Women Homesteaders: A Farm of Her Own
Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Hollywood & history books have often overlooked the amazing numbers of pioneer women who settled the West.
Most Americans do not know that a very significant percentage of homesteaders of our great American frontier were women. Today historians estimate that about 20% of homesteaders in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, Utah, and Idaho were single women—a shocking statistic! And the rate of gaining title, or “proving” the claim, was much higher among women than men.
Up until very recently, history was written by men. Hollywood movies were written by men. History textbooks were written by men. Perhaps that is why women homesteaders were written out of our national history. But, today, the legacy of women homesteaders is rising from oblivion, like seeds long dormant on the prairie coming back to life and flourishing. They will not be denied! Historians are uncovering journals, photographs and documentation that proves the vibrant movement of women homesteaders to the West.
Even when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862, women were not given a fair shake. Only “heads of households” were allowed to stake homestead claims. By law, that automatically disqualified married women, since husbands were always considered the household head. (Married women could only stake a claim if they could prove their husbands did not support them in any way.) But single women, widows and divorced women could make claims and they did in droves.
Shortly after the Homestead Act was made law, immigrants and Eastern Americans hungry for land flocked to the fertile plains of Nebraska territory. Daniel Freeman has long been hailed in history and written about in history books as the first homesteader to make a claim in Nebraska Territory on January 1, 1863, the first day the claim office opened. What was not discovered until 150 years later, in 2013, when historical scholars were poring through homestead claims and Nebraska Historical Society records, is that just days later, a German immigrant widower named Mary Meyer (see photograph) staked a claim right next to Daniel’s plot! She was the first woman homesteader in Nebraska Territory, but history overlooked her until a century and a half later.
And Mary didn’t just survive on the prairie, she thrived. She never remarried and successfully “proved up” her claim in the required five years. And documents show she had a large 16’ by 26’ house, fruit trees, grape vines, a well, a chicken coop, a corn crib, a corral and livestock, and 35 cultivated acres. One of her documents verifying her homestead improvements was signed by a witness, her neighbor: Daniel Freeman.
Montana’s first woman homesteader was Gwenllian Evans, a Welsh immigrant and widow. She emigrated to the United States in 1868 and she filed her claim in 1870 on land that would later become the town of Opportunity. She “proved up” her claim in 1872 and would become one of the territory’s first post mistresses. She died on her homestead in 1892.
Among one of the most famous examples of female homesteaders were the four Chrisman sisters (see photograph), Hattie, Lizzie, Lutie and Ruth, who settled homesteads in Custer County, Nebraska, in 1886. The independent daughters of Joseph and Lucy Chrisman all filed claims. The oldest, Lizzie, filed her claim first (see photograph). Years later, as an old woman in her 70s, Ruth wrote a friend of her early years on the frontier:
“I have spent the greater part of my life in western Nebraska. Still, I find myself wandering back to my old friends and dear Old Nebraska...Our sod had only three rooms, but we always had room for all [visitors]... Such wonderful range. Can remember we used to gather wild fruit in the canyons. Such delicious plums and raspberries—and the grass would be over our heads! Summer months were beautiful, such wonderful rains. But, winters were quite severe....I can well remember the blizzard of 88—was caught away from home at School. We had not fuel to burn but corn stalks. So we went to the nearest neighbor who was a widow. She was out of fuel. Had to burn some old chairs to keep us warm. Know how happy my Mother must have been when we all got home again. There were so many teachers and children who perished in that Storm.”
Another woman pioneer in Nevada territory wrote of other horrifying perils on the frontier. Helen Wiser Stewart had married a handsome Scot when she was 19 and they immediately purchased a ranch in El Dorado Canyon in Nevada. For the first several years of their marriage, she had five children, then tragedy struck. Her husband was murdered by an embittered ranch hand. He had not left a will and she was surrounded by land prospectors who were anxious to latch on to her land. She was a 27-year-old widow with five small children and knew little about business.
Her husband was killed on July 13, 1884 and buried on July 14. Two days later, Helen wrote a friend, entreating his help:
Mr. Sawyer, Sir,
I write to you in great distress hoping you as a husband and father will aid me to the best of your ability—I am left alone here, my little children fatherless by the hand of a murderer. My beloved husband and only friend was murdered Sunday the 13th....
I left my little children with Mr. Frazier and went as fast as a Horse could carry me. The man that killed my husband ran as I approached... Hank Parrish said here he is and lifting a blanket showed me the lifeless form of my husband. I knelt beside him, took his hands, placed my hand upon his heart and looked upon his face. I saw a bullet hole about two inches above the temple... I took him home and on examination found he had been shot right above the left breast... The men said it was a pistol shot.
It is evident that Mr. Stewart was finally Killed in the house with no one as witness except Henry (the murderer) and old man Kiel. They are both Archie’s (her husband’s) enemies and would not tell the truth but swear against Archie.
I am here with a lot of roughs and my life and Husband’s property in danger.... The man that murdered my husband is still at Kiel’s with a slight flesh wound in the hip. It is dangerous to say or do anything as we are overpowered by numbers and still threatened.
Yours in distress,
Mrs. Archie Stewart
Despite her precarious position, Helen decided to stay on the ranch and defend her land claim. She not only kept the ranch but managed it so efficiently that, over the next 20 years, she became the largest landowner in the Las Vegas area, with holdings of over two thousand acres and thousands of head of cattle. It was not easy. She kept fastidious and businesslike journals.
Two years after her husband was killed, Helen wrote in her journal of a number of violent incidents taking place in one-month's time. Her Las Vegas ranch had many Indians who worked in the fields harvesting fruit and grain or worked as ranch hands, wrangling cattle. On July 1886, she wrote in her “Indian Ledger Book:”
-John Ontop (killed the mail rider)
-Ahuotes brother (killed Nelson Trandsen)
-Loco killed Tommy Jennings
-Loco Vegas Joe’s brother
-Ontop killed the stage driver, then swam river.
Several years later, Helen lost her 14-year-old son in a fatal fall from a horse. It broke her heart, but she had to carry on running her huge ranch. She wrote her daughter about six months later:
Today Archie (her dead son) would have been fifteen years old. I have cried all day through my work. I have had a dreadful time bringing myself to submit to what I know must be. I needed him so much..... I am rather tired tonight—with more love than this letter can carry.
Helen soldiered on and would become a leading citizen in Las Vegas and the first woman elected to the Clark County School Board. She wrote and lectured for the Nevada State Historical Society and the Nevada Women’s Club later in life and was finally able to enjoy some leisure time after a life that surely would have tried the most strong-hearted.
Then, as today, women of iron defied the odds and the stereotypes and quietly went about their business. They did everything that men did, but within the confines of society, sometimes as crushing as their corsets. And they wrangled cattle, plowed fields, rode horses, built cabins, and felled trees—in skirts! ❦
"Women Homesteaders: A Farm of Her Own" originally posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on February 25, 2020.
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