundresses traveling with the military, but women continued to follow the Army for several years, offering their services.