Prather's Picks: Staking Her Claim — Women Homesteading the West

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Most of us recognize the word “homesteader.”

After all, characters in western movies and novels are often homesteaders.

Some of us even have grandparents and great grandparents who were homesteaders. But did you know that some of the homesteaders were single women?

That’s what “Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West” is all about. This nonfiction book was written by Marcia Meredith Hensley who did years of research about single women homesteaders.

Hensley’s research sources included periodicals, oral history files in library stacks, out-of-print books and the histories of small communities. Interestingly, she was not able to find any diaries by single women homesteaders.

The book is made up of an introduction and six chapters, followed by an afterword, a lengthy bibliography, notes on the chapters and an index.

The book begins with a information concerning the original Homestead Act and the revised Homestead Acts that followed. Homesteaders were required to pay a filing fee for their claims, to prove up on the land and to reside on it for a certain period of time each year for a total number of years. The stipulations changed over the years as the Act was revised.

One revision allowed married women to file, and then another revision allowed both men and single women to be included in the Act. The author writes that single women accounted for about 12 percent of all homesteaders and statistics show that “approximately one in three women who filed on land actually proved up on their claims.”

A photocopy of one of the patents (given after stipulations were met) for the land appears at the end of the book. The patent was given to Esther Dollard and signed by President Woodrow Wilson.

Chapter 1, “Single Women Homesteaders: Their Place in History and Literature” is intriguing, especially the part of the chapter dealing with literature.

I hadn’t thought of it before reading this book, but while the narratives of these women are true stories, they are indeed made up of fictional elements. Point of view, setting, characters, plot, style, and theme—they’re all there. And one thing’s for sure—the narratives of the twenty-four women profiled in the book read like fiction, so much so that the book is hard to put down.

The profiles are arranged by chapters according to where they were found. So Chapter 3 includes those found in magazines such as “Collier’s,” “Atlantic Monthly,” “The Independent” and “Sunset”. Chapter 4’s narratives came from letters written by the single homesteaders, and accounts found in memoirs make up Chapter 5.

An example of one of the narratives is “The Lady Honyocker: How Girls Take Up Claims of Their Own on the Prairie”, printed in “The Independent”, July 1913.

Homesteader Mabel Lewis Stuart described how the “girls” got along on the prairie. She wrote about the shacks erected on their claims, which were 10x12, 14x15, or 16x20, built of pine boards and covered with black-tarred paper. The shacks were sodded to make them warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Stuart wrote that the shacks were likely furnished with a “sanitary couch” (both bed and sofa), a tiny stove, a corner cabinet (sometimes) and other homemade furniture — perhaps dry goods boxes. But she wrote that the “girl” made the house her own with “books, pictures, magazines, guitar, and perhaps even her piano and hand painted china.”

In the narratives women described how they hired men to plow and plant their claims, the cost of “proving up on their land”, their trials with wild animals like snakes, rabbits, and prairie dogs, and a lot more.

A map at the very beginning of the book shows homesteads for all of the women except two. These homestead claims were located in Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

There are photographs in the book, too, including those of the exterior and interior of a box car-style claim shack that was reconstructed at the Homestead Museum in Torrington, Wyoming.

Still another photograph, of Mary Bonertz Dugan’s claim shack, shows how women homesteaders could turn the small space into an attractively-decorated home. This shack, decorated with pictures and knick-knacks, looks very comfortable, indeed.

This is a great book from beginning to end. It is informative, and the narratives are fascinating. It appears to be well-researched.

The book, published by High Plains Press, costs $19.95 in soft cover. ( Three hundred limited editions were also published.) The book can be purchased at the Museum of Northwest Colorado and Downtown Books. It is also available for check-out at the Moffat County Library.

Copyright Diane Prather, 2012

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