What do you think of when you think of homesteading the West? I think of families or lone men. However, in Marcia Meredith Hensley’s book. STAKING HER CLAIM: WOMEN HOMESTEADING THE WEST, I learned that many lone women became homesteaders.
I read the Women of Paragon Springs series, by Irene Bennett Brown, and loved the stories of women making their way West to set up their homes. What I didn’t realize, though, was how true-to-life Ms Brown’s fictional stories were.
|Paragon Springs series, book one|
Ms Hensley’s book relates many women settling in Wyoming Territory. And why not? Wyoming was far ahead of the rest of America in recognizing a woman’s right to vote and other basic rights. But other stories take place in Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Idaho, Colorado, and Utah.
As you can imagine, these women set out for the West for various reasons. Some were ill-equipped for the hardships. Others flourished in their new enterprise. Ms Hensley includes letters written back East by some of the women homesteaders telling of their experiences. Fact or fiction?
“On the whole, women who wrote about their experiences homesteading alone told positive stories. . . Although homesteading was difficult, they achieved success and had many enjoyable adventures as well. Women could do most of the work themselves, but, if necessary, they could count on help from neighbors, family, or one of the many men in the vicinity.”
Only about one in three women who homesteaded actually succeeded. In a 1921 article about her homesteading experience in Utah, Kate Keizer includes a section titled “Not All Roses” in which she cautions that for the typical homesteader without much money “the first two or three years are usually accompanied by privation and hardships.” She lists difficulties such as the high cost of freighting in supplies and having your claim contested if you were absent very long. Her greatest torments were the hordes of rabbits and prairie dogs that destroyed gardens in spite of scarecrows, guns, and poison.
Looking back on her homestead experience, Dr. Bessie Rehwinkle tempered her account of the exhilarating experience of becoming a Wyoming landowner with the admission that “it is not as easy or glamorous as the storybooks about the westward trek of the covered wagon often picture it. It is a slow process and a hard day-to-day struggle, and only the strongest are able to survive.”
The Homestead Act was in force from 1862 through 1976 (with a ten year extension for Alaska). Statistics provided by the National Homestead Monument suggest two million people attempted to earn a patent on land through the Homestead Act. Ms Hensley theorizes that 200,000 of these were women, of which 67.500 may have proved up on their claim.
I suggest reading Marcia Meredith Hensley’s book for fascinating non-fiction accounts of successful women homesteaders. For fictional accounts, nothing beats Irene Bennett Brown’s Women of Paragon Springs series: LONG ROAD TURNING, BLUE HORIZONS, NO OTHER PLACE, and REAP THE SOUTH WIND. In fact, LONG ROAD TURNING is one of my favorite books and the detail reminds me of Sweethearts' member Linda Hubalek's TRAIL OF THREAD, Trail of Thread series book one.
True, the books are different in that LONG ROAD TURNING begins as a woman alone while TRAIL OF THREAD is a woman with a family, but the accuracy of the time period and subject matter is impressive. Both bring out the mores of the time (which favored men) and both show women determined to succeed against difficult odds. The other books in Linda's great series are THIMBLE OF SOIL and STITCH OF COURAGE.
What about you? Would you have attempted to claim your land alone?
Caroline Clemmons's latest single release is O'NEILL'S TEXAS BRIDE, available in ebook from Amazon, Apple, Nook, and Kobo and available in print from Amazon, CreateSpace, and Barnes and Noble. One of her novellas is included in the recently released box set, WILD WESTERN WOMEN RIDE AGAIN, available from Amazon for Kindle for 99 cents.