The Life of Women Homesteaders 1860 - 1890

Although miners, lumbermen, and cowboys were all male in the 1860s through the 1890s, the success of homesteading relied on the work of the women. The women of the family were valuable assets on the farms during harvest season, tending to the garden and preserving food. Women often reached across the boundaries of their gender-specific duties and learned masculine skills, such as building fences, herding cattle, or working plows (Henretta).

A homestead women and her daughter farming corn.

Many families during this time picked up their lives and moved to the Great Plains for better opportunities. During the journey west, women were in charge of the cleanliness and sanitation of both the wagon and the people. They also made sure meals were regular and well cooked, preventing illnesses and a waste of food. On the camp grounds, the women washed clothes and did other household chores to keep order. For recreation, "we womenfolks gossiped, knitted, crocheted, exchanged recipes for cooking beans or dried apples - for the sake of variety kept us in practice of feminine occupations and diversions" (Haun). At night while the men smoked their pipes, the women would listen to readings, story tellings, and music, often ending the long day in laughter and merrymaking (Children, Marriage, and Families).

A homestead family making their way West.

Migration and farming in the West were encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave settlers up to 160 acres of free land if they settled on it and made improvements over a five-year span. Since this law did not restrict homestead entries to only men, women realized that they, too, could claim 160 acres for themselves. Divorced, single, or widowed women were now able to successfully make a life for themselves because this Act allowed them to own their own land. More and more women began to strike out on their own, no longer having to rely on anyone but themselves for their life and success (The Homestead Act, 1862). A study of North Dakota found that between 5-20% of homestead claims were filed by single women. They often filed for land adjacent to their sisters, brothers, or parents. Family members supported each other in the difficult work of farming and helped ease the loneliness that many newcomers felt (Henretta).

"It was a place to stay and it was mine" - said by a Dakota women looking back with pride on her homesteading days (Henretta)
"To me, it seems a glorious holiday, a freedom from restraint and I believe it will be a blessing to we girls" - Mary O'Keiffe

Mary O'Keiffe was a woman who found herself in an unhappy marriage, so she decided to get a divorce and file a homestead claim in western Nebraska. She had her children assist her in building a cover on the farm wagon, hitch up the work horses, and tie the milk cows to the wagon's side in preparation for the journey. To the rear of her wagon, she attached the cultivator and on top of that she built a small chicken coop to hold her two dozen hens and a rooster. The journey from their previous farm on the Missouri River to western Nebraska was about 500 miles. After their 51 day trek west, the family arrived in Nebraska. They built a sod house, dug a well, and the family set up housekeeping in their new home. Mary O'Keiffe accomplished all of this without the help of a man by side. She was able to make a successful life for herself and her children because the Homestead Act allowed women to be independent and own their own land (Women Homesteaders Portray the Plains Environment, 1857-1893).

In addition to farming, women homesteaders tended to seek other jobs as well. Wage earning oppurtunies for women at this time were very limited, which is why most chose to hold two jobs. Many pursued careers as teachers, nurses, seamstresses, and domestic workers on the side. Those who achieved economic success used their resources in a variety of ways. Some stayed on their homestead and accumulated additional land, while others sold their holdings and invested elsewhere (Women Homesteaders).

Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1885

Laura Ingalls Wilder was an example of one of these women. She was born in 1867, and during her childhood she moved throughout the west with her family. As a young girl she would help her mother and older sister farm and do the house work. At the age of 16, she got her first teaching job and worked for the local dressmaker to help her family financially. When she got married in 1885 to Almanzo Wilder, they got their own land together where she was a woman homesteader. In addition to being a family farmer and a teacher, she pursued careers as a writer and journalist (Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Two homestead women caring for the family animals.

Women homesteaders of the 1860s through the 1890s resembled the contemporary women. Their schedules were demanding, requiring flexibility, ingenuity, and endurance. Their initiatives were instrumental in building schools, churches, and other community institutions. These women were no different than their male counterparts, both of whom came west for the opportunities the land offered. Although not all of them succeeded, women homesteaders were integral in defining the role of women in society (Women Homesteaders).

BY: Emma Lombardo

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