Saturday, January 26, 2019

WOMEN HOMESTEADERS



What do you imagine when you read or hear 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 stories were.

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?

Prairies required sod houses or
dugouts due to lack of wood.
“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.”

Cutting sod for a house
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 supplies in 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.

Inside a sod house

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.”

Having wood made a more acceptable home.

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 women homesteaders who were successful. 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. Another good series is Linda Hubalek’s fictional Trails of Thread series.

What about you? Would you have attempted to claim your land alone?  

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Caroline Clemmons' latest release is GARNET in the Widows of Wildcat Ridge Series. You can find the book on Amazon at http://getbook.at/GarnetWOWR. 
For a complete list of her books, check her webpage at http://carolineclemmons.com or her Author Page on Amazon.

6 comments:

  1. The determination, strength and resourcefulness of homesteaders is remarkable but for women, it goes beyond even these characteristics. Thanks for reminding us, Carolyn.

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    1. Arletta, I would have made a terrible homesteader, but I admire those women who were able to succeed. What hard lives they had.

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  2. Thank you for sharing the research and source for this fascinating post. Women can and did do just a much to settle the West as the men. (Is that the women's history researcher talking? *Smile*) Doris

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    1. Doris, and many times, women moving west had no say in the decision made by their husband or father about leaving home to move to the frontier. I suspect many of them regretted their decision while others were happy to find a home they could own. Thank heavens for modern times even though I love reading and writing about history.

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  3. Thanks, Caroline, for an interesting post. I had no idea that the Homestead Act last until 1976 including that extension for Alaska. In answer to your question, living in my present-day lifestyle, my answer is "no!" However, if I'd lived in the 1800's, I might have been far more adventuresome. LOL

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  4. Cheri, if we lived in the 1800s, we would have had a different outlook, no doubt. We can't judge using our current lifestyle. I'm grateful for my modern comforts. I suspect (being the puny person I am) I wouldn't have made a good pioneer.

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