On a trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I ran across a book: “Staking Her Claim – Women Homesteading the West.” http://www.amazon.com/Staking-Her-Claim-Women-Homesteading/dp/0931271908/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404141756&sr=1-1&keywords=staking+her+claim
I picked it up, thumbed through it and bought it. I found it interesting because first, I didn’t know that women staked their own claim to land in the early 20th century, alone, without husbands or families. Second, because a good deal of their experiences were documented by their writings and I found their prose simple and elegant, often considerably better written than much I read today.
One homesteader, Elinore Pruitt Stewart, described a sunset she witnessed: “It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, the great, bare, desolate buttes.”
The protagonist of the stories are usually the women homesteaders themselves. Other characters are represented by family members or friends, other homesteaders she has encountered and even the locals: rattlesnakes, dust, wind, sagebrush.
The settings were often similar in the western regions with the women settling into valleys and basins and plains at the foot of mountain ranges. They were given unproductive land that the government offered to encourage the development of farms and ranches. Thus homesteaders battled flat, arid desert-like plots dotted with sagebrush rather than pine trees. Water had to be trucked in and sand and dirt were an ever-present companion.
But these women kept journals and wrote letters describing the lifestyle they had chosen. In 1916 Metta Loomis penned: “As for myself, I know of no other way by which, in five years’ time, I could have acquired such riotous health, secured much valuable property, experienced so much joy in living, and infused so much of hope and buoyancy into life, and no other way to provide such cheering prospects for my old age.”
These women homesteaders were independent spirits who escaped from their former lives. May Holiday wrote in 1917 of her new found freedom: “In fact I began to feel it in the air while crossing the Rockies and straight away my former ideas of the importance of class distinction and the observance of social conventions seemed to fall from me like a heavy cloak, which had been a burden – and I was free.”
Their prose was lyrical and their words inspirational. I wonder . . . do we still have the same spirit of freedom and independence? Ideas welcome.