THE CHALLENGES OF HOMESTEADING
FOR WOMEN IN THE WEST
Nicole Ann Makinster
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 2001
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree
Master of History
Liberal Arts and Sciences
This thesis for the Master of History
Nicole Ann Makinster
has been approved by
Dr. James Fell
I dedicate this thesis to my parents for always encouraging me to do whatever I
wanted to do and believing that I could. I would also like to dedicate this to my
"sister Niki for telling me that I actually was capable of writing a thesis, even
when I felt I couldnt. Thank you for always being my best friend and being
around to share a thousand laughs. Few people have as many laughs as the two
of us together. Lastly to my two grandmothers, Jackie and Helen who have been
a huge inspiration because they have showed me that to succeed all you have to
do is try. Thank you all for the tremendous amount of love and support you
have given me, I appreciate every bit of it.
My thanks go to my professors and advisors, Rebecca Hunt, Tom Noel and Jay
Fell, for all the help and encouragement they have given me over the course of
my studies. I would also like to thank the Viola Vestal Coulter foundation and
the Anshutz Foundation for the help they are willing to give history students.
Little would have been accomplished on this paper without the help of the staffs
at the Denver Public Librarys Western History Department and in the library at
the Colorado Historical Society. Also thank you to Phyllis Kraich of the
Washington County Museum Association for making time in her schedule to
open the museum out of season.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2: THE HOMESTEAD ACT.......................................7
Homestead Act Logistics..............................7
Women and the Homestead Act.........................16
Expansion of family holdings.....................17
3: THE COST OF HOMESTEADING...............................24
Women Homesteaders with Money.......................28
Working off the Homestead...........................30
The Homesteader was a Teacher....................33
Making Do on the Homestead..........................38
Reciprocity: The Way of the Homesteader.................38
Spirituality on the Homestead..............................44
4: PROBLEMS ON THE HOMESTEAD....................................47
Water, Fire, Wind and Snow..............................47
Sun, Drought, Hail, and Lightning.......................61
Illness/Injury on the Homestead............................64
Illness with a doctor...................................65
Illness without a doctor................................68
The Risks of childbirth.................................70
Animals and Pests..........................................75
Mice and Squirrels......................................80
Homesteaders and their contributions to the settling of the American West
are an important part of American history. By looking at the way homesteaders
led their lives and the challenges they faced while homesteading it is possible to
learn more about how the West became what it is today. Women homesteaders
occupy their own unique part of American history, because they were not only
faced with the same challenges men faced, they also had to deal with societys
strictures on how a woman should conduct herself. Women homesteaders were
able to steer away from the Victorian ideals of the time and settle their own
unique comers of the West. Their stories of feast, famine, failure and triumph
are the types of stories that have become synonymous with the land that now
comprises the American West. Women homesteaders were able to step away
from societal norms and make their own way in a place that has always been
considered to have been dominated by men: the American West.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed 270 million acres of public land, or
ten percent of the area of the United States to be settled by any American citizen
and head of household who desired cheap land.1 Women homesteaders came to
the West either with husbands, parents, children or by themselves to try and
carve out a piece of the West that would be uniquely theirs. If they were able to
1 The Homestead Act, 2007, (7 March
survive all of the rigors that went along with homesteading in the West, they
could become property owners. Homesteading womens contributions to the
settling of the West were equally as important as their male counterparts and in
many cases their contributions were more difficult to accomplish. Not only did
they have to deal with droughts, blizzards, illnesses, and all of the other
everyday occurrences on a homestead, but according to society they were
supposed to be doing so while wearing dresses and riding sidesaddle.
Women and our understanding of those women have long been the victims
of stereotypes in western history and this is especially true when studying
women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The ideal gender
roles in the Victorian age were fairly cut and dry. Historian Glenda Riley
addressed Victorian ideals in her article The Myth of Female Fear of Western
Landscapes. According to popular ideas, Autonomous men farmed, hunted
and earned wages, whereas maternal women cooked, cleaned and produced
goods at home. Womens traditional roles, especially those of the middle to
higher classes, were designed to provide safety and security for the woman. The
portrayal of women in literature and art was either as the conservative, pure and
timorous lady or the antithesis of this, the fallen woman or prostitute. Women 2
2 Glenda Riley, The Myth of Female Fear of Western Landscapes, Journal of the West, Vol.
37, No. 2, (April 1998) 33.
were also expected, according to Riley, to abide by certain behavioral and
One assumption, often held by the middle and higher classes of the
Victorian period, was that women were actually afraid of the Western landscape
and the outdoors. The scholarship of historians such as Susan Armitage,
Christiane Fischer Dichamp, Dee Garceau, Elizabeth Jameson, Catherine
Lavender, Ruth Moynihan, Sandra L. Myres, Nell Brown Propst, Glenda Riley,
and Lillian Schlissel has contributed a great deal to discounting this stereotype
and many others that existed about women on the prairie, plains and in the
Rocky Mountain West. According to Propst, [Women] were shaped by the
prairie, [and] a unique love-hate relationship with that relentless environment
brought from them qualities that might have stayed dormant elsewhere.4
While there are exceptions to any rule, in general, women were not any
more afraid of the western landscape or the outdoors than men. According to
Riley, Women frequently led the way, ready to embrace Mother Nature.. .U.S.
census data indicates that the number of women who farmed on their own
increased during the closing decades of the nineteenth century.5
Womens traditional place on the frontier has not always been seen by
historians as a principal part of the action. According to historian Glenda Riley,
3 Riley, The Myth... 33.
4 Nell Brown Propst, Those Strenuous Dames of the Colorado Prairie, (Boulder Pruett
Publishing Company, 1982), ix.
5 Riley, The Myth... 34.
women were seen as, the sad faced woman sitting on the front seat of the
wagon, following her lord where he might lead.6 Women have been viewed in
stereotypical terms and often reduced to the helpmates or companions of
homesteading men. They only showed up in discussions of the hardships
involved in the homesteading lifestyle or in discussions of the domestic aspects
of homesteading.7 Women on the frontier have been called many things in
historical writing including: Gentle Tamers, Saints in Sunbonnets, Madonnas of
the Prairie, and Reluctant Pioneers. All of these descriptions would lead
readers to believe that women were the passive and unadventurous sex, and that
they never wanted to leave their homes in order to travel to the West. If they did
have the desire to travel to the West they were seen as something unusual and
outside of the parameters of acceptable behavior.
According to historian Margaret Walsh, women tended to be viewed as
passive players who were wholly affected by the whims and decisions of the
dominant men in their lives. If the men in their lives decided it would be a
grand adventure to homestead, the women were supposed to placidly follow in
their footsteps. They were on the homestead to keep the house in order, give
birth to and take care of children, and occasionally when help was needed
6Glenda Riley, The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and Plains,
(Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1988), 1.
7 Margaret Walsh, Womens Place in the American Frontier, Journal of American Studies, 29
* Riley, The Female Frontier..., 1.
around the farm they could act as unpaid labor for their husbands.9 None of
these activities went against the Victorian ideal of domesticity. Historian
Glenda Riley has noted that although farm labor and farm work did not
necessarily fall into womens sphere of domesticity, both did involve skills that
according to the greater society were peculiarly female.
Women farm workers and owners helped other family members,
particularly men. These women cared for and nursed plants and
animals. They produced such household goods as fruits,
vegetables, eggs, butter, and cheese. They supervised and trained
children, who worked alongside them in the field and bam. And
they held home and family together by contributing their labor to
the continued existence of their familys farmsteads.10
All of these activities were part of the Victorian ideal. Women were functioning
in the domestic sphere, plus they were able to help their husbands on the farm.
The scholarship of historians like Susan Armitage and Nell Brown Propst, has
shown that women did not always remain under the confines of the Victorian
ideal; many broke away from the ideal and, Many more girls and women
transcended nontraditional work roles than boys and men.11 It was these
women who were able to take advantage of the homesteading program offered
by the United States government.
The turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century showed a marked change in
gender roles. It is possible to observe this change in the homesteading sphere.
9 Walsh, Womens Place..., 244.
10 Riley, The Female Frontier. ..118.
11 Susan Armitage and Elizabeth Jameson, ed., The Womens West, (Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 1984), 177.
Scores of women joined the ranks of homesteading men and traveled west to
stake their own claims on land made available for homesteading by the United
States government. They, in turn, had to endure the same types of hardships and
challenges that men faced while homesteading. They also accrued the same
rewards that men received and were able to do so despite the societal strictures
they faced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Many homesteading women kept journals or wrote extensive letters to
their families and friends telling of their homesteading experiences. The letters
of Estelle Siglin offer a glimpse into the mind of a single woman homesteader
and teacher who lived near Akron, Colorado. She described in exquisite detail
the many challenges she faced while trying to prove up on her homestead, such
as weather, pests, and illness. She also wrote of the loneliness she succumbed to
whenever she thought of her fiance Homer Evans and the life they delayed while
she homesteaded. However, it was the descriptions of her land and the immense
satisfaction she felt owning her own land that resonated throughout her letters.
In some cases, other family members also kept journals or wrote tales that
give readers a glimpse into the lives of women on homesteads. Government
entities such as the United States Federal Civil Works Administration of the
1930s also interviewed women homesteaders to record their stories. It is these
letters, journals, books and interviews that give historians a window into the
world of the woman homesteader.
THE HOMESTEAD ACT
Homestead Act Logistics ,
In order to understand what a homestead comprised, any study of
homesteading should first begin with a discussion of the technical aspects of
homesteading. What was a homestead? Who was allowed to homestead?
Where could a homestead be and how did the person actually receive title to the
land? According to the American College Dictionary a homestead is a
dwelling with its land and buildings, occupied by the owner as a home, and
exempted by law from seizure or sale for debt.12 13 The Homestead Act of 1862,
signed by President Abraham Lincoln, allowed all men over twenty-one years of
age who were not already in possession of more than 160 acres of land, and who
were citizens or had declared their intention to become citizens of the United
States to make a homestead entry. Any land designated by the government as
being open to homesteading could be claimed by the eligible claimants.
The actual process of filing a homestead claim involved many steps.
Those people interested in homesteading a particular piece of land, first had to
file their intentions at the nearest Land Office. The Land Office would then
make a brief check to ensure there were no previous claims made on the plot of
land in question. Next the prospective homesteader had to a pay a filing fee of
12 C.L. Bam hart, The American College Dictionary, (New York: Random House, 1967), 578.
13 Joseph Rivett, Ranch Life in the Rockies, (Denver Tremont Publishing, 1908), 97.
ten dollars to temporarily claim the land. They also had to pay a two dollar
commission to the land agent.14
Once the fees were paid, the homesteader was able to take possession of
her land. The next step was to begin the process of improving the land by
building a home and beginning the process of agriculture. After a period of five
years the homesteader could prove up on her land. The homesteader had to
find two witnesses, either neighbors or friends, who were willing to bear witness
to the fact that the homesteader had indeed fulfilled the necessary requirements
for obtaining title to the land. Both witnesses had to sign the proof document.
After the homesteader had successfully completed the final form and paid an
additional six dollar fee, they received a patent for the land, which was a signed
document from the President of the United States.15
The Act when written in 1862 only allowed the head of household to file on a
land claim, and this meant the only women allowed to stake a homesteading
claim were widows who were the head of their household. The law was
amended in 1867 to include single women.16 The act stated that, A single
woman over twenty-one years of age, or a widow whose husband did not use his
14 The Homestead Act... (7 March 2007).
15 The Homestead Act... (7 March 2007).
16 Sandra Vamey MacMahon, Fine Hands for Sowing: The Homesteading Experiences of
Remittance Woman Jessie de Prado MacMillan, New Mexico Historical Review, July
homestead right, or a widow of a soldier is eligible to homestead.17 In general,
the homesteader could only file on one homestead, but there were several
exceptions to the rule, including the addendum that those who had homesteaded
on less than 160 acres of land could homestead additional acreage to take their
total amount of acreage up to 160 acres. Another exception to the rule was under
the Act of April 28,1904, which stated that,
Any homestead claimant who has made a bona fide effort to
comply with the law, but has failed on account of some
unavoidable complication of his personal or business affairs or an
honest mistake as to the character of the land, and who did not sell
his right, may be authorized by the General Land Office to make a
second homestead entry.
The Homestead Act also allowed for a single woman or widow, who had made a
homestead entry to marry without forfeiting her claim as long as she continued
to comply with the law as to residence, or if she had settled on a tract she could
marry and then afterwards make her homestead entry as long as her husband
was not holding a like entry.19 A new section of the Homestead Act was signed
into law by President Wilson in 1914, which allowed a claimant who was unable
to prove up on a previous claim, to file on a new claim,
Provided that such applicant should show to the satisfaction of the
secretary of the interior that the prior entry were lost, forfeited or
abandoned because of matters beyond his control, and that he has
17 Frank E. Lynch, The Pathfinder of the Great Western Empire, (Los Angeles: Gem Publishing
Company, 1920), 70.
