The single women who homesteaded the West

 

Thanks to Western movies and popular novels, stereotypes come easily to mind when you think of women of the early West. There’s the saint in the sunbonnet, the soiled dove, the schoolmarm and the rancher’s daughter. Or maybe you remember dramatic figures like the Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea, or Calamity Jane of the perfect aim. But there’s a group of gutsy women that’s seldom acknowledged, let alone recognized: single woman homesteaders.

Historians estimate that some 12 percent of homesteaders in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Utah were single women. Lured by the Homestead Act, which gave any 21-year-old who headed a household the right to homestead federal land, independent women crossed the country to become landowners. By the early 1900s, a woman could load her belongings on a train and in several days make a trip that once took months. When she arrived, a land-locator took her by wagon or Model T to find her claim. Revisions in 1909 and 1912 in the Homestead Act also reduced the amount of time needed to “prove up,” and they doubled the amount of land that could be claimed.

Florence Blake Smith, a Chicago bookkeeper, wrote that she learned about homesteading from a friend just before he set out for Wyoming. Her response: “If he could do it, I could, too.” She worked winters back in Chicago to earn enough to support her required seven months on the claim, but never gave up until the land was hers. Her success was typical; research shows that women homesteaders were as apt to succeed as men.

Another Chicagoan, Nellie Burgess, 31, said she was persuaded by “the call of the outdoors” to give up her reporter’s job to file a claim in Idaho near the Snake River. She proved up her claim while also becoming a proficient hunter, gardener and fisherwoman.

Helen Coburn dropped out of college to homestead in Wyoming with a girlfriend. They filed on adjoining land and shared a claim shack that straddled their property line. Helen was Worland’s first schoolteacher until Ashby Howell, owner of the town’s general store, courted and wed her. But many women relished their single life. Alice Newberry found that out while cooking for a hired hand and teaching in a country school in eastern Colorado. Marriage seemed unattractive, she wrote to her mother, because “cooking three meals a day, 365 days a year for the term of my natural life, is more than I can face.” A South Dakota homesteader told a Colliers reporter that her life had seemed empty when she lived in a spacious house. “Now I have my 10x12 house, my yellow land and my freedom, and I think that life contains everything.”

Women homesteaders were not necessarily fresh young things. In 1912, 47-year-old divorcee Geraldine Lucas homesteaded 160 acres at the base of the Grand Teton in Wyoming, and, incidentally, became the second woman to climb its peak. Widows also saw homesteading as a way to support their families. Elinore Pruitt Stewart is perhaps the best known, because the letters she wrote to her former employer in Denver were published in the Atlantic Monthly and then in a book, Letters of a Woman Homesteader.

In the early 20th century, women back East talked earnestly of women’s equality. In the West, single women homesteaders demonstrated it. Women showed they could take charge, instead of just following along; women could support themselves, taking risks in an unfamiliar world. It is probably no coincidence that the Western states were the first to grant women the right to vote.

What did single women homesteaders prove by proving up their claims? Like the women honored this year by the National Women’s History Project, they saw an opportunity and took it, leading the way for other women to do the same. Take, for instance, 2007 honoree Suzanne Lewis. She moved west from Florida to become the first female superintendent at Glacier National Park in Montana, and she is now the first woman to fill the top job in Yellowstone National Park. Her success in a previously male-dominated profession suggests new possibilities for young women contemplating careers today, just as women homesteaders did for women 100 years ago.

 

Marcia Hensley writes in Farson, Wyoming, where she’s finishing an anthology of writing by single homesteader women.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FIELD MANAGER
    Organizational Overview: Columbia Riverkeeper (Riverkeeper) is a successful nonprofit organization that unites communities to fight for clean water and our climate. Riverkeeper advances high-profile campaigns...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Forever Our Rivers Foundation is searching for a driven and creative leader to build a movement, conserving and restoring America's rivers by helping customers find...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Friends of Cedar Mesa is hiring a Deputy Director/COO who will have the overall responsibilities of general program management, staff management, financial & budget management,...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...