Friday, May 14, 2010

Homesteader Pruitt Stewart: Get a Job, Get a Man, Become a Published Writer – No Problem!

Elinore Pruitt Stewart, author of 1914’s Letters of a Woman Homesteader and 1915’s Letters on an Elk Hunt was a famous and controversial figure on the prairie.  While her work was widely read and admired, there have been many questions about the historical accuracy of her trials and tribulations as a pioneer woman (Wishart, 2004).  Yet, even with this controversy, or perhaps because of it, she is considered to be a great American storyteller. 

by Christi Moock Willoughby`, Southeast Community College

While researching this essay I cleaned out both the Walt and Gere branch libraries of their books, biographies, and autobiographies on pioneer women.  Ok, I left a few, but don’t go and check for another week because I still have all the good ones.  When I found Elinore’s “Letters” and looked into her experiences I knew immediately that she was special. Elinore Pruitt Stewart was a woman with a fantastic imagination, who wanted to report all of her experiences on the prairie as both a success and an adventure. 

Elinore came from humble roots.  Born in 1876, she was the oldest of six children (Wishart, 2004). In the early 1900’s she married but reported that she was widowed before relocating to Denver.  From Denver, she made the decision to homestead in Burnt Fork, Wyoming where her skill for storytelling was “discovered” through her correspondence with a prior employer (George, 1992). After relocating, marrying, writing for pleasure, writing as a means of communication, writing as a career, and writing to support something that she believed in she touched lives across America. 

In 1909 Elinore Pruitt Stewart was a poor widow, barely supporting her two-year-old daughter by working as a washerwoman in Denver.  During this time she was receiving support from the Sunshine Rescue Mission and it was there that she first heard of the opportunities for women homesteaders. This was the beginning of a tremendous transition for Elinore.  She was leaving a life of nearly absolute poverty and, unbeknownst to anyone, she was about to become a famous female writer by combining her imagination with the events that she endured in Burnt Fork, Wyoming (George, 1992).

In early 1909 Elinore asked for guidance from the staff at the mission and applied for different jobs in the largely undeveloped west.  Her plan was to move west and work on a ranch while she learned the trade and then to sign for her own land and become a success (George, 1992). Sounds simple right? 

In April of 1909 Elinore accepted a job as a cook and housekeeper for Mr. Clyde Stewart, a fellow widower (Stewart, 1961).  Little did she know that this move would bring her untold fame in the next five years. 

The distance from Denver to Burnt Fork is 468 miles, by car this is around 7 hours and 20 minutes.  The move West took Elinore three days under tremendously difficult conditions.  In her first letter to friend and former Denver employer Juliet Cooney Elinore writes “I was twenty-four hours on the train and two days on the stage and oh, those two days!” Traveling west she was met alternately with snow and mud that at times came halfway up the wheels on the stage coach  (Stewart, 1961).

Elinore’s letters to Juliet in Denver outlined her determination, dreams and success after her first  summer surviving on the homestead. There was a shortage of hired men the first summer and Elinore prided herself on her strength and determination to work alongside Clyde haying and harvesting  (Stewart, 1961).  For all practical purposes it was her inspired and proactive approach to farming that spelled success for their farm that year.

But it wasn’t all work,  Elinore also had the opportunity to go exploring and to see firsthand the beauty of the land around her.  She wrote about these adventures and the dangerous elements of exploring as a single woman in the wild (Stewart, 1961) showing her bravery and encouraging women to live life to its fullest.

Elinore wasn’t only successful in filing for land and learning the hard work of a rancher, she also enjoyed a whirlwind courtship with Clyde. Susanne George in her 1992 book The Adventures of the Woman Homesteader reports that eight short weeks after Elinore accepted the job at Burnt Fork she and Clyde were married. After the wedding, Elinore would go from worker, to partner, and eventually to the role of successful breadwinner.