'* Rivett, Ranch Life..., 97.
l9Rivett, Ranch Life..., 97.
not speculated in his right, nor committed a fraud, or attempted a
fraud in connection with such entry or entries.20
The law stated that married women who had all of the other qualifications
of a homesteader could make a homestead entry under any one of the following
a) Where she has been actually deserted by her husband.
b) Where her husband is incapacitated by disease or otherwise from
earning a support for his family and the wife is really the head
and main support of the family.
c) Where the husband is confined in a penitentiary and she is
actually the head of the family.
d) Where the married woman is the heir of a settler or contestant
who dies before making entry.
e) Where a married woman made improvements and resided on the
lands applied for before marriage, she may enter them alter
marriage if her husband is not holding other lands under an
unperfected homestead entry at the time of the marriage; and
this last condition does not apply if each party has had
compliance with the law for one year next before the marriage
and neither one abandons the land prior to filing application for
The marriage of a woman who was in the process of proving up would not end
her right to acquire title to her land as long as she continued to reside on the land
and otherwise comply with the law. However, if her husband failed to live upon
the homestead with her it could be treated as evidence of bad faith, requiring
testimony for its rebuttal. According to the provisions of the Homestead Act,
20 New Homestead Act, Akron Weekly Pioneer Press, 25 September 1914.
21 Department of the Interion General Land Office, Suggestions to Homesteader and Persons
Desiring to Make Homestead Entries, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915), 6.
husband and wife could not maintain separate residences on individual
homestead claims, therefore one claim would have to be relinquished.22
Federal land included in the public domain was available for
homesteading. Land wholly unfit for cultivation or grazing purposes or only
valuable for its timber or stone, is not subject to homestead entry. Otherwise as
a rule, all public [land] and not mineral, may be so entered.23 Residence on the
homestead claim had to be established within six months of the application
being accepted by the United States Land Office.24 25 26
The Homestead Act as written in 1862 stated that in order to win title to
the land the entry person had to live on the land a total of six months per year for
a total of five years. A further stipulation in the act stated that the homesteader
had to improve the land by building a permanent dwelling. Later the residency
requirement changed to three years, which meant that final proof could be made
on a claim after continuous residence of three years on the homestead and
cultivation of not less than one-sixteenth of the acreage in the second year and
one-eighth of the land in the third year.
In certain cases it was possible to file on more than 160 acres. The Desert
Land Act of 1877 made a Desert Land entry available to residents of the state.
22 Department of the Interior, Suggestions to..., 6.
23 Rivett, Ranch Life..., 99.
24 Lynch, The Pathfinder..., 70.
25 Dee Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders and the Meaning of Independence: Places on die
Map, Places in the Mind, Frontiers, vol. 15 no. 3 (1995), 18.
26 Lynch, The Patffinder..., 70.
Homesteaders could make entry on 320 acres, or less, of surveyed Desert land
that was possible to reclaim by the use of irrigation. Desert land was land
without a growth of natural timber on which ordinary crops could not grow and
mature without irrigation. As of 1914, the law stated that within four years from
the date of entry the homesteader had to prove that, substantially all the land
has been irrigated and that one-eighth of it has been cultivated, and must pay a
further government fee of one dollar per acre.27
By 1920 the law had been slightly altered. The homesteader could receive
title to the land by completing one of two options. Option one was to pay a fee
of twenty-five cents per acre and file a map showing where water would be
obtained and how they would obtain a permanent water right. Next the
homesteader had to expend within one year at least three dollars per acre in the
construction of canals, irrigation ditches and other improvements and cultivate
at least one-fifth of the land. After the homesteader, with the help of two
reliable witnesses, had proven to the land office that the improvements had been
made, they could then pay an additional one dollar per acre to receive title to the
The second option took place over three successive years. The
homesteader had to make permanent improvements like irrigation ditches in the
amount of one dollar per acre taken and they had to cultivate at least one-fifth of
27 Rivett, Ranch Life..., 99.
28 Lynch, The Pathfinder..., 78.
the land. During the three year period the homesteader had to visit the land
office with two reliable witnesses to prove s/he was actually making the
necessary improvements. No later than four years after the time of entry s/he
had to again show, with at least two reliable witnesses, that the land had been
irrigated, improved and cultivated as per the requirement of the Desert Land
Act. The homesteader then had to pay one dollar per acre to obtain clear title to
The Timber Culture Act of 1873 allowed a claim of 160 acres if the
homesteader planted and grew forty acres of trees for eight years.30 The
National Forest Homestead Act of 1906 allowed the Secretary of Agriculture to
examine locations within National Forests which were chiefly valuable for
agriculture and which could be utilized for agricultural purposes without
damaging the National Forest.
The act of June 11,1906, known as the National Forest homestead
act, provides for the acquisition by qualified entrymen of
agricultural lands within National Forests. This act is in effect an
extension of the general provisions of the homestead laws to
agricultural lands within National Forests, with the essential
difference that the land must be classified by the Secretary of
Agriculture as chiefly valuable for agriculture, and that no
commutation is allowed.31
29 Lynch, The Pathfinder..., 78.
30 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 18.
31 Lynch, The Pathfinder..., 79.
The National Forest Homestead Act took land that had been set aside for
National forests and opened it up to homesteading as long as it could be proven
that the land was better served for agriculture than for any other purpose.
There were also laws that allowed land to be taken as timber and stone
land. Any qualified person could file on land that was worth more for its timber
or stone than it would be for agricultural purposes. Up to 160 acres could be
filed on, but the filer had to pay two dollars and fifty cents per acre. The
applicants had to advertise their intention to make the entry for sixty days, and
give the names of two or more witnesses who could prove the character of the
land. Only one entry could be made, and the payment had to be made on the
day of proof.32 33
Lands which were more valuable for their content of coal could be bought
for ten dollars per acre. The land had to be situated more than fifteen miles from
any completed railroad, otherwise the fee was raised to twenty dollars per acre if
closer than fifteen miles to a railroad. The land could be paid for immediately or
within sixty days after discovery of coal. The homesteader could file a
declaration of intention to purchase which would hold the land for fourteen
months from date of discovery.
Mining claims were another type of claim that could be filed on by a
homesteader. Mining claims could be held and worked for any length of time
32 Rivett, Ranch Life..., 100.
33 Rivett, Ranch Life..., 100.
without securing a patent on the land as long as one-hundred dollars or more
was expended in labor or improvement on the claim every year. At least five
hundred dollars had to be expended by the claimant before a patent could be
secured on the land.34
Isolated tracts of land that were less than a quarter section (160 acres), and
had been opened for homestead entry for three years or more and which had all
of the surrounding sections either entered upon or otherwise disposed of by the
government, could be, on petition to the Commissioner of the General Land
Office, offered at public sale and sold for not less than one dollar and twenty-
five cents per acre. No more than 160 acres could be sold to one person at one
sale. This provision allowed many farms to be squared out and allowed the
homesteaders to secure desirable small tracts of land.35
In the seven months spanning August 1914 to January 31,1915, emigrants
and residents of the state homesteaded over one million acres of Colorado land.
6,535 people filed on an average of 158 acres each across the state. Colorado
federal land offices were located in Lamar, Pueblo, Hugo, Del Norte, Leadville,
Montrose, Sterling, Denver, Durango, and Glenwood Springs. The population
of Colorado increased by at least 26,140 people during the seven month period,
due to the homesteaders bringing their assorted families with them. According
to J.R. Beavers, who was the Register of the United States land office in Hugo,
34 Rivett, Ranch Life..., 101.
35 Rivett, Ranch Life..., 100.
at the beginning of 1915 the land office was, receiving almost as many
inquiries as to vacant lands as were received in 1907 and 1908, when most of the
land was taken up, but we do not have the land to supply the demand.36 People
still had a tremendous interest in homesteading fifty-three years after the
Homestead Act went into effect. This interest in homesteading was occurring
during the agricultural boom brought on by World War I.
WOMEN AND THE HOMESTEAD ACT
Thousands of women joined the throngs of emigrants who left their homes
in the East behind and attempted to stake their own claim on a piece of land in
the West. What were women looking for when they laid a homesteading claim?
They could have been looking for the same things that men were looking for:
land, adventure, perhaps even a romance that had escaped them in sedate
hometowns.37 However, there were more practical reasons for a woman to stake
a homesteading claim. According to historian Dee Garceau, three reasons a
single woman would stake a homestead claim were to, 1) enlarge her familys
property, 2) use it as an investment for future profit, or 3) for the
economic/social status that came with land ownership.
36 N.A.. More Ilian One Million Acres of U.S. Lands Filed on by Settlers in 7 Months in
State, The Denver Post, 21 February 1915, p 1.
37 Propst, Those Strenuous Dames, 2.
3S Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 2.
Expansion of family holdings
Many families in the west would use their family members to expand their
family land holdings. One claim was not enough to support a successful farm or
ranch. Thirty to forty acres of uncultivated land could support one cow and calf,
which would have made a herd size of five cows and five calves on a 160 acre
homestead possible, and additional acreage would have been necessary to plant
hay for winter feed.39 This would have made the typical 160 acre homesteading
claim useless for a family that was trying to run a successful ranch. Ranching
families worked around homestead law by having qualified members file
adjacent claims in order to accumulate sufficient land.40 Each family member
who was single could have filed a claim on land adjoining the major family
holding and then it could all have been utilized by the same family.
While the families were able to work around the homesteading laws, they
still had to follow many important requirements. Each family member who
staked his/her own claim had to fulfill the residency requirements of six months
per year for five years, and they also had to build a dwelling to live in upon their
Here is an example of a family in Wyoming who accumulated land for a
common purpose: The Wilhelm Place, North Piney: Wilhelm came here in
1900 and took up land on Horse Creek. He also obtained rights to adjoining
39 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 6.
40 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 6.
land on Green River through his wifes filing, later his second wife filed and a
daughter filed.41 Wilhelm was able to obtain the use of four homesteading
claims by filing for himself and also having his wives and daughter file.
Wilhelm had to have proved up on his own land prior to his wife filing,
otherwise one of the claims would have been relinquished upon their marriage.
However, as long as a woman was unmarried at the time of her filing she could
continue to prove up on it, even if she married after the time of her filing.42
Homesteading could also be used for investment purposes. A single
woman could file on a land claim, comply with all of the requirements of
homesteading law, and then turn around and sell her claim for a profit. The sale
of her land would allow for a certain amount of economic independence. The
profit a woman could make after selling her property was often more than she
could make in the workforce.43 44 However, if she was able to work and maintain
a homestead, she could have earned a great deal of money.
In Wyoming, for example, between 1893 and 1917, the most
common occupation for single women homesteaders,
schoolteaching, earned an average of $51 per month. This salary,
for a term varying from three to nine months, yielded from $153 to
$459 per year. Between 1900 and 1920, sale price of a quarter
section claim with title varied from $300 to $500, with sale price
for a whole section claim with title went as high as $ 1,000.
41 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 6.
42 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 7.
43 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 11.
44 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 11.
This influx of a great amount of cash from the sale of her homestead and the
salary she earned while teaching could create a substantial savings for any
Homesteading for investment purposes contributed to the change in
gender roles that took place around the turn of the twentieth century. Women
were able to acquire more cash in real estate sales than they were in the types of
occupations that were traditionally available to them at the time, such as
teaching, clerking or even prostitution. In July 1887, Lizzie Gordon was able to
sell half of her claim in Colorado to the Burlington and Missouri Railroad for
the sum of $1,000. She did not sell her remaining acreage because she had
discovered that other pieces of land nearby were selling for $1,400. Her
business decision paid off because when she decided to sell her claim in
September of the same year she received $6,000 for the remaining eighty acres
of her claim.45
The third reason a woman might take up homesteading was the possible
improvement to her social status in addition to her economic status. Land
ownership was a very valuable business on the frontier. Land ownership gave
independence, which was often lacking in an urban setting. In an urban
situation it was generally necessary for a person to be a part of the workforce in
45 Props!, Those Strenuous Dames..., 15.
order to earn the capital needed to survive. Women could also achieve this goal
by being married to a man who was a part of the workforce. Wageworkers
earned monetary wages for their labor and then used their finances to buy
anything they might have needed, such as food, clothes, etc... A person on the
frontier who owned their own land was able to plant their own crops and
personal gardens and with luck and the proper knowledge of agriculture they
could feed themselves. Generally speaking, the amount of work they put in on
their own land would help promote more of a profit for them. They could eat
whatever they grew in their gardens and if they had any excess they could use
that excess to barter for whatever else they needed or they could sell it for a
Homesteading could also provide an elevated community standing to
women who often had no community standing at all in their hometowns. Land
ownership gave Kate Heizer a voice in her community and she claimed that she
was, An important factor in the community, one whose voice has weight, a
person to be consulted about matters of public interest.46 Her newfound place
in the community derived from homesteading, which was outside of the
stereotypical Victorian domestic sphere that women were supposed to occupy.
Single women homesteaders were also economically self sufficient and not
46 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 15.
dependent on men to provide for their daily requirements, which was another
aspect of homesteading that went against the Victorian ideal for women.47
Several of the states that had a large number of women homesteaders were
also the states that first granted women the right to vote. Wyoming Territory
approved Ml suffrage for women in 1869, Utah Territory in 1870 and Colorado
in 1893.48 Women were able to have a political life in these states, whereas in
their home states they were subject to the political decisions made by men.
Homesteading was a big change for women in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries. Prior to the enactment of the Homestead Act, it was
very difficult for any woman who was not part of the upper class to own
property in many states. Staking a homesteading claim meant that women had
to assume both the role of the domestic and the farming individual. They had to
perform household duties for themselves, plus they had to set about making the
improvements on their land that the Homestead Act required. Other women had
to seek employment away from their land so they were able to afford the
maintenance on their homesteading claim. Not only were they staking land
claims for themselves, but they were also entering into the workforce in order to
afford the maintenance of their property.
47 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 16.
44 Suffrage Exhibit, 2003,
(4 November 2003).
