The single women who homesteaded the West

The women who settled in the Old West defy stereotypes.

 

Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. She writes in Farson, Wyoming, where she’s finishing an anthology of writing by single homesteader women.


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 about 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.

Geraldine Lucas, a retired schoolteacher and Wyoming homesteader, reaches the summit of the Grand Teton in 1924.
Courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society


Florence Blake Smith, a Chicago bookkeeper, writes 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 thier 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 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.

Single women homesteaders remind us what a woman can accomplish with determination and hard work — a good thing to celebrate this March during Women’s History Month.

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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: