By Cathy Pickles, NWHM staff member
Here in the Washington, D.C. area, we have had unusually mild weather, no snow to speak of and many “balmy” days in the high 60s and 70s. But it is still officially Winter and I am thinking about the courageous women who answered the call of the American West, creating meaningful and productive lives under the harshest of conditions. As I type away in my temperature-controlled, spacious and well-lit office, my thoughts drift to one of the favorite books I read during my college career, Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota, by H. Elaine Lindgren.
President Lincoln signed the original Homestead Act into law in 1862 to encourage Western expansion. It had three requirements: submit an application for a parcel of land, improve it and then file for a deed. A homesteader was required to be over 21, remain on their parcel for five years and be able to prove their improvements. The conventional wisdom about homesteading, and indeed about westering women in general, was that they were unwilling participants who turned into unhappy drudges or prim misfits at the mercy of the elements, unsavory menfolk and wild animals. The genius of Lindgren’s graduate work which was eventually published as her book, is that she showed that these such notions of women settlers were completely wrong.
Women of all ages made the journey to the frontier and succeeded in working their land and keeping it. Many unmarried and widowed females chose to leave their relatively comfortable surroundings either for the adventure of it or out of a desire to control their economic destinies. Other women bought land adjacent to their other family members and created a communal support system for improving their acreage.
Lindgren peppers her academic research with the stories of women who homesteaded. What becomes clear is that they worked hard and with pride and were instrumental in the creation of communities, both physically and conceptually. Here are some excerpts:
I have learned to handle a saw so I have made window sills and a door sill. My neighbor came over and said that it was ‘well done for a woman’. I wear Jens’ shirt and suspenders and a pair of boys overalls . . . And you can believe that my neighbor laughed, so I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I be the man in my own house.’ I expect to wear this habit until I am finished with my building and I don’t care if anyone laughs. – excerpt of a letter from Hanna Amanda Boeson Anderson.
Anna Marie Bergan spent her first winter in a dugout. The door was constructed so that it swung outward. When a blizzard piled up drifts of snow against the door, Anna could not open it for about a month. During such periods, Anna spun yarn, knitted, and did fancy work. She reported one winter she had made a pair of leggings for herself from wool and the long, silky hair of a collie; they were serviceable for twenty years. – Chapter 5
I had some odds and ends of wall paper from home and I had about ten different kinds of wall paper on mine. Just to make them a little warmer. It was 10 x 12. No, they weren’t very big homes but held everything we had, stove and the bed. I was pretty well off. – Thea Thompson Johnson
I encourage you to take a moment, when you are feeling particularly cozy and content, to think of the women who settled the Plains. Think not only of their struggles, but also the small joys and sense of accomplishment they must have felt. For myself, reading their stories gives me a good dose of perspective and pride.
For more information on the Homestead Act of 1862, here is a link to a brief article on it from the National Archives: click here