Although I've always known that much of the American west was settled by homesteaders, I never gave much thought to who those homesteaders were. If I'd been pressed for my thoughts, the word "families" would have been there, along with farmers, and maybe ranchers. So you can imagine my surprise at Marcia Meredith Hensley's disclosure in Staking Her Claim that 12 percent of all homesteaders were single women, and that these women were generally well-educated and self-reliant. Of the twenty-four women whose stories were included in this book, all but three had professional careers at some point in their lives. Their lives after proving up on their homesteads varied widely, but despite the rigors of their experiences, all seemed pleased with their decisions to homestead.
Hensley did a masterful and scholarly job of researching and presenting these findings. Her documentation is meticulous, and the book will surely be used in college classrooms for decades to come, yet it is eminently readable. She begins the book with a demographic and statistical overview, explaining who these single women were and why we haven't heard more about them. The main part of the book is devoted to case studies drawn from magazine articles, personal correspondence, memoirs, and historical accounts. Hensley devotes a chapter to each, including excerpts from source material, interspersed with her explanatory comments.
As I read these accounts, my thoughts ran along two channels. First, I was inspired by the courage and persistence of these women who set forth against the norms of the day. Some had family help; others were entirely dependent on their own resources. All were challenged by the conditions of life on the raw edge of civilization. I also realized that the trails these single women withstood were faced by all homesteaders without regard to gender or marital status, and many of them may have been even more onerous for women bearing and raising small children.
I found one story especially poignant. Ida Gwynn Garvin was a forty-eight year old widow with seven children and an active case of tuberculosis when she set out to homestead in Choteau County, Montana, not far from her brother's homestead. She reported on the rigors of the experience and her own health in regular letters to her mother, who remained in Ohio. One of my great-grandmothers suffered with tuberculosis for the last sixteen years of her life, beginning the year Ida Garvin posted her claim. Although my great-grandparents were not homesteaders, they did move around the southwest like nomads, and life was surely no easier. Ida's story gives me deeper insight into the sketchy accounts of my grandmother's experience, helping her sisters care for their mother as she grew up.
These stories seem especially timely today as we sit in what would seem to those out on the frontier to be unimaginable luxury. A reminder of how little it actually takes to live a happy and fulfilling life may be beneficial as our national circumstances evolve and change. I am deeply grateful to Marcia Hensley for the insights this book prompted.
Marcia Hensley became intrigued by the plight of women on the frontier in the 1980s when she noticed a discrepancy between accounts of women who went west reluctantly, and the enthusiasm of female homesteaders. While she was Associate Professor of English at Western Wyoming Community College, she founded and directed the Western American Studies program in addition to teaching composition and literature classes. In 2004 she won the Wyoming Arts Councils Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award for writing inspired by nature.
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