Women Homesteaders

Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Next year marks the 160th anniversary of the Homestead Act, a law making free public lands available to homesteading under certain conditions. Its provisions were responsible for helping settle much of the American West. Between 25 and 39 percent of the total acreage of Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico, were given to those settlers that met the requirements for a homestead patent. Some 45 percent of the land of Nebraska was acquired by successful homesteading. Other states having between 17 and 20 percent of their land acquired by successful homesteading were Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. By 1976 some 270,000,000 acres were distributed by the Homestead Act. At least ten percent of the homesteads went to single women, who took the opportunity the Homestead Act presented to them.

Under the Homestead Act (An Act to Secure Homesteads to Actual Settlers on the Public Domain, May 20, 1862), which would be frequently amended, any citizen, or person who intended to become one, who was the head of a family, or a single person over 21 years of age, who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, could make entry at a General Land Office for a quarter-section of land amounting to 160 acres. This included women who were single, widowed, or divorced. Married women could not make entry, unless they had been actually deserted by their husband. Eventually, under certain situations, some married women could file homestead claims on land adjacent to their husband’s holding. The land to be homesteaded had to have been surveyed and in one of the thirty “public domain states.” The prospective homesteader paid a filing fee of $10 to claim the land temporarily, as well as a small payment to the land office representative. Once people filed a claim, they had six months to begin living on the property. Patent for the land would be issued after 5 years of continuous residence, during which time the homesteader had to have built a dwelling and cultivated some portion of the land. No specified amount of cultivation or improvements was required, but there had to be such continuous improvement and such actual cultivation as would show the good faith of the homesteader.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century many of the homesteaders were women, part of the movement at the time for women’s increased self-reliance and fuller participation in the national economy. Before 1900 women counted for less than ten percent of the homesteaders. But with increased publicity, such as Wyoming homesteader Elinore Pruitt Stewart’s “Letters of a Woman Homesteader” (1914, first published serially in the Atlantic Monthly), the percent grew significantly.

Also facilitating the number of homesteads, including women, was the Enlarged Homestead Act of February 19, 1909, which increased the maximum permissible homestead to 320 acres of non-irrigable land suitable for “dry farming” in parts of Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Arizona, and Wyoming. The law responded to the dryland farming movement that developed around 1900. Lands previously thought to be valuable only for grazing now became valuable for agriculture as farmers adopted techniques of deep plowing, compacting, summer fallowing, and seeding drought-resistant crops.   

It is estimated that women represented 10 to 15 percent of the homesteaders in some states, such as Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Utah, during the early twentieth century. A significant portion of southeastern Oregon’s “dry-farming” homesteaders, perhaps as many as one in six, were young single women homesteading on their own. One woman homesteader in Oregon’s Crook County was Alice Day Pratt who began homesteading in 1912. In 1922 she published A Homesteader’s Portfolio, an account of her first five years of homesteading. She records the obstacles that not only she, but other homesteaders in the arid West, faced. This included the difficulty of turning the land into productive farmland, the hostility of ranchers, the isolation and solitude, the plagues of jackrabbits, the unpredictable weather, and economic hardships. A similar account of dry-farming, in southern Utah, is that of Cecelia Weiss, who homesteaded there in the second decade of the twentieth century. Her account, well worth reading, was published in 1916.[i]

While not filing for homesteads themselves, other women wrote about their family’s homesteading experiences. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her South Dakota homestead experiences during the 1880s and 1890s in a series of books, including Little House on the Prairie. The Cather family, from Virginia, claimed a homestead just outside of the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska in 1882, but found homesteading to be a difficult and unrewarding life. They gave up without obtaining a patent and moved into Red Cloud. Their daughter Willa S. Cather’s first great novel, O Pioneers! (1913), addressed the triumphs and tragedies of many of the homesteaders. Rachel Bella Kahn, who had been born in Russia, and her husband homesteaded in the Devil’s Lake region of North Dakota. Eventually, the harsh living conditions and physical demands of homesteader life and numerous pregnancies took their toll on them and they moved to Minnesota in 1917. Her memoir, written initially in Yiddish, would be published in 1995 as Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains.

Many women, as was the case with many men, who began the homestead process, for various reasons, gave up and returned to city life. But those that persevered and successfully completed the homestead process and acquired title to the land, often found a satisfying life in the wilderness. Their stories are worth recounting to help us better understand the settling of the American west.


Resources:

For a historical background regarding the Homestead Act see my article “How the West Was Settled,” (Prologue Magazine, Winter 2012).

For information about the Homestead National Monument of America at Beatrice, Nebraska, operated by the National Park Service, see: FREE LAND was the Cry!

The Homestead National Monument website has 21 stories about Women Homesteaders.

Articles about the actual Homestead Act going on display at the Homestead National Monument in 2012, “Homestead Act still stirs excitement 150 years later,” (Pieces of History, May 2012), andHomestead Act on display,” (by Scott Koperski, Beatrice Daily Sun, Apr 26, 2012).

For those interested in doing research in Federal land records, including Homestead case files, see the webpage for Land Entry Case Files and Related Records at the National Archives website.


[i] For her account see “Homesteading without a Chaperon: Being the Experiences of Cecilia Weiss in the Sagebrush of Southern Utah as Told by Her to Amy Armstrong,” Sunset, the Pacific Monthly, Vol. XXXVI, No. 6 (June 1916), pp. 25-26, 95-98.

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