Friday, March 26, 2010

Pioneer Women: How the West was Really Won

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine yourself in the mid 1800’s in Nebraska.  You have stepped off the train in Omaha for the very first time and you are about to embark on what can only be considered a great Western adventure.  The land is mostly undeveloped, there are limited supplies, some of the houses look an awful lot like a mud hut and unfortunately the next train doesn’t come back through for at least a week.  For pioneer women, it was time to straighten your skirts and give it your all. Ok open your eyes; it is time to get down to business.  

Christi Moock Willoughby
Southeast Community College

If you think it’s tough to be a woman in 2010 when we have all the same freedom’s offered to men imagine how hard it was 150 or so years ago on the frontier west. About 10 years ago I spent part of the summer on field trips with my mother tracking down our family roots in Nebraska.  From my shirt-tail cousin who started more than ten Lutheran Churches between Dannebrog and Kearney to my great-grandmother who spent a few years in a sod house we traced our genealogy and mobility through this exciting time in American history.

Today I want to share with you the diverse lives of women on the prairie.

At the end of this essay you will have learned about the impact of women on the prairie and their effect on the home, their contributions to the workplace, and their place as landholders, farmers and ranchers long before women’s liberation.

In the 1996 book Pioneer Women Linda Peavey and Ursula Smith report that, in the Great Migration of 1843 there was a boom of citizens moving to the west for free land.  The legislature had approved the Preemption Act of 1842 which encouraged people to develop the land in the hopes of one day making it their own. I find it hard to imagine people in 2010 being brave enough to move several hundred miles for the possibility of free land from the government in the future, but the pioneers must have had a little more trust than the average citizen today.

Some of these groups were referred to as “movers” (Peavey & Smith, 1996) they packed up and migrated further west several times and were forced to start fresh at each destination. Moving in our civilized world is traumatic enough but moving in 1843 without the ease of a car, prior to the completion of the transcontinental railway, and going to an undeveloped destination took guts. The majority of these moves were by covered wagon with food, safety and illness the primary concerns for families (Peavey & Smith, 1996).

In Nebraska, citizens living close to the Missouri River or other waterways had access to trees to build log cabins, while those in the plains and sand hills of central and western Nebraska were required to live in sod houses Pictures from Frederick Luebbke’s 2005 book Nebraska, An Illustrated History, show the multiple kinds of structures common in Nebraska during this period. 

The sod houses, or soddy’s, as they were often referred to, were dirty and dark.  They were made by stacking hand-cut pieces of sod to build up walls These homes were hot in the summer and, drafty in the winter.  Even the best sod houses were dirty with leaky roofs (Luebbke, 2005).

But what if you sympathized more with Annie Oakley than with Laura Ingles Wilder? 

Not every woman who moved west was attached to a family.  There were single women seeking adventure, or a change of pace, who were eagerly migrating west as well.  Sadly, there were also women who lost their husbands early after arriving in the Midwest.

There is a joke I’ve heard in small towns about women who go to college to get their “missus” and while I suspect that some of the women traveled west for a mate, others were interested in a life built of their own strength, ambition and endurance. Wishart reports in the 2004 Encyclopedia of the Prairie that, under the Homestead Act, only women who were single, widowed, divorced or deserted could sign for their own land.

Many of the women who came west were influenced only by the excitement of the boom. Once a “single” woman had acquired her land she was free to marry or re-marry whichever the case may be.  Her land could then be combined with her husband’s to create a larger property, rented out to a farmer for profit or sold (Wishart, 2004).

The women who were widowed after moving west with their families often faced the difficult decision of what would be best for the future. These women took on the day-to-day responsibilities of farm and ranch life and were surprisingly successful. A quote from Katie Adams, a Pioneer widow, reads, “I was just like a hired man.  I was right there, I even followed the plow”  (Peavey & Smith, 1996). To my memory this seems a lot different than the trials of the characters in Little House on the Prairie.

So what if you’re not a desperate housewife and manual labor doesn’t sound like your gig either?  Don’t worry, there were places on the prairie for women who aspired to greater things.

The last group of pioneer women includes those who had completed all of primary school or some college back east before migrating to the Midwest.  These women worked outside the home and were valuable to their community for a variety of reasons. 150 years ago, in the undeveloped west there was value to being an educated woman, sometimes, the women were more educated than the men.

Pioneer women worked commonly as teachers. In 1863 most teachers in the Midwest were women and the average pay was around $40 a month.  Often times, the pupils were only a few years behind the teachers in age and knowledge. Dee Brown, in the 1994 date book The American West, reports that specialty schools were not uncommon and included female academies where women would perfect sewing and manners.

