« Return to this article

Know the West

A tale of tough women walks out of the past

  Why do we take this trip? Well, to make money … I have simply got to make a stake some way, for I don’t want to lose the farm and it is the only way I can see of saving it.
— Helga Estby, quoted in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, May 5, 1896

In 1896, when Norwegian immigrant Helga Estby and her oldest daughter, Clara, walked from Spokane, Wash., to New York City, their feat made headlines across the country. They were congratulated by mayors, governors, and president-elect William McKinley, and hailed as an example of womanly strength. Their own family wasn’t so impressed. Though Estby embarked on the trek to win a $10,000 wager and thus save the family homestead, most of her eight children were furious at their mother for her long absence. In later years, they destroyed Estby’s memoirs and never spoke of her adventures to their own children.

Fortunately, Whitworth College English professor Linda Lawrence Hunt has pieced Estby’s story back together. She relies mostly on newspaper accounts, filling in the gaps with details of the times: She describes the debate over women’s right to wear ankle-baring skirts (then called the “leg freedom” controversy), the dramatic presidential contest between McKinley and populist William Jennings Bryan, and the harrowing personal and economic struggles faced by homesteaders. Even the bare outlines of Estby’s vigorous, rebellious life are fascinating, and the book is a quiet argument for the preservation of family stories.

Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America
by Linda Lawrence Hunt.
300 pages, paperback: $16.95.
University of Idaho Press, 2003.