Now, you may be thinking wait, so she moves, marries her boss and comes out as a great success?  Doesn’t this all sound too easy?  This was supposed to be a difficult time in the west.  But Elinore was a terrifically smart woman, with a lot of self confidence and she was in it to win it. 

Throughout all of her adventures, from working the farm, holding her own land and having 4 babies in 4 years Elinore kept up her carefully transcribed correspondence with her friends in Denver.  George (1992) identifies that in 1913 Elinore’s friend Juliet Cooney met with her friend Ellery Sedgwick, who worked as an editor at the Atlantic Monthly.  Cooney shared with Sedgwick the happy, sad, adventurous, and sometimes heartbreaking letters outlining Elinore’s life on the prairie. After reading Elinore’s skillfully crafted work, Sedgwick was hooked and her collection of letters was published in the Atlantic Monthly from October 1913 until April 1914.

After being published in the Atlantic Monthly, Elinore received mail from Doubleday Publishing offering to publish her stories about life in the west (George, 1992).  While she had enjoyed minor popularity this offer would quickly expand her success and reflect the achievements she had made from such a humble beginning. 

Elinore’s writing was inspirational, funny and compelling, it was in fact everything that a good publisher could want.  You see, Elinore painted a picture that made people celebrate the excitement in day-to-day life.  This publishing opportunity represented Elinore’s skill as a storyteller and reflected strongly the strength and determination for success that she had exhibited despite all the challenges in her life  (George, 1992). 

From a poor orphan to a widowed child bride Elinore was suddenly a published author and her letters were followed by many people on the east coast.  She had become famous nearly overnight. 

Elinore’s life of adventure wasn’t without controversy.  There have been many efforts by historians to prove that some of the events in her letters were embellished (George, 1992). Many of us have read the work of a great author and wondered if the story was really true.  Elinore’s letters and stories not only felt real to the reader but they gave the reader insight into an experience and career path in which few women had the opportunity to excel.

Because Elinore felt that her writing was overly criticized she changed direction in her 1915 work Letters on an Elk Hunt and carefully documented dates and details so that her work would ring true to anyone who challenged her stories (George, 1992). 

Her critics made her feel overly cautious which affected her writing style, and sadly, the excitement that she had so naturally added to her writing to make the reader feel as though they were escaping to their own western adventure was missing. Because of this, Letters on an Elk Hunt was not as popular with the reading public as her first work (George, 1992).

Even though some people disliked her “historical fiction” Elinore still had a strong following and her letters to friends and family continued to be filled with her experiences on the ranch  (George, 1992).

In Wishart’s 2004 Encyclopedia of the Prairie, the author notes that Elinore would “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”   While that could be interpreted negatively, looking back, Elinore did a stellar job of making history come alive for an entire generation of readers. 

In 1919 after an extended period without being published Elinore began to write about her support of the early women’s movement and was again recognized as an important author and historian  (George, 1992). 

From a lowly orphan, to a widowed laundress, from a short courtship to a committed and loving marriage, Elinore Pruitt Stewart defied the odds in the old west.

Elinore’s letters and stories gave the reader an exciting western experience with her combination of real life pioneer spirit and a vibrant imagination.  She told of her experiences with a relish for life and adventure.

Elinore lived the life that pioneers dreamed about when moving west, she held her own land, married a successful rancher and was recognized nationally for her interesting and timely stories about her ability to survive in the “wild” west. Even through controversy she came out a great storyteller. 

Elinore truly was an amazing woman.  She had a strong work ethic and a strong sense of adventure, both of which can be seen in her writing.  She truly was a great American pioneer and we are as lucky to read her work today as those who experienced it when it was first written.  Most of all, Elinore was a success at making a challenging existence into a historic adventure. 

References:

George, S. (1992). The adventures of the woman homesteader.  Lincoln, NE. University of Nebraska Press.

Stewart, E. P.  (1961).  Letters of a woman homesteader.  Lincoln, NE.  University of Nebraska Press.

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

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