Pioneer women get the Hollywood treatment

 

Did any Western history buffs besides me see The Homesman?  A hot box office ticket earlier this winter, it’s hard to find in theaters now, though the cast was impressive -- Tommy Lee Jones, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep -- and most reviews were positive.  Three pioneer wives have gone crazy in a small Nebraska community, and the task of returning them to civilized Iowa falls to a single woman homesteader, Mary Bee Cuddy. Because she needs a man to help, she enlists a claim jumper with the promise of payment at the end of the trip.

As evocative landscapes swept across the screen and the plot unfolded, I had an unexpected reaction: Increasing annoyance. The women were portrayed as victims, and the men as callous and brutish. As one reviewer put it, the movie focused on “the horrors of pioneer life.”

Anecdotal stories of pioneer women going mad from loneliness, overwork, illness, loss of children and other hardships are not uncommon, of course, and pioneering men could become violent for some of the same reasons. But there is no evidence to support the idea that madness was more widespread among pioneer women than the general population.

Could something like the events in the movie have really happened? Well, yes. The movie is based on a 1988 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout.  In the afterword to the 2014 reprint, Swarthout’s son, Miles, explains that his father spent a lot of time researching the novel but had trouble finding much history about this harsh frontier era, the 1850s. He ended up relying largely on old memoirs, which kindled his interest in “the losers of Western history, the settlers who headed back East,” having been “denied their dream of wealth and happiness in the Golden West.”

The Homesman does, indeed, create awareness of a dark corner of the pioneer past, and I can relate to Swarthout’s dilemma in researching an overlooked era of Western history. When I was looking for information for a book about women homesteaders, I, too, found that major history texts barely mentioned them. But by going to memoirs, letters and newspapers in local history archives, I was able to find many of their stories.

That’s why I found the movie off-base. I found many historically accurate accounts of women who chose to go West and were not defeated. Rather, they reported being empowered by their experiences, despite the severe hardships. Single women like Mary Bee Cuddy chose to become homesteaders because they saw homesteading as an economic opportunity and an adventure. It’s hard to imagine any of them so desperate that (spoiler alert) they would propose marriage to men ill-suited to them, then commit suicide when rejected.

Statistics show that 12 percent of all homesteaders in the early years of the 20th Century were single women. Research also indicates that about 44 percent of all homesteaders of both sexes, including family groups, were successful, suggesting that women were no more likely to be overwhelmed by the difficulties of homesteading than were men.

Some might see these statistics as evidence for the movie’s thesis, since 56 percent of the homesteaders – over half of the total who went West – didn’t make it, for whatever reason. The Homesman shows how homesteading could have ended tragically for some of them.  But Cuddy’s grim story is no more a complete representation of pioneer life than stories that emphasize successful homesteading experiences.

As Denver Post movie critic Lisa Kennedy pointed out in discussing the historical inaccuracies in Selma, a recent movie about Martin Luther King, “too many of us are fine with learning about the past solely from popular culture.”  That is the problem: I believe that The Homesman’s overwhelmingly negative depiction distorts the truth. What the movie rendition reminds us is that Hollywood often paints a one-sided picture of history.

The Homesman will soon be out on DVD. It’s worth seeing as long as you recognize that the Hollywood hype this time is on the negative side. Many single women pioneers succeeded as homesteaders; what’s more, they had a great time building a new life.

Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She lives in Westminster, Colorado, and is the author of Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West.   

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.