Women like Elinore Pruitt Stewart decided to homestead in order to
escape the lives they found themselves living. Elinore Pruitt was a
washerwoman in Denver, Colorado when she decided to answer an
advertisement in the paper calling for a housekeeper in Wyoming. Elmore and
her daughter Jerrine journeyed to Burnt Fork, Wyoming to work for Clyde
Stewart, a widowed rancher. In 1909, Elinore decided to stake a claim on the
land that adjoined Clyde Stewarts land. She ended up marrying Clyde, so she
was unable to prove up on the land herself.49 Homesteading law allowed for
women to prove up on land adjacent to their husbands only if the husband had
already proved up on their own land prior to her filing. However, the woman
had to fulfill the residency requirement of the Homestead Act. Since Stewart
had not built a separate dwelling from her husbands she decided, in 1912, to
relinquish her rights to his mother, Ruth Caroline Stewart. Ruth received a
patent on the land in 1915 and then sold the land back to Clyde and Elinore in
Elinore felt that homesteading was the answer to many problems.
According to a letter dated January 23,1913 she contended that,
49 Elinore Pruitt Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1914), 7 and 79.
50 Susanne George, The Adventures of the Woman Homesteader: The Life and Letters ofElinore
Pruitt Stewart, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 16.
When I read of the hard times among the Denver poor, I feel like
urging them every one to get out and file on land. I am very
enthusiastic about women homesteading. It really requires less
strength and labor to raise plenty to satisfy a large family than it
does to go out and wash, with the added satisfaction of knowing
that their job will not be lost to them if they care to keep it.. .To
me, homesteading is the solution of all povertys problems, but I
realize that temperament has much to do with success in any
undertaking, and persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness
had better let ranching alone.51
Elinore felt that homesteading had been the answer she was seeking.
Homesteading had gotten her away from her laundry tub and onto her own land,
so she felt homesteading could be the answer to many womens problems.
51 Stewart, Letters of a Woman, 215.
THE COSTS OF HOMESTEADING
Many homesteading women and men found that the land was not as free
as they believed it would be when they first decided to homestead. While it was
possible for a person to file a homestead claim on a piece of government
property and eventually receive title to that land there were many financial costs
that went along with running a successful homestead.
The first cost a potential homesteader had to pay was the filing fee which
could range anywhere from twelve to twenty-five dollars. After filing the claim
they would have to pay a surveyors fee in order to locate the exact boundaries
of their claim. This could cost them anywhere from thirty to one hundred
dollars, depending on the size and location of the claim. Some claimants had to
purchase water rights. In Wyoming they would end up paying as much as
twenty-two dollars for water rights, notary fees and all of the necessary maps
they would need.52 Some homesteaders were subject to many other fees as well:
Under the Carey Act, settlers homesteading land within a large-
scale irrigation project paid the state of Wyoming $.50 per acre,
and the irrigation developers $20 or more per acre for water rights.
A 160-acre claim under these conditions would cost $3,280.
Finally, buying title to land, in lieu of proving up, cost $ 1.25 per
acre under the Homestead Act; $1 per acre under the Desert Land
Act. For 160-acre or 640-acre claims, the cost of buying title
reached $200 or $640, respectively.53
52 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 7.
53 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 7.
These costs did not include the everyday costs a homesteader would run into.
Under the Homestead Act of 1862, it was necessary for the homesteader to
improve the land they were trying to earn. This meant they had to build a
permanent lodging in order to fulfill the claim. This would cost them time,
labor and materials. Most homesteading dwellings were not sturdy houses, but
it did cost the homesteader money in order to build something. One common
type of homesteading house was made of sod, generally referred to as a
soddie. These earthen houses were the homesteaders only protection from
Hal Borland was a child when he and his parents moved to the Colorado
plains in the early twentieth century. The first thing he and his father did was
build a sod house for Sarah, Hals mother.
Father squinted at the sun and got his directions straight, and then
he cut a stake and drove it for one comer of the house. I held the
tape and we laid out the other comers, square with the sun. The
house was going to be fourteen feet wide and twenty feet long,
with a narrow end to the north and with the door facing the east
and the sunrise...Father took the posthole auger and dug a hole at
each comer. In each hole we set a split cedar post, four feet down
and well tamped in, to anchor the house against the wind. Then we
laid out the sills and the floor joists, Father nailed them into place,
and I held the comer studs while he nailed them to the cedar
posts.. .By sunset we had a rough framework up and braced, the
beginnings of a house... We floored the house and we put shiplap
lumber on the walls, leaving gaps for the door and windows. We
put up rafters for a curved roof that made the cabin look like a
squat railroad car.54
The next step in the building of the Borland house was to cut the sod bricks that
would be placed on the walls of the house.
We hitched the team to the breaking plow and went down to the
edge of the draw and plowed a deep furrow in the tough grass.
The sod turned in a thick, root-matted strip. Father plowed half a
dozen furrows, then took the spade and cut the strips of sod into
chunks a foot and a half long. We brought the wagon and hauled a
load of those sod strips.. .1 helped lay the next layer, grass side
down.. .the joints didn't match up, so each sod overlapped on the
two pieces below, like bricks.55
The Borland home was typical of the many soddies that dotted homesteads all
over the plains.
Not all homesteaders were as lucky and as well prepared as the Borlands.
Widowed Mrs. Townsend homesteaded near the South Platte River between IlifF
and Sterling, Colorado in 1903. She was destitute and unable to afford timber
from the mountains. She was also unable to cut and lift the three-foot-long sod
bricks that she thought were required to build a soddie. This left her with few
choices. In order to build a dwelling she,
Dug dirt out of a sand hill bluff, about eight to ten feet high, and
cleared a tiny six-by-eight-foot room. She wedged poles across the
54 Hal Borland, High, Wide and Lonesome: Growing Up on the Colorado Frontier, (Boston:
G.K. Hall & CO., 1984), 29 and 32.
55 Borland, High, Wide and..., 46.
top to make a roof that slanted down over the front of the dugout,
and she built a front wall and door with scraps of wood and junk.
Grass and dirt piled on top kept out the worst weather, but rain
always leaked into the little shelter, and dirt constantly sifted
down. Perhaps that didnt matter, for the floor and walls were also
dirt. In that hole in the ground, she lived like a human prairie
Due to her lack of money and physical strength, Mrs. Townsend was unable to
build a decent shelter and had to content herself with living in a hole in the
Sanora Babb and her mother Ginny were very surprised when they arrived
at the homestead where they were to live.
As we turned into the gate, the headlights flashed on the low peak
of shingles and a small window flush to the ground.. .We hesitated
at the steep cement steps as if we could not believe what we saw.
Finally, my father started down in guilty impatience. We
followed. We stepped onto a hard earthen floor and saw at once
that the walls were of earth. The room was very small, its only
furniture a bed and a wire cot, a small wooden table with boxes for
chairs, a tiny, two-hole monkey stove, and beside it a box filled
with dried cow chips. Standing on a box, we could look out the
window onto the ground and feel a part of the miniature life of ants
and beetles and anything that crawled.. .My mother was biting her
lips to keep from bursting into tears. No letters had described this
dugout or its isolation.57
When the Babb women first saw their new home they were both surprised and
horrified to see the conditions they would be living in. They had left behind a
beautiful house in Oklahoma to live in a hole in the ground in Colorado.
56 Propst, Those Strenuous Dames..., 17.
57 Sanora Babb, An Owl on Every Post (New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1970),.7-
If the homesteader was able to afford the expense, they could have a frame
house and leave the grass on the ground. Minnie Palmer left Manhattan, Kansas
in 1887 and settled in Logan County, in the northeastern comer of Colorado.
Minnie was able to build or have someone build for her, a frame house. She
also dug a well, planted trees and fenced in about ten acres. After she had
completed all of this it was nearing winter, and as the residency requirement was
only six months per year, she was able to go to Denver where she worked and
saved money before it was time to return to her homestead for spring planting.58
WOMEN HOMESTEADERS WITH MONEY
Some women were lucky enough to have the money to hire other people
to make the improvements on their land for them. Like Minnie Palmer, they
could have been spending six months away from their homesteads in order to
earn enough money for the maintenance of their property. On the other hand
they could have been working while living on their claims. One such
homesteader was Estelle M. Siglin who was bom in Iowa around 1881.59
Siglins homesteading experiences were chronicled in a series of letters written
between herself and her fiance Homer Evans who remained behind in Iowa to
5* Propst, Those Strenuous Dames..., 21.
59 1920 United States Federal Census, Ashland, Washington, Colorado-, Roll: T625 171; page
1A, Enumeration District: 220; Image: 1015, accessed cm ancestrylilHaiy.com, 10 February
earn money. Their correspondence began in 1906. Siglin was attending the
Iowa Normal School in Cedar Falls, Iowa and Evans had graduated and moved
to work on a road crew near Bouton, Iowa. While attending the Iowa Normal
School, Siglin took courses on penmanship, bookkeeping, algebra, English
grammar, principles of education and physical training. After all of her
schooling she was certified to teach school.60
In Siglins letters to Evans she spoke of her weariness and stress in
attending school. I sometimes think study has added more gray hairs to my
head, than gray cells to my brain.61 Eventually the idea of homesteading began
appearing in the letters. She fully supported Evans decision to file on a quarter
section in Colorado but was reluctant to homestead in Colorado on her own
piece of land. My courage failed when I thought of launching out on such an
expedition upon my own responsibility. I have learned that it doesnt pay to act
too hastily.62 She continued to mull the topic over for six months and
eventually took a trip to Akron, Colorado to locate a claim of her own. I finally
located a claim but not where I expected to when I left home. There is a
possibility of my getting a room in the Akron school next year.63 Siglin and
60 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 7 September 1906, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
61 Estelle M. Siglin to Homo- Evans, 25 November 1906, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
62 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 3 January 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
63 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 8 July 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters, Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.
Evans decided that Homer would relinquish his homestead, because he could
earn more money working in Iowa, while Siglin attempted to prove up on a
homestead while teaching in Colorado.
Unlike many of her homesteading colleagues, Siglin was able to pay other
people to help her with the tasks involved in homesteading.
I am really learning to like the prairies.. .Mr. Keasey helped me
plan my house. It is to be 12 x 14, plastered, and have a real brick
chimney. There will be a long narrow, high window in the east, an
ordinary window in the west and a glass door in the south. I am to
have a cupboard, wardrobe and a shelf for plants in the east
window, also a hard pine floor. A shingled roof and hail screen
over the windows. A bam for two horses. Mr. Edwards will help
Mr. K. They will anchor the house to four strong posts, put a fence
around the house and plow some for a fire break, and possibly
break a patch for my trees.64
While a 12 x 14 square-foot house could seem small, having a plastered frame
house was luxurious compared to what most homesteaders could afford.
WORKING OFF THE HOMESTEAD
In many cases it was not possible for homesteaders to earn enough money
to keep their homesteads up, without seeking outside employment. Many
homesteads simply did not provide enough profit for homesteaders to pay for all
of the goods they needed to maintain their lives. In most cases, it was the
husband who went away to seek other employment, leaving the wife and
64 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 8 December 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
children to maintain the homestead. Such was the case for the Robertson,
Dorsey and Borland families.
Pearl Price Robertsons husband Alec was faced with leaving his family
on the homestead so he could earn money to provide for them. Many of our
neighbors, too, went away looking for work, so that I was left very much alone
except when some distant settler passed by, sometimes bringing my mail and
supplies.65 Without her husband, Robertson was very lonely. She had to attend
to the many responsibilities on the homestead, but it was during the down time
when she missed her husband the most. She busied herself working with her
hands and sewing garments for her children and the baby that was on the way.66
The Dorseys were faced with a similar situation on their land. In order to
pay for the supplies the large family would need, William Dorsey, a carpenter
by trade, stayed behind in Nebraska City to earn money to buy the supplies. He
periodically traveled to his land to be with his family, but he was in Nebraska
City a majority of the time. Providing for his family was more important than
actually being with them, because his presence on the farm would not have
65 Pearl Price Robertson, Homestead Woman, in Mid Country: The Best Writings from the
Heart of America, ed- Lowry C. Wimberly (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1945),
66 Robertson, Homestead Woman, 355.
earned the family any money to buy the supplies that were necessary for their
The Borlands had the same problems as the other families. The family
was unable to raise enough crops to sell, so they were not making any money
other than what Sarah Borland earned from selling butter. Will Borland became
disillusioned with the idea of homesteading and suggested selling the stock and
Sell out and quit? Mother asked. Father didnt answer. I thought:
We cant sell old Dick and Shorty! We cant move to some closed-
in town where you cant see anything or do anything! Where there
arent any jack rabbits, or prairie dogs, or meadow larks, or
anything! And I cried,No! Both of them looked at me. Mother
smiled and Father laughed. Then Mother said, Were not going.
Well stay here and take care of things. Theres not much to do this
summer...And Father said, Ill be back before the snow comes.
Hal Borland took over the farm work and he and his mother were able to
maintain the homestead while Will Borland went to the mountains and earned
money working at a newspaper.69 Hal Borland and his mother Sarah had to
weather many storms, including the death of half their stock, while Will was
away, but they were able to keep the homestead going.
67 Mollie Dorsey Sanford, Mollie: The Journal of Mollie Dorsey Sanford, (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 1959), 38.
68 Borland, High, Wide and..., 138.
69 Borland, High, Wide and..., 139.
The Homesteader was a Teacher
In order to afford the expenses that went along with homesteading, Siglin
had to secure a position teaching school in Colorado. She waited over a month
to hear from the Akron school district, but finally received contracts to sign on
August 14,1907. She left Iowa by train on October 3, 1907 and headed to her
new life in Colorado teaching and homesteading in Akron, Colorado.