Other jobs for women included writing for the newspaper. Newspapers were developed for the public recording of property transactions.  According to Brown’s 1994 The American West, news print and paper were in short supply and the women didn’t want to waste any empty space so they filled the empty areas with poems and human interest stories.  Brown (1994) also notes that many of the pioneer’s desired additional reading materials and that the pieces produced by women writers were frequently sought after as entertainment. 

Women then weren’t so different from women now, some focused on family life, others cut their own path in a man’s world, and still other’s preferred a life working indoors.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about the diversity of women on the prairie. Maybe your ancestors stayed home and battled snakes that came into their sod house from the walls, maybe they moved until they found a place that felt like home, or until they couldn’t move any more.  Maybe you have already traced your family history and you know that your great-grandmother ran the ranch after she lost her husband.  Or maybe, you’ve been lucky enough to find the writings of a relative and have been able to learn about the quiet strength and dedication of pioneer women.  The one’s who carved their own path, and made our part of the world what it is today. 

I like to think that all women have a little bit of that Pioneer Spirit left and that now, while we’re in college, and making the decision about which paths we will follow, which one’s we’ll ignore and which times we’ll have to cut the path ourselves, that we’ll remember the pioneer women before us, who survived against all odds, in a land that they helped to develop.  When they arrived they were met with barren land, and homes made from the earth, many of us have had a much easier start, but our pioneering spirit can still cause amazing developments and successes.   


Brown, D. (1994). The American west.  New York, NY:  Touchstone.

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

Peavey, L. & Smith, U. (1996). Pioneer women: the lives of the women on the frontier. Rowayton, CT:  Saraband, Inc.

Wishart, D. (2004) Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln, NE:  Center for Great Plains Studies.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rethinking the Woman Homesteader: Married Women and the Homestead Act of 1862

by Blake Bell, Historian
Homestead National Monument of America

I have been here for a few weeks now, and one aspect of the homesteading story that we are all so proud of is that women were allowed to be homesteaders. Most of the books and individuals I have consulted have all claimed women could be homesteaders “if they were divorced, widowed, or single”. Any women in one of these category’s would fulfill the criteria stipulated in the Homestead Act that an individual could claim a homestead if they were the head of their households. And this is exactly what many women did. This interpretation has led us to believe that this was the only way a women could be a homesteader. But is this reality?

The Homestead Act of 1862 states that he or she be the head of a family, or is twenty-one or more years of age. The law is clear, it states that you could be head of a family OR twenty-one years old or older. The Homestead Act has been celebrated for its liberal agenda in that African Americans, immigrants, and women were all allowed to take advantage of this opportunity if they abided by the stipulations of the law. There is only one stipulation that was written in the law that would have effected any one of these groups, and that was the requirement that non-citizens had to declare intention to become citizens. Nowhere in the law does it say that a married woman, twenty-one years old or older, could not claim a homestead. I purpose that it may have been possible for a married woman to have obtained a homestead. There is evidence to suggest that women added to a “husband’s farm or ranch through their homestead claims, or to homestead as part of a family or companionate group.” If they were adding to their husband’s farm, they clearly were married, and they were claiming homesteads.
Homesteads were actually claimed in a variety of ways. There were many land laws on the books in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many married women took advantage of these various land laws; however, further research may prove that married women took advantage of the Homestead Act. There were instances when husbands had been away for a long period of time, primarily seeking gold on the west coast, in which their wives filed and received homesteads under the Homestead Act. However, this was rare, and even more rare would be a married woman claiming a homestead under the Homestead Act, but the possibility cannot be excluded.

The Homestead Act lasted until 1976. In this time our country progressed greatly in its attitudes towards women’s rights and it is possible that we have organized our story around a specific time period, primarily late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and not considered the entire scope of the law. There is more research, and undoubtedly more debate, that needs to be done on this issue. As the land records project progresses and we gain more access to Homestead records we will be able to find out how many married women, if any, were able to claim their 160 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Woot Woot! The Effect of the Railroads on Homesteaders

Woot Woot! What do you think of when you hear this sound? Mr. Rogers? No! How about -- Waiting at a railroad crossing?

Pictured is an Kodak photographic paper AZO stamp box date range 1918-1930 real photo postcard of Engine 2384

by Amber Thieman, Southeast Community College
Many people do not realize the importance the railroad had on our country’s development. I am in awe of how such a pain in my butt has had such significance on our country’s development. I am going to shed light on the importance of the railroad on our homesteaders. Today I will share with you how the railroad provided more efficient transportation for our nation’s homesteaders, molded the development of the United States, and started a new culture.

The railroad provided more efficient means of transportation for our homesteaders. Can you imagine traveling across the country for months? A trip across the country that used to take months, now took a little over a week with the construction of the railroad (Potter & Wynell, 1997).

Goods and services that were once available only locally now could be shipped across the country. The railroad had a direct path from Omaha, NE to Sacramento, CA. The route avoided large cities such as Denver, CO and Salt Lake City, UA (Transportation Economics, 2010). Not only could goods be transported but larger quantities could be moved as well.

