(Slightly different versions of this essay appeared in The Denver Post, April 8,2007, High Country News,
April 2, 2007 and in the syndicated column Writers on the Range.)
Thanks to the movies and pulp westerns, when you think of western women often it is the stereotypes that come to mind: the saint-in-the-sunbonnet, the soiled dove, the schoolmarm, the pretty rancher’s daughter. Or maybe you remember the dramatic figures like Sacajewea or Calamity Jane. But, among the varied crowd of women who moved west, there’s one group this is seldom noticed, let alone appreciated, the single woman homesteader.
Generally we picture homesteaders in family groups, but historians estimate that about 12% of homesteaders in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Utah were single women. The Homestead Act gave any 21 year old head-of-household the right to homestead land. Perhaps encouraged by Suffragettes talk of women’s independence, women began to consider this opportunity to own their own property. 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. 1909 and 1912 revisions in the Homestead Act reduced the amount of time needed to “prove up” and doubled the amount of land that could be claimed. Homesteading became a doable thing for a young woman with a sense of adventure and a desire to improve her lot in life.
Florence Blake Smith was a Chicago book keeper whose response when a male friend told her about Wyoming homesteading was, “If he could do it, I could too.” She homesteaded near Wright, Wyoming and worked winters back in Chicago to earn enough to support her required 7 months on the claim. She proved up her claim in three years, then accepted the marriage proposal of a local rancher. Her success was typical. Research shows that women homesteaders were as apt to succeed as men were and sometimes they found husbands in the process.
Another Chicagoan, Nellie Burgess 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 becoming a proficient gardener, hunter and fisherwoman. Esther Burnell left an interior decorator’s job in Cleveland when she fell in love with the high mountains around Estes Park, Colorado. While homesteading she got to know Enos Miulls, a naturalist instrumental in establishing Rocky Mountain National Park, and eventually married him. Their neighbor, Katherine Garetson, made her homestead viable by operating a tea shop for hikers passing by.
Helen Coburn dropped out of college to homestead in Wyoming with a girlfriend, Mary Culbertson. 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 3 meals a day, 365 days a year for the term of my natural life is more than I can face.” A South Dakota woman confessed to a Collier’s reporter that she appreciated homesteading alone because she no longer had to “give way to her father, her brother, the deacons of the church, or the directors of the school.” Another independent South Dakota woman told the 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 life contains everything.”
Women homesteaders were not necessarily fresh young things. In 1912, it was possible for 47-year-old divorcee, Geraldine Lucas, to homestead a scenic 160 acres at The Grand Teton’s base, and, at 58 she became the second woman to climb the famous peak. Widows saw homesteading as a way to support their families. One of them, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, is perhaps the best known of single women homesteaders because letters she wrote from her Burnt Fork, Wyoming homestead to her former employer in Denver were published first in The Atlantic Monthly and then in a book Letters of a Woman Homesteader. Following the Atlantic’s lead, other magazines of the time printed women homesteader’s stories of success. In historical archives and dusty attics you can find some of the letters they wrote from their homesteads. On library shelves you may find a few of the memoirs they wrote later in life. When you look at land records you may find that a western ranch or farm history begins with the name of a single woman homesteader.
What did single women homesteaders prove by proving up their claims? In the early 20th century, women back East talked passionately of women’s equality, in the West single women homesteaders demonstrated it. It is probably no coincidence that Wyoming and other western states were the first to grant women the right to vote. The stories of single women homesteaders not only illuminate a corner of western history seldom noticed, but also they mark a turning point in women’s history. Their varied and remarkable experiences show western women breaking with tradition and seeking to succeed on their own terms, leading the way for generations of women who followed to do the same.
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