When she arrived in Colorado she was informed by a Mr. Tarr, the man
who had helped her locate her claim, that there was someone interested in
buying her relinquishment. She informed Tarr that she would not think of
selling, because she had already relocated to Colorado.70 When Siglin arrived in
Akron she boarded with Mr. and Mrs. Chapman who were twenty-four and
twenty-three years old respectively and who had three children, Violet, Lyle and
Goldie. The Chapmans lived in a fourteen room house with three stories
including a basement. Siglins room was located directly off the parlor on the
Siglin began teaching at a school with fourteen pupils, with the possibility
that she could have four or five more. Shortly after her arrival in Colorado, she
began to see and do many things she had never seen or done in the past. During
her drive to school on a mid-October morning she saw her first coyote and just
over a week later she was complaining about the difficulties in harnessing a
70 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 4 October 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
stubborn animal. While I was trying so hard to get that stubborn old mule to
take the bit I thot, Oh! for a man.71
Another homesteading woman was able to take her career as a teacher in
Iowa and transport it to South Dakota. Elizabeth (Bess) Corey was raised on her
fathers farm near Marne, Iowa. She and her family, which consisted of her
mother and father and six other siblings occupied a four-bedroom farmhouse.
When she turned seventeen, in 1905, Bess began a career as a rural
schoolteacher. Even at that point she had begun to talk about homesteading, but
homesteading law required that one had already reached their majority when
Bess was finally able to travel to Midland, South Dakota and in 1909, after
she turned twenty-one-years-old she staked her land claim. She had to leave her
family and friends behind, but was able to take her profession with her.
The profession itself, being portable, came with her, furnishing a
potential means of support while Bess located and proved up on a
homestead.. .She was quite relying upon her ability to get a
teaching job which would bring in those dollars so essential for
hiring the heavy work to be done in making her claim habitable:
building a shack, breaking the sod, dredging a dam, fencing a
71 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 26 October 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
72 Philip L. Gerber, ed., Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Corey, 1909-
1919, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990), xi. And xxviii.
73 Gerber, Bachelor Bess, xxix.
Bess was able to acquire a teaching position soon after she decided upon the site
for her homestead. A fellow teacher granted her a two-year term at the
grammar-school level, assuming she passed the South Dakota state exams. In
fact, at her first teaching job in South Dakota she was able to supervise the
building of her claims dwelling. While she was teaching and supervising she
was also preparing for the requisite three examinations she had to pass in order
to earn a South Dakota teachers license.74
Many homesteading women had to, in effect, work two jobs. Their first
job was to maintain their homesteads, and many like Bess had to seek work
away from their homesteads in order to supplement their incomes. Working off
their claims was a very challenging thing for the women who had to do so. Bess
had to arise at 5:30 each morning to wash and comb her hair and perform her
morning toilette, dress, prepare her breakfast and lunch pail, and then set off, on
foot, by seven oclock. She was determined to have her schoolhouse stove
heating by eight oclock. Often times the maintenance of a frontier school,
though supposedly the school boards responsibility, fell to the schoolteacher.
Bess had to keep her schoolhouse and the privies near the school clean. So, in
addition to all of her domestic chores on her homestead, Bess also had to
maintain her schoolhouse.75
74 Gerber, Bachelor Bess, xlviii.
75 Gerber, Bachelor Bess, xlviii-xlix.
Teaching was a great source of income for homesteading women. They
were able to take all of the income they made while teaching and turn it into
practical necessities around the homestead. Money would allow the
homesteader to buy many of the items they needed on the homestead, whether it
was materials to build dwellings, food and other household necessities, or labor
to complete the projects they needed taken care of on the homestead and did not
want to complete themselves. Bess, for example, only had to supervise the
building of her dwelling and did not have to do the work herself, because she
had the means to hire help. A steady income also allowed the homesteader to
earn enough money to pay the taxes on their land.
Mollie Dorsey Sanford moved onto a preemption claim with her family in
Nebraska in the late 1850s. Although they settled in Nebraska before the
Homestead Act went into effect, the family lived very similarly to most
homesteaders. The family stayed in town, in this case Nebraska City, while the
father went out and found a claim of 160 acres. Once he had built a house, he
went back to town and took his entire family back to the claim, about thirty
miles outside of town. The Dorseys set themselves up as a boarding stop
between the two towns of Beatrice and Nebraska City and they were renowned
to their fellow settlers for their hospitality. They gave room and board to many
travelers. At eighteen-years-old, Mollie Dorsey was the oldest daughter and she
felt it was her responsibility to relieve her parents of some of the burden they
had trying to provide for their large family. Dorsey took on a great deal of the
housework, and became the primary cook for the household, so she could relieve
her mother, who seemed a melancholy sort of woman, of all of her duties.
When the Dorseys had been in Nebraska for a little over a year, Mollie
Dorsey decided to offer her services as a seamstress to any woman she could.
Her home was too remote for her to act as the seamstress for the women in
town, so she had to board with whomever she was sewing for at the time.
Now that spring is here I dislike to leave Hazel Dell, for to me it is
the sweetest spot on earth, but I must not be sentimental. I must
expect to buffet with the world. 1 know the path is not strewn with
roses to one that has to make their own way, but I have a strong,
brave heart, and a faith that teaches me that the Lord will help those
that help themselves.76
Even though Mollie had to leave home to do it, she was able to take her skills
and turn them into money for her family.
According to historian Sheryll Patterson-Black,
Adolescent daughters of homesteaders took work as hired girls,
schoolteachers, and seamstresses, and the cash they contributed to
their families paid for such diverse things as seeds, shoes for the
younger children, and Belgian carpets to improve the farm home.
Single women farmed, taught school, and sometimes held down jobs
in businesses in nearby towns in order to earn funds for developing
76 Sanford, Mollie: The Journal..., 64.
77 Sheryll Patterson-Black, Women Homesteaders on die Great Plains Frontier, Frontiers: A
Journal of Women Studies, vol.l, no. 2 (1976), 79.
The income a woman was able to earn away from the homestead was often
absolutely indispensable when it came to paying for the day-to-day items
necessary for life on a homestead.
MAKING DO ON THE HOMESTEAD
Reciprocity: The Way of the Homesteader
Even though many women were able to gain an independence they never
would have been able to achieve if they remained with their families, they often
could not do all of the work that needed to be done on their homesteads without
outside assistance. Many homesteaders, not just women, were able to maintain
their homesteads with the help of their nearest neighbors. Homesteaders were
mutually dependent on their nearby neighbors in their exchange of work and in
reliance upon each other for information, recreation, and mutual support.
Take the stereotypical barn-raising for example. One farmer needed a bam, so
all of the neighbors got together to help build the bam and during the same time
they got to enjoy a picnic and dance. The people were able to gather to
exchange news and gossip and they were also able to help their neighbor with a
vital part of the farm.
In 1902, Jessie de Prado MacMillan, a single woman and Scottish
homesteader near Alamogordo, New Mexico, would help a neighbor whenever 78
78 Deborah Fink, Agrarian Women, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992) 51.
the need arose. She set off in a driving snow storm to help a woman with her
newborn and on another occasion she helped prepare a child for burial because
her neighbor was too hysterical to complete the preparations.79 Her generosity
paid off when she sustained an injury after falling in the mountains. Jessie fell
while leading her horse down a steep mountain slope, and she gravely injured
her knee. She was able to remount her horse and travel to the town of
Alamogordo, where the doctor told her she would never walk again. She sent
her horse back to her claim with a stranger. Her neighbors heard about her
circumstances and arrived to take her home in their wagon. MacMillan was able
to arrange for a family to stay with her to run her farm while she convalesced.
MacMillans neighbors went out of their way to help her until she was literally
back on her feet. Unfortunately, she had to resort to surgery on her knee before
she was able to function on her farm again.80 *
Estelle Siglin tended to rely on other people a lot when she first began
homesteading. With the help of many people, Siglin was able to plant a garden
and crops. Mr. M dug some rhubarb for me.. .We planted those roots, planted
sweet peas, morning glories, lettuce, radishes, etc... She also hired them to
build her house and bam and relied on them to help her fight fires near her
home. During the course of her letters, Siglin never had a well on her property,
19 Mac Mahon, Fine Hands for Sowing..., 284.
10 MacMahon, Fine Hands for Sowing..., 284-285.
*' Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 19 April 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
so she had to haul her water from a neighbors claim. If the neighbor had not
allowed her to do so, she would have had a great deal of trouble proving up on
Barter and trade were also an advantageous means of acquiring the
necessities of farm and ranch life from neighbors. Take Jessie de Prado
MacMillan for example: she was able to grow crops she knew would store and
trade well. According to her, potatoes were always in demand and she also grew
a surplus of turnips. She was able to trade potatoes for a handmade quilt which
came in very handy during the New Mexican winters.82 Other homesteaders
such as Wyomings Elinore Pruitt Stewart and her daughter Jerrine were able to
grow potatoes as well.
This year Jerrine cut and dropped enough potatoes to raise a ton of
fine potatoes.. .and you will remember that she is but six years old.
We had a man to break the ground and cover the potatoes for her
and the man irrigated them once. That was all that was done until
digging time, when they were ploughed out and Jerrine picked them
up. Any woman strong enough to go out by the day could have
[done] every bit of the work and put in two or three times that
Potato growing was obviously something Stewart found to be an easy task,
especially when she considered the outcome of the work. A small amount of
labor was able to yield a large return. Sale of the potatoes could also fall into
the category of cottage industries.
K MacMahon, Fine Hands for Sowing..., 283.
83 Stewart, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, 214-215.
Homesteaders had many choices when it came to supporting themselves
on their homesteads. Women, especially were able to perform many different
tasks for other people. Sarah Borland was lucky to have two milk cows on her
homestead, so she could take the cream from the milk and chum it into butter.
She then took the butter and sold it in the nearest town, and she could buy many
of the goods she needed from the same store where she sold her butter.84 Other
women, like Laura Crews sold eggs to other homesteaders or to stores. Crews
received two cents per dozen when she sold eggs.85 86 According to historian
Sheryll Patterson-Black, during the 1890s into the first part of the twentieth
century, it was,
Often the money that the wife earned from selling butter and eggs
[that] provided capital for a windmill or farm machinery or saved
the homestead from the mortgage holder in hard times.
Cottage industries were a very important part of life on the homestead. Any
woman who had a skill could put her skill to use and earn money for either
herself or her family.
Estelle Siglin also involved herself in cottage industries. Siglins fiance
sent her a package of hickory nuts and she in turn made cakes and candy and
sold them to her neighbors and the people in town. She was also able to sew for
84 Borland, High, Wide and...98.
85 Patterson- Black, Women Homesteaders on..., 77.
86 Patterson- Black, Women Homesteaders on..., 79.
her neighbors and either charge them for it or accept other commodities in return
for her work. Mrs. R[ayboume] gave me milk and butter. I didnt charge her
for what little sewing I did for her. Couldnt when they have always been so
good to me.87 Siglin either traded for the supplies she needed or she sold
something so she could buy the goods she needed.
Yet another way women could earn money on their homesteads was to
follow the example of Katherine Garetson. Garetson traveled to Estes Park,
Colorado in 1913 and located a piece of land near Owl Hill, twelve miles south
of town. Garetson opened her homestead as the Big Owl Tea Place. She and a
friend, Annie Adele Shreve, served drinks and food to travelers and hikers in the
area. Garetson felt that Estes Park needed a place for weary travelers and hikers
to refresh themselves so she opened her homestead to accommodate that need.88
Some women homesteaders were able to take their homesteading
endeavors and turn them into successful ranches and businesses. Homesteader
Vesta Keen, a native of Spencer, West Virginia homesteaded in Washington
County, Colorado in 1911. She supplemented her income by using her training
as a practical nurse, and eventually married. After her husbands death she
bought additional land and ran a very successful ranch. I had cattle, horses,
87 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 16 July 1910, letter box 2, Sigiin/Evans Letters, Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.
** Women Homesteaders of the Estes Park Area, 2006,
(3 September 2006).
hogsanything that could make a noiseon my ranch, down to a guinea.89
She was able to use the knowledge of animals and ranching she had gained
while homesteading with her husband to run her own operation after her
Another extremely successful endeavor was the partnership of Elizabeth
Scott and Alice Fish who owned a store and ranch in Blaine County, Nebraska.
They secured a half section of land and then in 1900 they added two homesteads
to their holdings. Their neighbors viewed them as somewhat of an enigma in
the early years of their partnership, due to their independence and success as
ranchers, businesswomen, civic leaders, and community activists.90 During the
peak of their success they owned 3,000 acres of ranchland, owned and operated
a dry goods store and an implement business in Brewster, which was the county
seat of Blaine County. They also controlled additional land through leases,
grazing rights, and strategically placed hay meadow purchases that positioned
them to have control of the use of government land.91 Their success as ranchers
and businesswomen gave them a place of great respect in their community.
They were able to use their standing in the community to become political and
89 Propst, Those Strenuous Dames..., 9.
90 William D. Lock, As Independent as We Wished: Elizabeth Scott and Alice Fish of Blaine
County, Nebraska, Nebraska History, Vol. 82 No. 4 (2001), 138.
91 Lock, As Independent..., 142.
social leaders. They were even some of the first in their community to own and
drive a car when they bought an REO automobile in 1912.92
SPIRITUALITY ON THE HOMESTEAD
Most homesteads were remote and attending church was very difficult for
homesteaders. People who were used to attending church every week were
faced with a veritable religious drought. They had no churches to attend and
nobody to worship and have fellowship with. Homesteaders had to live in a
world where they were isolated from everyone and everything they were used to
having in the places they had come from. Many homesteaders were able to find
God as a spiritual presence in the nature of their land instead of attending
Estelle Siglin often shared Bible verses with her fiance, and they would
plan to read the verses on certain days. In this way they could share their
religious teachings and feel like they were learning about God in the same way.
