Monday, April 28, 2014


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 stories were.

Available from Amazon HERE

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 of her 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.”

Sod house in Kansas
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.

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.”

Dugout on the Oklahoma Prairie
Do you suppose all six women and
the baby lived in that dugout?
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.

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


Ginger Jones Simpson said...

Caroline, What a great bit of knowledge to share. I had no idea that women alone could homestead, given they weren't granted many other privileges during the century. I doubt I could be a brave, but it's wonderful to know that there was some strong "stock" out there who were determined to have a home.

Heare2Watts said...

I have read many historical novels that talked about the Soddy Houses but to see pictures like this is amazing. I can't begin to imagine living in one. I read of not only the dirt, but bugs and mice and snakes! I know that lumber was scares and in reality they were efficient. But I will stick with my nice Rancher style home and know that I am blessed.

Jacquie Rogers said...

You just have to admire the tenacity of these hardy women! I'll have to get this book. Can't resist.