Sunday, March 29, 2009

Tears and Tenacity: The Diverse Roles of Women Homesteaders

“There were many tearful occasions for the tearful type. There were days and months without human fellowship, there were frightful blizzards, drought destroying seasons … and many pitiful deprivations, but there were also compensations for the brave, joyous, determined pioneer.” –
Lulu Fuhr (Stratton, 1981).

by Amy Yetter
Southeast Community College

Many women married, single, and widowed played important roles in shaping the Plains, or “Great American Desert” that we call home. During my research I discovered that the roles of women homesteaders covered a vast range, from mothers and teachers to madams and physicians. While overcoming the obstacles of adversity, homestead women held many diverse roles in their newly created societies. I will inform you of the environmental conditions these women had to learn to live with. I’ll also tell you about the common and uncommon roles that homestead women played.

Isolation, extremes in climate, and the constant threat of illness or injury were standard (Luebke, 2005). With most women homesteaders coming from developed cities in the East you can imagine their shock to come to this desolate land where their nearest neighbor or doctor was hundreds of miles away and there were no hospitals.

Loneliness and the unforgiving wilderness affected many homestead women. In Joanna Stratton’s 1981 book, Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier, Allena A. Clark’s daughter, Esther, recounts one of her mother’s ways of coping with loneliness: “…the unbroken prairies stretched for miles outside, and the wistful-faced sheep were always near at hand. Often mother used to go out and lie down among them, for company, when she was alone for the day.” Author Frederick C. Luebke writes in his 2005 book, Nebraska: An Illustrated History, “The threat of sickness, malnutrition, serious disease, and debilitating injuries was unrelenting.”

Through hard work and perseverance many homestead women triumphed against their struggles. This was true for Esther Carter-Griswold-Warner, who James Olson & Ronald Naugle wrote the following about in their 1997 book, History of Nebraska, “… after losing two husbands, came to Nebraska with three young children and filed a homestead claim in 1864 near Roca in Lancaster County. Not only did she survive the hardships of pioneer life, but she succeeded as a farmer.” In Linda Peavy & Ursula Smith’s (1996) book, Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier, the authors write about widow and mother of thirteen children, Mary Wells Yates, who “…crossed the plains between Missouri and Montana thirteen times in all – usually driving her own wagon and often serving as guide and organizer for emigrant parties.”

Now that I’ve told you about some of the environmental and emotional impacts that homestead women endured and overcame I’ll inform you of some of the roles women played in the forming of new societies.

The work of the homestead woman included not only the work she’d traditionally done in the East but also whatever additional work was required in order to ensure the success of her enterprises in the West (Peavy & Smith 1996). The majority of homestead women worked in roles that would be considered common and appropriate for the period.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the majority of women who were employed outside the home were hired as domestic servants (Peavy & Smith, 1996). In her 1988 book, The Female Frontier, Glenda Riley wrote about domestic servants, “This job had widespread appeal because it required no special training beyond that received at home or from the employer and was considered to be a suitable economic pursuit for most women.” In Linda Peavy & Ursula Smith’s book, Pioneer Women, they write of Emily French and her daughter, Ollie, who is 1890 moved in with a family to, “perform whatever domestic labors they were asked to do to help the family settle in to their new home – cleaning windows, putting up ‘little white curtains’, making pies and ‘some biscuits’, sewing aprons and frocks, and cleaning and sweeping.”

The most popular professional career for western women was teaching (Peavy & Smith 1996). Most teachers lacked formal preparation; many were recent graduates of the schools they taught (Luebke, 2005). In 1847, Catherine Beecher helped form the National Popular Education Board, whose objective was to inspire the surplus of single eastern teachers to move out west. Between 1847 and 1858 the board sent out nearly 600 women (Peavy & Smith 1996).

I’ve mentioned some of the more common roles that homestead women worked in, now I will tell you about two women whose roles were far less common. Another group of employed females who followed a profession of sorts were the numerous prostitutes who worked in the towns scattered across the Plains (Anonymous, 1983, as cited in Riley, 1988). Since it was so often given by women to their families, medical care, was easier to visualize as a profession for women (Riley, 1988).

While there was undoubtedly a diverse selection of uncommon jobs held by women I chose to highlight a few that I thought were most interesting. “Not a few young women ended up in the ‘oldest profession’ by default, starting out as domestic servants and ending up in a brothel after being ill-used by their employers” (Peavy & Smith 1996). Women of all races and creeds offered love for money to the men of the frontier (Peavy & Smith 1996). At the age of nineteen, Mattie Silks opened her first brothel in Springfield, Illinois. She later opened other brothels in Wichita and eventually ended up in Denver, where she employed twelve alluring “boarders” and served fine food and liquor (Peavy & Smith 1996).

“The skill of laywomen notwithstanding, there was a real need for well-trained physicians on the frontier.” (Peavy & Smith 1996). In their book, Pioneer Women, Linda Peavy & Ursula Smith write about Susan La Flesche, the youngest child of an Omaha chief, who received her medical degree in 1889 at age 24. Following an internship, she returned to Nebraska and served as a physician at an Omaha school before serving four years as physician for her entire tribe.

Abbie Ann Jarvis, wife and mother of four, acquired her medical training at the Women’s College in Chicago in 1898. She was thought to be both the first licensed woman doctor and the first licensed woman pharmacist in South Dakota (Van Dalsem & Jarvis, no year given, as cited by Riley, 1988).

As we’ve seen, homestead women played an integral role in creating and advancing the frontiers of the Plains. While overcoming the obstacles of adversity, homestead women held many diverse roles in their newly created societies. Homestead women faced many obstacles and encompassed a wide range of roles in the new frontiers. Despite the unforgiving weather, the sometimes debilitating isolation, and the extreme deprivation that homestead women were met with, those who persevered are the women that helped to create the homes, towns, and societies we call home today.


Stratton, J. (1981). Pioneer women: Voices from the Kansas frontier. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Luebke, F. (2005). Nebraska: An illustrated history. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Olson, J.C., & Naugle, R.C. (1997). History of Nebraska. Lincoln, NE and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Peavy, L., & Smith, U. (1996). Pioneer women: The lives of women on the frontier. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Riley, G. (1988). The Female frontier: A comparative view of women on the prairie and the plains. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Women on Postcards

Minto, N. Dak
Feb 13, 1913

Dear friend Mrs. Bell
Thanks for letter was so glad to hear that you were all well and that little Minnierva is so well suppose she walks now. I would love to see her. Baby is just fine I send this snapshot of us taken when she was 2 months old on my 30th birthday Jan 9th her name is IngaWilhelmina after her mamma and papa. Your friend

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