Siglin tried to attend church, but more often she would attend Sunday school at
the Methodist church in Akron, Colorado. Siglin took her religious beliefs with
her from Iowa and tried to maintain them to the best of her ability while she
homesteaded in Colorado. 91
91 Lock, As Independent..., 138.
Mollie Dorsey also faced the loss of a regular church when she and her
family moved away from town.
I am full of good resolve tonight to do better and be better than ever
before. How lovely it is tonight! I have no church in which to
worship, no stereotyped sermon to listen to, but I can look around
and see Gods beautiful creations and find a sermon in stones, and
trees and flowers.93
Mollie did not forget her spiritual upbringing and found God in the area
surrounding her home.
Other homesteaders found God while they worked their land. The
Borlands had been through so many things while they were homesteading they
attributed their success to God and expressed their thankfulness to Him. Sarah
Borland taught her son that God was not located in a church with four walls;
instead the proof of His works could be viewed in the beauty of nature from
We never said grace. It just wasnt our way. Mother once said, If
youre not thankful to have something to eat, saying you are out
loud doesnt change things one bit. I think my thanks every time I
sit down at the table...My most fervent prayers were said in the
morning, when I first went outdoors and saw the world, all clean and
bright and brand new and full of wonder. Or sometimes at night,
when the stars were all out or the moon was there. And I didnt bow
my head to say them; I looked up at the sky or out across the plains.
Religion wasnt the way you talked; it was the way you lived, and
mostly it was the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.94
93 Sanford, Mollie: The Journal..., 34.
94 Borland, High, Wide and..., 191-192.
The Borlands did not need a church building or other church members to
worship with, their cathedrals ceiling was the sky and the floor the fields.
They, like many homesteaders worshipped God in their own special way.
PROBLEMS ON THE HOMESTEAD
All homesteaders, regardless of gender had to contend with a large number
of hazards on their homesteads. These hazards could come in the form of
natural occurrences such as lack of water on the claim, fire, hail, tornadoes,
drought, blizzards, damaging wind, insects, and reptiles. They could also occur
as man-made hazards such as ill health due to malnutrition and danger caused by
other people. The homesteader had to be prepared to deal with any one or a
combination of several hazards at any given time. Everything could be working
well for the homesteader, with a large crop growing well and prosperity in
grasp, when one hail storm could come along and ruin the entire crop for the
year. Any number of natural phenomena could plunge the already poor
homesteader into deeper debt.
Water, Fire, Wind and Snow
Estelle Siglin was very proud of her empty claim. It did me a heap of
good to see what a fine claim I have. Really, I am proud of it. Mr. C drove
stakes where my house is to be. It is a beautiful location.. .Can see Akron and
all the surrounding country in every direction.95 Mr. Chapman told her that her
claim was an ideal spot for an orchard. However, she would need water in order
95 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 24 November 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
to cultivate anything. She was told about a pair of brothers, the Wests who
would drill a well to 400 feet. They only charged sixty-five cents [per foot] if
they struck water and twenty-five cents [per foot] if the did not96 97 However,
throughout the course of her letters she wrote of having to haul water to her
claim, rather than having a well dug. She wrote to Homer about traveling with
Harold, one of the students who boarded with her, to the area where she fetched
water. We came home past the well in the sand creek and filled everything and
emptied it in the tub and drove to Mr. J[ewett]s and filled up again. I drove and
took the other barrel home and Harold rode Teddy.
Water was a problem for many homesteaders. Jane Aldrich, known to her
nephew as Aunt Jennie, had to haul water in a two-quart jar from the well of her
nearest neighbor, which was a mile away. Eventually, Jane found a covered
coffee tin pot which had a greater capacity, so she would not have to make the
trek for water quite as often as she did before. This system of getting her water
supply made Aunt Jennie call her claim, The Ripples.98 Since water was a
necessary part of any homestead, the energy expended in getting it was often
96 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 17 October 1907, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
97 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 18 September 1908, letter box 1, uSiglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
98 Patterson-Black, Women Homesteaders...78.
Fire was a terrible danger to anyone who made his or her home on the
prairie. One stray spark from a chimney or a lightning strike could ignite a
raging inferno, which could eat its way across the dry grassland in a matter of
minutes. No homesteader could prepare for a fire. Care and safety on their part
would not prevent fire from burning away everything they had worked for. In
1908, Estelle Siglin described to her fiance, Homer Evans the damage done by a
My dear Sweetheart,
My heart is sad tonight and it is only with great effort that I keep
back the tears. But for that peace without which life has no
meaning I feel that I could not live.
Why all this? you ask. We are living in the center of a seven or
eight hundred acre track of land, perhaps more charred black as
coal. Yesterday about a quarter past two Mr. Cross rode up to the
school house and called me saying that I should release the boys at
once for there was a fire going toward my place. Harold and I had
Chubby hitched in two minutes. I believe I never saw him go as he
did. We were soon here. Found Fred Remmington and another
young man also Gordon here. The fire came within a few feet of
the door, started in the com burning only one shock and very
nearly half of the pasture. All the rest of my claim is burned, all
the one west of me, the greater part of Mr. Jervetts claim and I
dont know how far east and south.
Harold and 1 began helping those here at once, but the fire had
such a start it was all we could do to keep it away from the
buildings and com. Men with wagons and on horseback came
until there were twenty or more I suppose. I never experienced
anything like it Of course I am thankful that the buildings and
feed were spared, but 1 did not realize what a depressing effect it
would have upon us. It seems as if we cannot stay here. Look in
any direction you see nothing but a black expanse.
I was not feeling well yesterday, was so weak when I left the
school house, but by die time we reached home I had strength to
fight fire for four hours. Was too tired to sleep, besides 1 was
afraid the fire would start again and the wind was in the right
direction to bring it toward the house. Yesterday was as still a day
as we have had for some time. Had it been like today nothing
could have stopped the fire. Tonight the wind is howling
terrifically.. .1 forgot to state how the fire started. Fred R. and a
friend were stacking his millet. When they started fire had too
much draft and a flaming paper blew out of the stovepipe...Harold
rode Teddy to the sand creek as usual this evening and found the
pump missing. Do not know what we shall do. Harold said it was
bad enough to set fire to us without taking our pump away.
Luckily the fire did not reach her house, or Siglin would have had nothing left of
the homesteading venture she had started the year before.
Fire was a very real threat to Siglin and her neighbors. Fire threatened
Siglins homestead twice within a period of four months. On April 26,1910
Siglin reported, This has been another beautiful day, but the wind has come up
since dark. There is quite a fire southeast. A long way tho I think.99 100 Again on
July 29,1910 fire threatened her homestead. In the evening we saw a prairie
fire.. .1 was really frightened but it didnt bum within three miles of here I guess.
Cant tell so far.101
Siglin was right to fear fire, because in 1915 while on vacation in Iowa
with her husband Homer, she received a letter from her neighbor Lottie Jervett
99 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 27 September 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
100 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 26 April 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
101 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 28 July 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
informing her that her house had burned down. According to the Akron
Weekly Pioneer Press, the home had been left in the care of a neighbor while the
couple was out of town. The neighbor had built a fire in the house and
investigators surmised that the house fire spread due to a defective flue. The
entire contents of the house were a complete loss.
Wind was another natural phenomenon that could be potentially hazardous
to the homesteader. Many of the buildings homesteaders were able to build
were not sturdy enough to stand tall against a hurricane force wind. The eastern
plains of Colorado were breezy on the best of days, and when it chose to the
wind could blow with as much force as any hurricane in the world. Siglin
became familiar with the damaging aspects of wind when she was informed by
eight different people that her bam had blown down, while she was boarding
elsewhere. Her bam had not been adequately anchored to the ground by the
man who had been responsible for its construction.102 103 104
Siglin was able to salvage parts of her bam. My bam was badly
demolished but it is stronger now than before. It is all finished except two roof
boards and the bats on the roof and two sides. The east and north sides were as
102 Lottie Jervett to Estelle Evans, 24 February 1915, letter box 3, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
103 A Bad Fire, Akron Weekly Pioneer Press, 26 February 1915, p. I.
104 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 8 May 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters, Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.
good as new but the other sides had to be made over.105 106 Buildings had to be
well anchored, otherwise they could blow away in a heavy wind. Some
homesteaders were aware of this fact and they built their dwellings accordingly.
Sarah Borlands husband Will was aware of the danger that wind presented and
anchored his house; [He] took the posthole auger and dug a hole at each comer.
In each hole we set a split cedar post, four feet down and well tamped in, to
anchor the house against the wind. Borland wanted to make sure the house
would never buckle under the pressure of the wind.
Snow could also present problems for people isolated on homesteads.
Mobility was already a problem for many people, but add snow to the mix and
mobility sometimes became completely impossible. Lizzie Gordon was having
a pleasant day on her homestead in February 1887. The weather was mild and
Lizzie figured spring was on its way. When she retired for the evening she
noticed that she only had one pail of coal left in her house, but since the weather
was so mild she figured she could replenish her supply the next day.
She was awakened in the night by the sudden howling of the wind,
and she was cold. She pulled the covers closer, but soon she felt
something wet The storm was blowing with such force that snow
was coming through cracks that she did not know were in her
house. The wind became stronger, relentless, beating against the
little wood shanty with the greatest force she had ever
experienced.. .Cold began to eat into the room. She struggled out
of bed and lit a fire.. .the wind whooshed down the pipe and sparks
105 Estelle M. Siglin to Homo* Evans, 8 May 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters, Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.
106 Borland, High Wide and..., 29.
flew all over the room. Terrified, Lizzie ran to put them out.. .Her
fingers were stiff and her toes ached. She dug into the trunk and
brought out woolen socks, gloves, caps, sweaters, and coats...The
hours dragged on.. .Then suddenly a faint shaft of sunlight came
through the window... She ran joyfully to the stove and built a
fire...The stove belched black smoke into the room...Snow no
doubt covered the top of her house as well. Lizzie was entombed
in the little shack.. .Neighbors who had managed to get out of their
houses came to shovel the snow from Lizzies door. When they
finally opened it to the sparkling scene outside, Lizzie said, That
was the longest night I ever spent. What do you mean, night?
asked one of the men. This had been going on for two nights and
a day.107 108
If Lizzie had been entombed in her shack any longer she might have frozen to
death or run out of food before any of her neighbors could come to her aid.
The Babbs, who lived in a dugout had their own problems with snow. A
light snow began falling when the family took their nightly walk into the
broomcom field. A cold wind rose, shaking the dry cane stalks, and the
feathery snow turned to icy barbs and whirled up from the ground and away on
the wind. Throughout the night the storm increased in intensity and the
family lay in their beds listening to the wind batter their little dugout. [The
wind] tugged at the dugouts slant door, threatened to break the windows, and
lashed over the plain in long, sorrowful howls.109 When they awoke at day
break there was no light streaming through their ground high windows.
Grandfather glanced at the windows now and then, and when no
light from dawn or sunup dimmed our lamp, he rose and went to
107 Propst, Those Strenuous Dames..., 13-15.
108 Babb, AnOwl...44.
109 Babb, AnOwl...44.
examine the darkened glass. Snow, he said. Were in a drift.
Drifted over. Papa put on his work coat and started up the stone
steps. Where are you going, son? To see about the horses.
Grandfather shook his head. Were snowed in, he said quietly.
Well, what if we are? I have to go to the bam, so Im going.
You can try. Papa was irritated by this patient tone. Bracing
himself with his hands against the narrow walls of the entrance, he
pressed a shoulder up against the door, which lay on a slant almost
horizontal above his head. The door failed to open or make the
slightest sound of giving. Papa hunched his great strength into his
arched back, braced himself again and pushed. Nothing happened.
He picked up a crowbar from among the tools there and began to
pry at the doors edge. Still the door remained fast, and in his
urgency he broke off a splinter of wood.110
The Babbs were stranded in their tiny dugout for three days.
Three days being stranded in a hole in the ground with four other people
could lead to many problems. Three days being stranded in a hole in the ground
with four other people who were tense and unhappy could be a nightmare.
Being stranded inside could also lead to logistical problems, such as what
happens when someone had to use the necessary, and how could they retrieve
water from wells or streams? Alonzo Babb, the grandfather, had been stranded
in a similar blizzard, prior to the arrival of his family. Without the ability to
fetch water from outside, he was forced to break a window pane to retrieve some
snow to melt for water. He then had to board the window up, so no snow would
Babb, An Owl...46-47.
drift into the dugout, and according to Alonzo Babb it was gloomy with the
window boarded up till I got to town.111
Five people stuck in a hole in the ground for three days could turn into a
very odiferous situation, because there were no facilities to use and no place to
dump a chamber pot. Alonzo came up with an idea to solve the facility
problems for the family. We can dig a hole in the floorits dirtand take the
soil out later and replace it with clean dirt.112 113 While this may not have been an
ideal situation, Alonzo was attempting to make the best of what they were given.
Not being able to tend to the stock was a problem for any homesteader.
Without a steady supply of water, which most homesteads did not have, the
animals could die of thirst before the homesteader was able to get to them.
Luckily for Alonzo, when he was snowed in the first time the snow had drifted
into the bam and the animals were able to eat enough snow to slake their thirst
and keep themselves alive.
Tensions ran high in the Babb homestead during the time they were
stranded in the dugout. After only a few hours, Walt, Sonora Babbs father was
at his wits end, I cant stay in this goddamned hole-in-the-ground all day!
Instead of taking the situation in stride, he stormed around the small space
complaining and ranting at his father who remained calm and spoke with
111 Babb, AnOwL.Al.
1,2 Babb, An Owl.. AT.
