A Note from Cottonwood Corners

When Edith Kohl and her sister, Ida Mary, struggled to “prove up” their claim midway between Fort Pierre and Presho, they did not seem to be aware that they were part of a large army of women homesteaders.  “Girl Homesteaders,” as they were called at that time had received limited attention from historians and officials.

In WESTWARD EXPANSION: A History of the American Frontier written by Ray Allen Billington in 1949, the most popular text on the western frontier for decades, the term “women” is not listed in the index.  It is hard to imagine that for a book which told the story of the presence of an area of free land on the western edge of the advancing settlement and frontier that “women” would not have been given greater recognition.

The unusual environment and the continuous rebirth of society on the western frontier, endowed the American people and their institutions with characteristics not shared by the rest of the world.  The western frontier can be thought of as a series of adjoining westward-migrating parts, each representing a different stage in the development of society from basic to complex.

As the westward movement of the frontier gained momentum, a typical pattern developed which persisted until the continent was occupied.  Women had a significant part in the settlement of America and it is unfortunate that they have been generally ignored by historians.  They deserve to be remembered in our record of the past.

There is no record of the criteria used in the late 1800s and early 1900s by society and newspaper editors in determining which noun to use when identifying a woman homesteader.  “Girl Homesteader” or “Lady Homesteader” – which is it?  In examining the newspapers that have been digitized by the Library of Congress, a search of the records shows that in South Dakota, “Girl Homesteader” appears in twenty-nine different newspapers and “Lady Homesteader” is found in twenty-six papers.  Nation-wide, ninety-two papers used “Girl” and one-hundred and forty used “Lady.”

Historians have estimated that about twelve percent of homesteaders in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and North and South Dakota were single women.  Lured by the Homestead Act, which gave any twenty-one-year-old who headed a household the right to homestead federal land.  Because of this policy, independent-thinking women joined the migration west to become landowners.

By the early 1900s, a woman could load her belongings on a train and in several days make a trip that earlier took months.  When she arrived near the location of her homestead, a land-locator would take her by wagon or Model T to find her claim.

Revisions were made to the Homestead Act in 1909 and 1912. They reduced the amount of time needed to “prove up,” and doubled the amount of land to be claimed.

Frontier women have provided us diverse and distinct examples of individuals who have adapted and resisted the dominant cultural patterns for women. Whenever they adapted themselves to “proper” behavioral patterns, they often did so in unique and strange ways.

“The Revolt of Mother,” a story of fiction was written in the nineteenth century and tells the story of a New England farm wife who moved her family into her husband’s new barn while he was away.  She did this to protest his insistence that new barns were more important than a new home for the family.

The historian Everett Dick noted the same activity when he wrote:

“There is a tendency for the homesteader to buy new machinery to till broad acres and build new barns to house more stock and grain, while the wife went about the drudgery of household life in the old way in a little drab dwelling over-shadowed by the splendor of machine farming.”

One observer of the settlement of the west noted that “plains travel and frontier life are peculiarly severe upon women and oxen.”  The harsh wooden seats of the covered wagons, the alternate eating and sleeping arrangements, the constant fear of danger, weather, storms, and childbirth in the middle of nowhere all made the woman’s life difficult and demanding.  These women are the true heroines of the westward journey!

The story is told of one farmer’s wife in the Midwest walking two and a half miles, with one child on her back and another holding her hand, in order to visit a new woman neighbor who had just moved into the area.  Together, they baked bread and pies, sewed clothing, and gossiped.  Just being together gave them comfort, courage, and hope.

The ratio of women to men on the frontier was one to three.  This is perhaps why many women agreed that “I could not possibly live there.”  But they did come to the frontier and stayed.  Most communities became communities only because some women came to the frontier, established families and homes, churches and schools.

These women came west and found themselves living in windowless homes with dirt floors or a dugout on the side of a hill.  They cleaned the dust and dirt from the home daily, knowing that the same task would have to be repeated tomorrow.  They endured the wrinkles and chapped hands, rough clothing, hoping against hope, that things would get better and they would have a mild winter.

Most women endured their life on the frontier because they had few options.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on July 10, 2024