A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The Homestead Act of 1862 opened South Dakota to settlement and development by Americans, explicitly allowing women to own their own land.  This opportunity was hard to pass up for some women.  They packed up everything they could, joined a wagon train and headed west to the Great Plains to try to “prove up,” their land.

Susan Hallgarth, in “Women Settlers on the Frontier: Unwed, Unreluctant, Unrepentant” wrote:  “Once word spread that women not only could file on land but were successful, their numbers increased steadily.  By the 1880s women were moving west in large numbers and continued to do so until the First World War.”

“In addition to extending filing privileges to more people,” she continued, “the Homestead Act enticed settlers to remain on their land by changing the terms for ‘proving up.’  Settlers could choose between a six-month residency, after which they would pay $1.25 per acre, or a five-year residency, when they were granted their 160 acres free.  Anyone with staying power could become a landowner.  By 1885 enough women had succeeded that ‘glowing reports’ were heard throughout the Midwest of thrills experienced, and fortunes made by some of those who took homesteads.”

She explained that among the women homesteaders, there was a group of clever ladies who “had taken claims adjoining, had a house built covering a corner of each piece of land, and lived together until time to prove up.”  One “girl homesteader” who was “anemic, pale, weighing only ninety-five pounds, took a claim near Valentine, Nebraska. She was able to “prove up” the property and became a farmer in Nebraska.

By the turn of the century, women homesteaders were an accepted phenomenon on the prairie of South Dakota.  Lured by the promise of a free farm, these usually young, single women set out to acquire a plot of land that they might sell for a profit, live on and secure support from what was her private land.  Bringing it to a marriage as a kind of dowry was also a possibility.

Various historical sources report the prevalence of “girl homesteaders” as they were commonly called.  One historian of the plains maintained that a “noteworthy portion of the first settlers were single or unattached women.”  Another study estimated that, by 1887, as many as one-third of the homesteads in the Dakotas were held by women.

Edith Kohl wrote one of the best accounts of these “girl homesteaders.”  Land of the Burnt Thigh was first published in 1938.

Edith and her sister, Ida Mary moved to central South Dakota in 1907.  They established a homestead near the “land of the Burnt Thigh” close to the Lower Brule Indian Reservation southeast of Fort Pierre.  “Burnt Thigh” is reported to have come from a prairie fire that destroyed everything in the region in 1815.  Several native boys were caught in the fast spreading fire.  To survive the fire they threw themselves on the ground and covered themselves with their buffalo robes.  The boys escaped unhurt except for burns on their thighs.

The escape of those two boys was considered so remarkable that the Sioux called this tribe the “people with the burnt thigh.”  It is thought that some unknown French trader copied the term into his language, and thus we have “Brule” or burned.

The “Land of the Burnt Thigh” was the site where large herds of buffalo came to spend the winter because of the abundance of grass.  It also became known as a notorious rendezvous for horse thieves.

The August 30, 1916 issue of the Forest City Press (Forest City, Potter County) contained a news story with a Fairfax, S. D., August 25 dateline.  “Recalled That Girl Homesteader Was Killed For Knowing of Secreted Body” was the headline which caught the interest of many readers.

“Considerable interest is manifested here (Fairfax, S. D.) on account of the finding yesterday by Mrs. Herman Fritz and her daughter, Venus,” the story began, “while going to the August Schultz home, of a human skull and on further search, an entire human skeleton of a white man, which apparently had been buried many years.”

The bones were found in a “draw” two miles south and two miles west of Fairfax and within 100 feet of the Nebraska – Dakota state line.  No evidence of a coffin or other covering was found.

The discovery recalled to the memory of the old timers several strange disappearances of early days and especially of the mysterious murder or suicide of a young woman.  Her body was found some 25 or 30 years ago within a mile or so of where this skeleton was found.

The young woman was living on a homestead and is said to have written to her mother in another state that on account of her knowledge of the place of burial of the body of a certain man who had disappeared, her life was in great danger and for her mother “to come quickly or it would be too late.”  When the mother came to Fairfax, she found her daughter dead.

Countless pioneer women of the Dakota prairie wrote horrifying stories of the dangers and risks which they faced as they worked to “prove up” their claim.  Because they were deserted by their husbands, some of these ladies were forced to raise their children to adulthood.  These women are seldom found in the scholarly history books!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on July 3, 2024