113 Babb, AnOwL.Al.
wisdom during the entire situation. The snow will be good for the soil...good
for the soil and the buffalo grass.114 He tried to calm his son down because he
knew nothing could be done until the snow started melting and released them
from their underground prison. .. .Im trying to keep calm. Your temper hasnt
opened the door yet115 116 Eventually the family settled into their cots and
bundled up against the cold and successfully rode the storm out.
Those homesteaders who lived above the ground tended to be able to deal
with snow better, because it would take a much larger amount of snow to
completely immobilize them in their homes. However, having a house above
the ground could lead to other problems. Being snug in the earth would allow
for some insulation against the punishing wind and the chill air that was bound
and determined to seep through previously unknown tiny cracks in the wall.
According to Hal Borland,
We never did know when it stopped snowing.. .The next
morning...it was so dark in the house we didnt know the sun rose.
There was a drift at the south end so high that it covered the whole
window, and the other windows were frosted so thick I couldnt
scratch down to the glass with my thumbnail. But we knew the
storm was really over because there wasnt any snowdrift on the
floor beside my bed. The other mornings there had been a drift six
inches deep from snow that drifted in through the crack at the
1.4 Babb, An Owl..AS.
1.5 Babb, An Owl. AS.
116 Borland, High, Wide and..., 112.
Hal Borland and his father Will had to shovel a path to the bam so they would
have access to the cows who needed milking twice daily. They then shoveled
paths to the haystacks and to the well. Once they made it to the well they had to
pour two tea kettles of boiling water on the pump to thaw it enough to get
Sarah Borland was just as tired of being cooped up in the house as her
husband and son and decided she would venture out of her domestic sphere and
join the men in working outside. Her husband was extremely worried about his
wife helping, but she insisted on being outside.
Mother came out, a red muffler around her head and wearing her
long brown coat The first we saw of her was when she was up to
her knees in the snow beside the path. She shouted and waved,
and Father almost dropped his forkful of hay. Get back in the
path! he shouted. Mother waved and waded into a drift up to her
waist. Father shouted, Sarah! Youll catch your death of cold!
She laughed and waded toward us, holding her coat around
her...she was there beside the path to the stacks, waiting. She
flipped open her coat and laughed at him. Father gasped. She was
wearing a pair of his old trousers, stuffed and bulky with the
underskirts she had tucked inside. Women didnt wear slacks, in
those days. Women wore skirts, long, full skirts, over lots of
petticoats. Women didnt even reveal their ankles...She said, I
dont care if it isnt quite decent! Theres just the two of you
Sarah left her domestic world behind when she decided to don mens clothing
and left her house to enjoy some fun in the snow with her husband and son.
1,7 Borland, High, Wide and..., 113.
1,1 Borland, High, Wide and..., 114.
Blizzards could be extremely dangerous to homesteaders, especially if
they were not near the homestead when the blizzards began. Some people
wandered away in the snow and could not find their way home. Wind, the
second most important factor in a blizzard, could swirl the snow in circular
patterns, causing all discemable landmarks to be obliterated. This in turn made
it impossible for homesteaders to find their way from the prairie to their homes.
Sarah Borland found herself in great fear for her childs life, when he
became lost during a blizzard on Christmas day. She and her husband had
allowed their son, Hal to take his horse Old Dick for a ride as a special
Christmas treat He started his ride in clear weather, but while he was out a
sudden severe snowstorm blew in and Borland had a difficult time finding his
way home. Luckily for Borland, Old Dick was a savvy horse and knew the
way home, even when Borland himself could not tell east from west and north
I tried to rein him back to the left, where the valley should be, but he
took the bit in his teeth and swung his head and looked back at me
once or twice and kept right on the way he was going.. .After that 1
wasnt sure which direction we were going. I remembered that
Father had said nobody needed to get lost out here. All you had to
do was find the sun or the stars and youd know your directions.
But there wasnt any sky or any earth, even. Just that swirling snow
above me and beneath me and all around me. Dick and I were out in
the middle of a whirling white nowhere, being blown along by that
roaring wind.. .1 didnt know where we were.. .And suddenly, right
in front of me, a house loomed out of the whirling snow. Fritz was
there, barking. The door of the house opened, and it was a strange
house because the door was on the north instead of the east where
our door was. Then I saw Mother in the doorway, and it was our
house! Suddenly the whole world turned around me and I had my
If not for Old Dick, he would have headed in the wrong direction and could have
become completely lost and never found his way home to his mother and father.
Although fuel was always a problem on the prairie, winter and cold
weather made finding and storing fuel a necessity for survival. Trees were very
scarce on the prairie, so homesteaders had to look for alternate fuel sources.
Coal was the best option, but coal cost money and some homesteaders were
unable to afford the expense. The homesteaders next option for fuel, depending
on when and where they homesteaded, was buffalo chips, cow chips, or in some
cases sheep chips, which were old, dried manure that littered the prairie. Chips
were not ideal, but they did bum and could be used for fuel.
Pearl Price Robertsons husband had to leave their Montana homestead to
seek work elsewhere and he worried a great deal about his family freezing to
death. If your fuel gives out, bum the fence posts, tear boards from the bam
and bum them, bum anything about the placedont take any chances of
freezing.120 Pearl worried about freezing, because the family was never able to
afford a large amount of supplies at any single time. They had to make trips in
the cold weather to buy supplies from town which brought about the additional
problem of exposure to the cold, and frostbite. Pearl had nine children, so she
1,9 Borland, High, Wide and..., 110.
120 Robertson, Homestead Woman, 358.
had to send her oldest son to town for supplies, rather than doing the task
herself. Pridefully, manfully, he set out with the team and sled, in company
with his uncle, to bring hay, coal, potatoes, flour and sugar; there was little else
we could afford to buy.121 Driving the sled into town during the winter in
Montana, was hard work. They had to travel through snow drifts in the road,
and once they loaded all of the supplies they had to travel even more slowly.
By the time night rolled around, Robertson was concerned for her sons
It was hours after dark before I heard the jingling of the harness and
the creaking runners of the returning sleds. The boy reaching home
shaking with cold and reeling with exhaustion. As I worked over
the worn-out child, rubbing with snow his numbed hands and
frostbitten feet, my mothers heart swelled with fierce, hot rebellion
over the fate which imposed such hardship upon so young a child; I
made a swift, determined resolve not to let my children be crushed
by the sordidness of circumstances, to secure for them their just
measure of the beauty and brightness of life, and to make up to them
by every means at my command for the privations they now
Robertson mourned the fact her children could not live in a situation that was
not dangerous to them. She was determined they should enjoy life, and she
would make it up to them for all of the hardships they endured while their
parents were homesteading.
121 Robertson, Homestead Woman, 358.
122 Robertson, Homestead Woman, 359.
Sun, Drought, Hail, and Lightning
While wind and snow caused their own sets of problems for homesteaders,
the sun had its own damaging aspects. In a time where sunscreen was not
readily accessible, the suns rays could be incredibly damaging to people. This
was especially true of women who had spent little time in fields before moving
to homesteads. Estelle Siglins parents owned a hotel in Iowa, and she traveled
from school to a homestead in Colorado, which meant she had spent no time in
fields tending crops. Siglin became very familiar with the kind of damage the
sun could create when she was severely sunburned after a prolonged vacation
away from her claim.
Tuesday, my face burned terribly. It was so red and Wed morning
all swollen. My left eye was nearly swollen shut. I am beginning to
get toughened to it again now. I have [been] away so long that I am
sort of a tenderfoot123
Siglin learned a difficult lesson when she exposed herself to the elements, and
she paid for that mistake.
The sun could also be very punishing to the land the homesteaders were
trying to improve. Any farmer is familiar with the fear of drought. Simply
stated, without moisture crops fail. In general, most homesteads were located in
an arid or semi-arid climate, which meant that drought or dry periods could lead
to potentially disastrous results for the homesteader. If a homesteader had put
123 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 27 June 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
all of his/her disposable income into buying seeds that would never grow due to
weather conditions, they often times had to relinquish their rights to the
homestead or risk losing everything.
Potential emigrants had long been regaled, while reading booster
materials, with tales of Eden-like conditions in the West. These same booster
materials claimed that rain followed the plow, which was supposedly a scientific
principle that stated the act of farming actually caused rain to fall. Land
companies misled emigrants by reporting annual rainfalls of up to ninety-eight
inches on the eastern plains of Colorado, when it was highly doubtful the plains
received that much rainfall in five years, let alone a single year. Armed with
these beliefs, thousands of people journeyed west assuming they would be able
to grow a bountiful crop anywhere they chose. Unfortunately for most
homesteaders reality generally set in quickly, in the form of a dry spell.
Homesteaders like Estelle Siglin had to worry a great deal about the crops
they took time to plant It is very dry here.. .If it doesnt rain soon my potatoes
are doomed.124 Some homesteaders were able to irrigate their land, but many
could not Siglins fiance gave irrigation a lot of thought and wondered if it
would work on her land. Have thot a great deal about irrigation on your
homestead since I left Colo, and a great deal more since I saw the gasoline
engines pump water at the fair. It may be impossible but if we ever live there I
124 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 27 July 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
want to try it on a small scale and if successful then on a larger scale.125 126 127
Throughout the course of her letters Siglin bemoaned the dry weather Eastern
Colorado was faced with. It sprinkled a very little several times but everything
is dry as powder. The grass still looks real green here, much greener than south
of town. I hope it rains before long... What Siglin did not understand was
that eastern Colorado was a semi-arid place and expecting the same amount of
rain as her home state of Iowa was useless, because in most normal years the
land did not get a lot of rain.
When the clouds began to gather the homesteader often had to wait with
bated breath to see whether the clouds would release a torrent of rain or if they
were to be bombarded with hail. One homesteader could receive a steady rain
shower, while their neighbors might lose their entire crop to hail at the same
Of course we are having plenty of rain now which will make fall
feed and late potatoes. In several localities crops were utterly ruined
by hail last week. As to a garden if it were not for hail one might
raise a good garden but I have my doubts.
Homesteaders could only hope they would have a successful crop and that it
would not be damaged or destroyed completely by hail.
125 Homer Evans to Estelle M. Siglin, 6 September 1909, letter box 4, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
126 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 23 June 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
127 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 8 August 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
Even rain, the one event most homesteaders prayed for, could bring
disaster with it. In an area where most of the ground is flat, being the tallest
thing around during a thunder storm was not always healthy. Occasionally,
livestock was killed by lightning and fires could be started in the dry grasslands
or in the homes that dotted the prairie. Estelle Siglin related a lightning incident
that occurred at her neighbors home.
Mr. Henry lost his best horse and Mr. Knutzen his best cow by
lightening. Mr. R[ayboume]s house was struck and started fire in
two places. It shattered things up generally. Mr. R[ayboume]s hair
was singed and Don and Mrs. R[ayboume] were shocked. Bessie
was in die front room and did not feel it I could but think what
might have been as we sat down to supper.128
The Rayboumes were lucky they did not receive more damage to their home and
to themselves from the lightning strikes.
ILLNESS/INJURY ON THE HOMESTEAD
When homesteaders suffered from illnesses or injuries it could be days
before they were seen by professional medical people. Although some
homesteaders or their neighbors were able to offer their assistance and
knowledge with medical problems, in general it could be hours or even days
before a homesteader could be seen by a trained medical professional.
m Estelle ML Siglin to Homer Evans, 9 July 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters, Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.
Illness with a doctor
Illness was a great threat to homesteaders even when they were able to get
to a doctor. Will Borland returned from working at a mining town newspaper in
the Colorado rockies to his homestead near Brush only to be stricken with
typhoid fever. The Borlands were a full days ride from Brush, the largest town
in the area, and the closest town with a make-shift hospital.
If youre not better in the morning were going to Brush to see the
doctor. Father said, Thats the last thing I want to do, ride all the
way to Brush. Maybe, Mother said, youd rather be hauled. In a
box... .It was a quarter of twelve before I saw Mack and the buggy
turn in at our trail. I went down to meet them. But when I was close
enough to see, Mother was alone.. .She tried to smile, but it was an
awfully tired smile... Your father has typhoid fever. That meant
nothing to me. I had typhoid when I was a girl, she said. 1 almost
died. They had to keep me wrapped in ice and wet sheets.
Afterward I lost all my hair.. .Mother talked about cases of typhoid
fever she had known in Nebraska. It seemed most of them died. I
dont know whether she meant Father was going to die too, but I
couldnt bring myself to ask that question.129
Borlands wife, Sarah, refused to let him die. Will, youre going to get well. I
had typhoid like this, and I got well. Do you understand? There was iron in
her voice.130 Borland was in the hospital for six weeks, but he did recover from
Borlands illness, although he recovered, caused problems for the family.
Six weeks in the hospital meant they owed the hospital a lot of money for
medical expenses. While Borland was ill the family was minus one laborer on
129 Borland, High, Wide and..., 176-180.
130 Borland, High, Wide and..., 187.
the homestead. The work that Borland would have done had to be done by his
young son and wife. Hal Borland learned a great deal about running a
successful homestead from his father and mother and he was able to apply that
knowledge to running the everyday operations, with help from his mother while
his father was near death in a hospital in Brush. When the work needed to be
done, Borlands family was able to step in and take care of all the business that
needed to be done. The winter after Borlands illness was not as luxurious as he
had hoped it would be, because they had hospital debts to pay, but the family
was able to manage the winter and pay the doctor for his treatment and for
supplying a place for Will to convalesce.