In 1794 the Whiskey Rebellion was born because farmers were unable to carry their bulky corn crops to the market for sale. So these farmers began making whiskey so they could transport a more streamlined load. With the development of the railroad farmers and merchants were able to move more goods (Potter & Wynell, 1997). This more efficient means of transportation led to a boom in our country’s development.

As railroads grew in the late 19th century there was a huge growth of towns in the Midwest along the tracks. Some of the hardships for the homesteaders were eased by increasing the availability of goods and increased movement of their crops according to a passage in The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Railways (2000).

The railroad brought many new changes that we use today. Time zones were implemented so the railroad could follow a schedule. More advanced means of communication were also implemented. The telegraph was built across the country right next to the line so communications from town to town and shore to shore were possible (Conrad, nod.).

Because of the railroad development a new culture was born. We still use some of the phrases that were captured due to the railroad as illustrated in Conrad’s Language of the Rails.

For example the phrase “Bells and Whistles” is based on how the trains used whistles and bells to alert people that they were coming. People coined the phrase to say they were going to do something in a big way, just like the trains, as in “One track mind.” We use the expression to indicate a state of mind.

The trains obviously used the tracks to follow a certain path. So “Letting off steam” matches how the steam engines were so impressive with their smoke and sound. The phrase compares the feeling of letting off a strong emotion to the forceful power behind the trains.

Today I took the opportunity to share the impact the railroad had on our country. I described how the railroad provided more efficient means of transportation for our homesteaders. I shed light on how much the railroad influenced our country’s development and some of the cultural influences the railroad had. Now next time you are at a railroad crossing waiting for a never-ending train, think of the magical force the railroad once was for our homesteaders and how our life would not be the same without it.


Conrad, S. (n.d.). The language of the rails. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from

Potter, L. A., & Wynell, S. (1997, October). The Homestead Act of 1862. Social Education 61, 6: 359-364. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from

Transportation economics. (2010). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from Encyclopedia Britannica Online:

Tufnell, R. M. (c2000.) The new illustrated encyclopedia of railways. Chartwell Books, Edison, N.J. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from Ebsco.

Listen to the sounds of the trains at: Kaspriske, E. (n.d.). The sounds of horn train horns. Retrieved February 9, 2010 from

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Homestead Adventure Venture Crew Style

In a world filled with television shows like Survivor, Deadliest Catch, and Man vs. Wild, and thrill-seeking activities such as bungee-jumping and sky-diving, what do you consider adventurous? Sky-diving? White-water rafting? Driving cross country without navigation assistance such as GPS or a map? Swimming with sharks?

How about traveling to a foreign land where you don’t know the language or customs, adopting farming as a new profession, and living off the land to survive? Would that be a welcome challenge for you or something too adventurous for your tastes? This is exactly what homesteaders encountered when moving westward to file for free land.

By Park Guide Allison La Duke

Homestead National Monument of America stands for everything that homesteaders endured and experienced during their adventurous journey from other lands or states to claim their homestead of 160 acres. Even if they traveled from New York City or Boston, the geography and climate of the Great Plains and further west is drastically different from the forested states of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Of course European immigrants would have the added difficulty of a different language and culture to adjust to once they arrived. In addition once you found your homestead, you had to create some sort of shelter, find water and a source of fuel for fire, and begin preparing the land to grow crops. Not only did you have to deal with the daily chores of living, but also for many they were very isolated. The next homestead wasn’t always close by and typically going to town for store-bought supplies was planned well in advance. So, I’ll say that it was an adventure of sorts for any person who dared to homestead, and only those that were strong and had a bit of luck with them succeeded: 40% of all those who filed a homestead claim received their land patent after living there for 5 years. The connection between real adventure and homesteading still exists today. One could homestead in Alaska until 1986 (only 25 years ago!), and some people say that Alaska is the last wilderness in our country.

Today in 2010 Homestead National Monument of America is noticeably connected to adventure. Through the Friends of Homestead, who has chartered a new Venturing Crew with the Cornhusker Council of Boy Scouts of America, Homestead is involved in adventure experiences. The Venture Crew 82, chartered this year, is made up of young men and women ages 16-20 who are interested in outdoor recreation, leadership, travel, and socializing. They have gone rock climbing, volunteered at the monument’s monthly deer survey, and visited Badlands National Park via distance learning technology equipment.

They plan to visit South Dakota this summer for a week long adventure of outdoor recreation, traveling, and learning about the area. For more information about the Venture Crew 82, go to

So if you ever thought homesteading was boring or without risk, think again. Homesteaders experienced tornadoes, dust storms, illness, loneliness, locusts, freezing winters, and the daily challenge to make ends meet. Today we remember their adventures with the Venture Crew 82 in a modern way.