Something as simple as a broken bone could cause serious problems for
any homesteading family. Hal Borland was riding his horse when the horse
went airborne to get across a gully. They almost made it across, but when the
horse landed on the opposite side of the gully the bank crumpled from
underneath him, taking both horse and boy with it. Borland was thrown from
the back of the horse, but the horse somersaulted and rolled, and Borland was
underneath him. Both horse and rider survived and Borland jumped up to run to
his father and proclaim his health, when he felt a sudden burning pain in his left
leg. Borland passed out and was carried to the house by his father, where he
woke to find his mother and father leaning over him, and his father probing his
ankle with his fingers. All of this happened on a Sunday afternoon, so they had
to wait until the next day to travel to Brush and the doctor.131 132
Once they made it to Brush, Borland was seen by a young doctor and
given an injection to ease the pain in his ankle. He found the ankle to be broken
in two places and then proceeded to splint and bandage the broken appendage.
He also poured a dozen pills into a white envelope and instructed Borlands
mother to give him one if the pain became too bad. Borland was able to walk on
crutches his father made for him from strips sawed out of a slat of wood taken
from the com bin in the bam. Borlands father was worried about paying the
doctor, but his mother paid him out of the money she made from selling butter
she churned. With Borlands ankle broken, not only were they short one
laborer on the homestead, but they had to spend precious money paying a
The Babb family grew concerned about the patriarch of the family,
Alonzo, because he had sores on his face which would not go away. They had
no explanation for the sores and decided that Alonzo had to see the doctor the
next time they went into town for supplies. When Babb told the doctor about
the main staple of his diet, a flour and water pancake fried with lard, which was
the most common food eaten by poor homesteaders, the doctor was able to
diagnose Alonzos illness immediately. Dr. Burtis took one look at
131 Borland, High, Wide and..., 12S.
132 Borland, High, Wide and..., 125-126.
Grandfather and declared that he had scurvy, explained that his diet was lacking,
and demanded to know what he ate.133
The Babbs did not have a garden, because they could not afford to drill a
well and were really too inept to figure out a way to have one without a well.
They were also unfamiliar with the edible plants in the area, so their diets were
sorely lacking in nutritional value. Alonzo Babb had been on the homestead
long before his family came to join him, so he was the only one showing the
physical effects of scurvy. No doubt the rest of the family would have begun to
show signs of the illness, unless they changed their diets to include greens and
other food items rich in vitamin C. The doctors advice to Babb was to, Prepare
anything green you find growing that isnt poisonous...Eat your potatoes with
the overcoats on. Careful on the salt pork too.134 Even though they could not
afford a lot of supplies, the Babbs could combat scurvy using the foods available
to them in the natural world.
Illness without a doctor
Many illnesses could be dealt with by helpful and gifted neighbors. In
certain cases, Health care.. .continued to be handled by women.. .Mormon
midwives, Hispanic curanderas, and Native American herbalists carried this
133 Babb, An Owl... 15.
134 Babb, An Owl... 16.
tradition into the twentieth century.133 135 Home remedies and herbals also helped
keep homesteaders healthy.
Estelle Siglin experienced various illnesses throughout her time
homesteading. She never wrote of actually going to see a doctor, so she
apparently was never fearful that her condition could become life threatening.
Throughout her residence on her homestead she often had someone staying with
her, generally one of her students or former students. In October of 1908, she
and her student Harold were both ill.
The trouble Harold had seems to be sort of an epidemic. I was sick
all night Tues. but went to school yesterday felt so bad that I could
hardly sit up. Was sick all night and dont feel much better today.
Harold felt pretty good yesterday but isnt so well today. I havent
eaten anything since yesterday morning, had fever and chills all
night, so think I shall go in to see the Dr. this afternoon. Wouldnt it
be dreadful to be sick out here?136 137
Siglin was sick again in October of 1909; I was sick when I wrote Monday
night but didnt want you to know it I havent been well for several weeks.
Last night was the first time I slept this week. She was ill, yet again, in July
of 1910, and was apparently feeling slightly melodramatic,
I have not been well all summer and sometimes I fear my condition
is worse, than I, myself, realize. I try not to worry and do not much,
133 Joan M. Jensen and Dariis A. Miller, The Gentle Tamers Revisited: New Approaches to the
History of Women in the American West, The Pacific Historical Review, vol. 49, no. 2,
136 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 8 October 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
137 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 30 October 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
but you know I am very anxious to grow stronger. Unless I do our
plans shall be materially altered. 1 know you would take good care
of me and all that but oh sweetheart, I love you too much to burden
you. You deserve something better after all these years of waiting.
I am just a little blue tonight so shall not try to write more.138
Reading Siglins letters leads the reader to believe she was a sickly woman who
maybe should have tried another vocation other than the physically trying
homesteading. By August 12,1910, Siglin had diagnosed one of her illnesses as
neuralgia of the heart, a condition she had experienced for several days prior
to the twelfth. According to Siglin she had to retire early because of the
condition. It also led her to the decision that she would return to Iowa for a few
weeks, because her mother was anxious about her condition.139 Evidently she
recovered from the condition, because she never mentioned it again.
The Risks of Childbirth
Midwives were an important part of childbirth on homesteads because
they brought their expertise and experiences to the women who were in need of
their services. Many women gave birth to babies while living on remote
homesteads and they were very rarely attended by a doctor. The lucky women,
were those who were attended by a midwife, because the midwife was
experienced with all types of childbirth and could help the woman with many of
the complications that could arise. Giving birth could often be a very risky
13*Estelle M. Siglin to Homo- Evans, 16 July 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
139 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 16 July 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
affair for both mother and child. Mary OKieffe decided to leave her husband in
Missouri and filed on a homestead in western Nebraska. She became the mother
of nine children and the older kids were able to help her with the farm. Sheryll
Patterson-Black related the story of OKieffe in her article Women
Homesteaders on the Great Plains Frontier;
Memoirs of Mary OKieffe were recorded by her son Charley, who
writes of his birth in Western Story : Mother herded cattle all day
long in the broiling hot sun so the children could attend a Fourth of
July celebration in a nearby community. The next morning around
two a.m., I was bom. No doctor, no nurse, no midwife, just Mother
OKieffe was lucky to suffer no complications during the birth of her ninth
Pearl Price Robertson also gave birth to a daughter on her homestead in
Montana. Robertsons husband Alec was away from the homestead working.
Alec was planning to be home before the birth of the baby, because they wanted
to be in town for the birth; however the child had other ideas. While working
around the homestead, Robertson began having regular pains. She had been
sure her baby was not due for another month, but she had either calculated
incorrectly or the baby decided to take matters into her own hands, because the
baby was coming and Robertson had no one to help her.141
140 Patterson-Black, Women Homesteaders cm..., 72.
141 Robertson, Pearl, Homestead Woman, 355-356.
Robertsons initial reaction was panic. How could she possibly give birth
without help? She flagged down a boy who passed by nearly every night
gathering his roaming cows, and gave him a note for his mother and told him to
hurry in delivering it to her. Robertson put her other children to bed and began
pacing and waiting for the help she needed. Her waiting paid off when her
sister-in-law arrived followed shortly by a Mrs. Warren who was the calm and
capable woman who became the master of the situation. An hour after the
arrival of the two women, Robertson gave birth to a daughter, with no
complications. Coincidentally, Alec had decided to surprise his wife by arriving
early and walked into his house shortly after daybreak to find his wife in bed
with their newborn daughter at her side.142 Many women were able to give birth
very successfully without the help of medical professionals, but not all women
faired so well.
Ginny Babb became pregnant shortly after joining her husband on the
homestead. She and her two daughters went to visit two young neighbor women
who lived with their parents. The Babb women were encouraged to leave by the
unfriendly mother of the women they were visiting. She basically asked them to
leave, even though a terrific storm was brewing on the horizon. The Babbs left
and got caught in a thunderstorm that left them drenched in seconds and bad
them running across the prairie as fast as their legs would carry them. Ginny
142 Robertson, Homestead Woman, 356.
Babb was heavy with child and the stress of the afternoon pushed her into
premature labor in the middle of the night.
I went over to Mamas bed and she smiled at me and put her hand
on my cheek. Dont be afraid. Ill be all right Youve been sick
and you got all right, didnt you? I nodded, but I was
afraid.. .Mamas face began to perspire and she wadded a piece of
the pillowcase hem and bit it hard... She began to perspire again and
Grandfather told me to bathe her face with cool water... When I
woke up, the lamp was still burning, the window showed the dark,
and the moaning was strong now, filling the room.. .An odor of new
blood was bitter in the air...Mama screamed again and again
without apology, without remembering us, alone in her pain. She
stopped suddenly.. .1 tiptoed over to Mama and bathed her face. She
was exhausted and could not even cry. Her hair and the pillow were
wet with perspiration and her eyes kept closing as if she were falling
asleep. The bed was soaked with water and blood; the little baby so
nearly completed lay there untended. The scene on the bed was
awesome and frightening.143
Babb was very sick after the still-birth of her premature baby and had to remain
in bed for several days. It was the not until the next day, after the birth, the
doctor was summoned to tend to her, because she was burning with fever and
too ill to get around. Babb was worried she would not be well enough to help
with the harvest, but the doctor assured her that if she followed his directions
she would mend well and be as good as new in time for the harvesting of the
broom com.144 Luckily for Babb, she did not have any further complications
following the birth otherwise she could have joined her baby son in death.
143 Babb, An Owl... 100-101.
144 Babb, An Owl... 107.
Death was another matter homesteaders had to deal with. Some people
died from illness and injury, some died from other natural causes, and some
were killed in accidents. When a homesteader died on a remote claim there was
often no cemetery, undertaker or ready-made casket to accommodate the person.
According to Reuben P. Brammeir, who had traveled west to homestead in
1887, When a homesteader died a neighbor made the casket and the body was
usually laid to rest in some comer of the claim.145 Homesteads were often too
far away from established towns to haul the dead, so it fell to the neighbors to
take care of burials. In addition to constructing a casket, the homesteaders had
to prepare the body for burial. Women would have had to perform this duty for
In the case of the Babbs, it was Sanora and her father who had to ready the
small stillborn baby for burial. Sanora cleaned him and wrapped him in a piece
of cloth and then held the baby while her father dug the hole for burial. The
Babbs buried him only hours after his traumatic birth and he did not have a
formal funeral let alone a casket. They buried the baby without his mother
being in attendance, because Ginny Babb was far too ill to leave the dugout.146
145 Reuben P. Brammeir, interviewed by B.B. Guthrie, PAM350-62, United States Federal Civil
Works Administration, Colorado Historical Society, December 1934.
146 Babb, An Owl..., 103
Accidents around the homestead could very easily lead to death. On
November 7,1909, Siglin wrote to her fiance about an old soldier named Mr.
Stevens who was involved in a wagon accident. Stevens lived northeast of
Akron and was seriously injured in a run-a-way. He had been driving one or
two colts down the road when an automobile came up from behind and
frightened the horses. He was taken to a neighbors house and as of November
7, he had not regained consciousness and they feared he would soon die from his
injuries. It is a sad affair and I sympathize with the family.147 Siglin was
living in a time stuck between two eras, the horse era and the automobile era.
ANIMALS AND PESTS
Most homesteaders realized the fact that without their animals they would
have a lot of problems. Homesteaders needed horses for transportation and
without them it could take days to travel into towns for supplies. Horses were
also necessary for plowing. Without a horse, plowing would have been next to
impossible, and homesteaders made sure to treat their stock well, because
buying new stock was expensive and many homesteaders did not have the
money to spend on new stock.
147 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 7 November 1909, letter box2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
Estelle Siglin had her own share of strife when it came to her animals. She
only had one horse most of the time and when that horse got into trouble she had
a lot of problems. She loved her horse Chubby and spent a lot of time in her
letters regaling her fiance with tales about Chubbys latest antics.
Unfortunately, Siglin ran into trouble when Chubby wandered too close to her
barbed wire fence and became entangled in the wires.
Poor Chubby cut his foot in the wire Wed. night. It happened about
eight oclock...I heard the disturbance and roused Harold, lighted
the lantern and hurried out Chubbys foot was still over the wire
and the blood spurting a stream. I said, O Harold, Old Chubby will
bleed to death. We led him in the barn, put a bandage above the
wound twisted a stick tightly and Harold held it a half hour or more
then I bound camphor, flour and sugar around the cut. It was after
ten when we went in. Before twelve I got Harold up to go to the
bam. Found Chubby quiet so I slept some. Now, I hope it isnt so
bad as I feared at first. To think I could be so careless but we had
left them out this nice weather. He eats and drinks well, but it looks
pitiful to see him so lame.148
Siglin was lucky her horse was not permanently lame because of his accident
with the barbwire.
All homesteaders had to deal with pests that could ruin their lives. Snakes
were a big problem on the prairie. They could hide anywhere and any
unsuspecting person could run across a rattlesnake. The snake could strike
before the homesteader had time to think. Thousands of rattlesnakes died at the
148 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 20 November 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
hands of homesteaders. Estelle Siglin saw her fair share of rattlesnakes; Saw
the first rattler this morning just as we started to S[unday] S[chool], Sent Myrtle
back to tell Mr. Monn to come and kill it, which they did. Mr. M. killed one
yesterday and Jap was bitten. His jaws are all swelled up.149 Eventually, Siglin
got to the point where she was comfortable enough to kill the rattlesnakes
herself. I killed the largest rattlesnake you ever saw all alone.. .the
snake.. .measured over 43 in long and five and a half in circumference.150
Living with rattle snakes was a part of many homesteaders lives.
Pearl Price Robertson was horribly afraid of rattlesnakes, but not for
herself, for her children. She warned her children to beware while playing in the
yard, to look out for ugly creeping things, and to listen for buzzing noises.
Robertson was very vigilant about watching for snakes, but she never saw one.
She instilled so much fear in her children that her youngest thought a beetle was
a rattlesnake and shrank away from it in fear.
Homesteaders also had to deal with any number of nuisance insects. Bed-
bugs could wreak havoc on anyone trying to catch a good nights sleep. Estelle
Siglin and her friend Opal became well informed about bedbugs when they
encountered them first hand while visiting with neighbors overnight Went
149 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 19 April 1908, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
150 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 8 June 1910, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters, Colorado
Historical Society, Denver.
visitingMy! but we were tired. Opal said, The bed feels fine, but in less
than two hours she wakened me by saying, Stella, what in the world shall I do?
The bed bugs are eating me up!151 Siglin and her friend Opal then had to take
care of the bedbugs before they could sleep.
The Babb family had a similar problem when they arrived at the dugout on
Perhaps 1 would sleep.. .Then something bit me. Without thinking, I
scratched the bite, felt a small fat bug, and smelled a revolting odor.
1 cried out; I could not help it Mama was instantly awake, out of
her bed.. .Papa leaped cursing from the bed and lighted the oil lamp.
Even in its dim glow we saw the oval brown bugs running over our
pillows and up the walls, hurrying away from the light What are
they? my mother asked in a sickened voice. Bedbugs. They came
in the new lumber. Dads lived alone so long he doesnt care, didnt
even try to get rid of them... Well, I will, Mama said with terrible
determination. As soon as its daylight. She reached for my hand.
Well sleep in the wagon.152
Ginny Babb and her two daughters slept in the family wagon that first night and
spent the next day cleaning the dugout so it was fit for habitation.
[Mama] hung all the bedding and clothes. The mattresses were
placed on the bare yard. The iron bedstead and springs and the wire
cot she cleaned with coal oil, and she set their feet in little food cans
of the oil. Everything was doused and scrubbed and aired; the two
small windows were open all day.. .Mama made a paste of flour and
water and papered the earthen walls with Denver Posts. The floor
was earth, but it was as hard as stone and swept clean.153
1,1 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 23 July 1909, letter box 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
152 Babb, AnOwl...9.
153 Babb, An Owl... 12.
Once the dugout was cleaned Ginny Babb moved back in with her daughters.
Homesteaders thought they could fight bedbugs by placing each of the bedposts
in a small container of oil.
Bedbugs were not the only insects to plague homesteaders. Grasshoppers
were often the bane of the homesteaders existence. Elizabeth Harrington, who
had homesteaded with her husband near present day Salida, Colorado was
having a bountiful year in 1875. They had planted forty acres of wheat and
pinned all of their hopes on the wheat harvest. The wheat grew tall and
beautiful and they were thrilled with its progress. On August 5, Elizabeth and
her husband noticed a heavy dark mass hanging in the sky and approaching.
Later, as the mass hung over us, the grasshoppers began to drop and drop,
covering the earth. The plague was upon us.154 The couple lost their entire
wheat crop; grasshoppers ate all of their cabbages and the crops of the whole
valley [were] literally eaten up. They deposited their eggs, and the years of
1876-1877 were fruitless.155
Pearl Price Robertson witnessed the same phenomenon in Montana. She
Grasshoppers, newly hatched, swarming out of the unplowed fields
and covering the growing crops with a gray, slimy, creeping cloud
154 Elizabeth Harrington, interviewed by unknown, Story of a Pioneer Woman, PAM 346-20,
United States Federal Civil Works Administration, Colorado Historical Society, 11.
155 Harrington, 11.
which hour by hour steadily advanced, wiping out the greenness of
the land, leaving only dry, bare clods in the fields.156
Grasshoppers were a plague to any farmer, because they destroyed everything in
their path and there was nothing that could be done to stop them. Modem
pesticides had not been invented yet and spraying pesticides would have been
time consuming and expensive even if they did exist Homesteaders had to sit
by and watch all of their hard work be destroyed in the uncaring mouths of
Mice and Squirrels
Estelle Siglin had her own set of problems dealing with mice and
squirrels. Many homesteading houses were built with small gaps between roof
and wall or between sod bricks and slats in the wall, which the owner might or
might not have known about. These small gaps made it very easy for small
vermin to breach the walls of the houses. Many homesteaders were awakened
by the pitter-patter of little feet running around their homes, and unfortunately
these feet did not belong to their children. Siglin awakened at two in the
morning because she heard a mouse scampering across the floor of her home.
She lay in bed for an hour wondering if the mouse could get into her bed. She
156 Robertson, Homestead Woman, 360.
dozed off and either felt or imagined she felt the mouse on her foot. She jumped
and screamed and frightened the mouse away.157
The summer could bring out any number of different pests to bother the
homesteader. In July of 1910, Siglin was having trouble with flies, bed bugs
and mice all at the same time. The flies are thick as bees, bed bugs, dont
mention it and mice if you [open] the cupboard about two jump out or if you sit
in the parlor they caper around the floor after going to bed you hear them
everywhere.158 Everywhere she turned there was some sort of animal eating
away at her farm. Squirrels caused her more trouble than any other animal,
because they kept eating her garden.
I have more trouble than anybody farming. Yesterday morning
when I started to town had a nice row of lettuce (second planting)
and two rows of sweet com. When I got home the lettuce was all
eaten off and several hills of the com taken off by the squirrels. I
fixed a dope of strychnine last night and put sul[f]ur on the lettuce
row this morning. I have worked so hard to have a garden. So
many lost their garden by hail so that is worse. If my garden hails
out Til go to K[ansas] C[ity].159
Unless the homesteaders were able to keep constant vigilance on their gardens
they were likely to lose them to the myriad of hungry animals that made their
homes on the prairie long before any homesteaders arrived.
157 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 22 October 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
15* Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 19 July 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
139 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 13 June 1910, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
Unfortunately, many homesteaders also had to deal with a larger type of
pest, the thief. Estelle Siglin was very aware of the vulnerability her home was
in, while she was away. While she was staying with friends her home was
broken into and all of her possessions were strewn around her house. Her attic
remained untouched by the intruder, and as far as she could tell, nothing was
actually taken. Siglin was lucky the intruder was only in her home to make
mischief; otherwise she could have lost a lot of her possessions.160
Siglin was often worried about staying on her homestead alone, because
she feared she would not be able to protect herself if someone came around who
intended her harm. Homer, Siglins fiance had expressed his unease at Siglin
staying on her homestead by herself.
I cant see why any one would want to harm you.. .Oh, sweetheart I
fear that I never could forgive myself if anything should happen [to]
you out there. Now for my sake as well as your own dont take any
chances and some happy day I pray God to reward us.161
She also had her fiance send her a rifle so she could protect herself and even
shoot game if the need arose. This evening we got the rifle and practiced a
little and loaded it, also filled the lantern. We ought not to be afraid. Just think
160 Estelle M. Siglin to Homo* Evans, 27 June 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
161 Homer Evans to Estelle M. Siglin, 20 April 1910, letterbox 1, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
how many girls stay all alone. Then what is there to be afraid of anyway.
Siglin took many precautions and if she ever felt threatened she would leave
immediately for her nearest neighbors house.
Those homesteaders who were able to afford frame houses had to guard
their property very carefully. Minnie Palmer returned from her winter in Denver
to find a big surprise on her homestead. Upon her arrival at her homestead
shack she was shocked to find a large German man residing in her house.
Minnie demanded that he leave her homestead, but he informed her that he had
o intention of leaving because it was now his homestead. She realized that
words would not help her in this situation so she calmly asked if she could look
in her trunk for something she needed.
The German had won. He could afford to be magnanimous. Of
course. Of course, he said. Minnie hurried inside before he could
change his mind, and just as he started to follow her, she slammed
the door in his face and locked it. He raced around to the window,
pushed it up, and was lifting his leg over the sill when Minnie
found the something hidden in her trunk. It was a six-shooter,
and the surprised imposter took a slug in his left shoulder. Before
he could hit the ground, a second bullet caught him in the hip and
as he tried to get away, a third one gave him a new part in his
Minnie was not afraid to defend what was hers, and she was able to chase off a
man who thought he could take what belonged to her. Although women alone
142 Estelle M. Siglin to Homer Evans, 21 July 1909, letter box 2, Siglin/Evans Letters,
Colorado Historical Society, Denver.
163 Propst, Those Strenuous Dames..., 21-22.
on their homesteads were vulnerable to certain dangers, many of them were
adept at handling any dangers they faced.
Not every homesteader, man or woman, was successful when it came to
proving up. Some turned around and left before they even really got started, due
to the fact that they had been misled by boosters and had come west blinded by
the myth of the Romantic West. Once they became witness to the difficulty
that was really involved in homesteading they decided to try something else or
return to the homes they had left behind. Others tried to homestead, but were
unable to make the improvements called for in the Homestead Act. It was not
necessarily the homesteaders fault if they did not succeed. Sometimes the land
was not fertile enough to farm. Sometimes the weather did not cooperate with
the homesteader. The weather could drive a homesteader away, by steadily
destroying crops and ruining any chance for the homesteader to get ahead.
On the other hand there were successful homesteads, and not all of the
successful homesteaders were men. A survey performed on the homesteads in
Wyoming and Colorado, found that eleven point nine and eighteen point two
percent of entrants in the respective states were women. While men may have
held the majority of the homesteads, they were not as successful at proving up as
women were. Thirty-seven percent of men were able to finalize their claims,
whereas forty-two point four percent of women were able to prove up and
receive title to their land.164 This also meant that two-thirds of men and more
than half of the women who filed claims were not successful. Homesteaders
faced numerous challenges and according to the percentages, only a minority of
the claimants were successful.
Estelle Siglin was one of the forty-two point four percent of successful
women homesteaders. Siglin proved up on her homestead and received title to
the land on September 19,1913. President Woodrow Wilson signed the official
document for the northwest quarter of Section thirty-two in Township two
north of Range fifty-one west of the Sixth Principal Meridian, Colorado,
containing one hundred sixty acres.165 However, Siglins fiance Homer was
part of the two-thirds of men who were unable to prove up on their homesteads.
In Homers case, he was able to make more money working on a road crew in
Iowa, than he would have while homesteading in Colorado.
Women homesteaders were able to gain many emotional, physical,
political, financial and social rewards when they were successful at
homesteading. If they had a successful endeavor they would be able to reap the
benefits of that independence. They could tell the world that they, women, had
made a success at homesteading. One such Montana homesteader, Metta
Loomis, summed up her feelings on the success of her property in this way:
164 Riley, The Female Frontier..., 133.
165 Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records: Land Patent Details, accessed
from (10 February 2007).
I know of no other way by which in five years time I could have
acquired such riotous health, [and] secured much valuable
property...I proved up on May 22,1915...I own my farm which I
value at $30 an acre...I have 170 acres planted to wheat, twenty
acres to oats, [and] eight acres to alfalfa...The prospect is that we
will have record crops. I have four fine brood mares, a riding pony,
a two-year-old colt, three one-year-old colts... [and] a cow and a
calf, besides some fifty chickens. I have a fine bam, a chicken coop,
and a root cellar. I also have a wagon, a carriage, harness, and farm
Loomis considered herself financially, emotionally and physically better off on
her homestead than she did before she had homesteaded.
If the woman was able to prove up on her land, she could sell her
homestead for a profit She could then take her cash and do anything she
desired. Other women were able to use their land ownership to increase then-
political and social standing. Women could vote in many states in the West so
they could come to homestead and have a political voice in their communities.
Another reward to homesteading was that women were actually able to
enjoy the literal fruits of their labor. As Elinore Pruitt Stewart pointed out the
job market was often a very unstable place, and women were not allowed into
many of the more monetarily thriving professions. If women were to homestead
they would be able to live rent-free and eat the crops they grew themselves. Her
advice was this:
Any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of
the sunset loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much
166 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders...14.
time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly
succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a
home of her own in the end.167 *
Although she may have made homesteading sound a lot easier than it actually
was her words were true in many ways. Women could escape the unstable job
market for a life that admittedly could also be unstable, however if they were
successful at homesteading they would have their own land, independence, and
the food they were able to grow.
Women homesteaders stepped out of Victorian societys ideal for how a
woman should behave. They stepped out of the strictly domestic sphere and
journeyed into the farming and ranching frontier. According to Dee Garceau,
the physical frontier served as a metaphorical frontier, where women achieved
autonomy and competence, valued qualities in the brave new world of modem
gender roles. Women homesteaders were self reliant in many ways,
financially independent, and in some cases they were physically living apart
from any men in their lives. All of these things showed that women did not
have to be a traditional part of the Victorian domestic sphere of home and
Women homesteaders and other women on the frontier were able to
change the image of what a proper woman should be. Jessie de Prado
MacMillans neighbors viewed her as unusual when she rode her horse astride,
167 Stewart, Letters of a Woman, 215.
164 Garceau, Single Women Homesteaders..., 13.
instead of sidesaddle, but they came to accept that riding astride was a much
more practical means of transportation, not to mention safer.169 MacMillan was
not afraid of what people would think, and by constantly riding the way she
wanted to, she was able to alter peoples mindsets on how things should be
Women homesteaders were able to prove to society that they could be
successful at what was considered mens business. They were able to
successfully gain title to government land and turn their land into flourishing
farms and ranches. In cooperation with their friends and neighbors, they grew
their own crops, raised their own animals, and in the cases of single women
homesteaders, lived alone on the prairie, plains and in the mountains many
without the financial backing of any of the men in their lives. Once they had
access to land, all they had to do was stake a claim, work hard for five years, and
then they could own the land they had dreamed about They were able to prove
that women could be homesteaders just as easily as men.
169 MacMahon, Fine Hands for Sowing..., 279.
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