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Women Homesteaders--Struggles with Adversity,
This review is from: Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West (Paperback)
Marcia Hensley mulled over this material, gathering and researching and thinking for a long time. Like many books, the germ of the idea began, no doubt, with a few instances which stimulated her curiosity. Were there more women who hearkened to the goading of Horace Greeley, "Go West, Young Man!"? How many? A significant number? Were they dreaming the same dreams? Were there women's stories untold and undisclosed in the development of the Mountain West, a milieu dominated with men's stories?
Hensley shows us that indeed there were such stories. The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the door for men and single women--"heads of households" specifically--to acquire land by a few years of "proving up," and then eventually owning the land. Revisions to the act in 1909 and 1912 continued the westering prospects for those willing, and more women tried it then than earlier. Not as many women as men tried it, but there were some, and the book puts that together for us in a compilation of historic and literary examples. Homesteading wasn't easy, and many of both genders failed along the way. But some had the necessary grit, and they succeeded. These are their stories.
Standing around and being dainty wasn't the way of the woman homesteader. Instead they coped, somehow, with the pestiferous--pack rats, mice, snakes (including lots of rattlers), prairie dogs, coyotes, porcupines, jackrabbits and more, dispatching some with their rifles, or traps, or something as uncomplicated as a shovel. Whack! Off with their heads!
Some coped with intense cold of winter, and intense heat of summer, and other difficult weather conditions. They usually lived, for several months a year at least, in small spaces, sometimes dug out of the earth, rather than more common sorts of habitations. Some walked long distances for a bucket of precious water, to be carefully doled out for too many needs. Others walked miles just to visit a neighbor and break the monotony of the wide open spaces. They tried gardening and too often lost most of their crops to rabbits, prairie dogs, birds, and grasshoppers, or conditions that were far too arid for successful crop raising. A lucky few managed, with some hired support, to yield a good crop of oats, or wheat, or alfalfa on their acreage, while some might have not much but a good crop of rocks.
Hensley gives us these stories by various means, first through early 1900s magazine articles. Then we get to read letters homesteaders sent to loved ones somewhere, which were saved. A few memoirs were uncovered, written some years later. Historical records yielded some stories of women homesteaders. A few homesteaders give oral histories of their experiences. Hensley puts all this together for us in a logical and readable fashion, integrating a varied fare into a meaningful whole, entertaining and intriguing. And a variety of photos are distributed throughout the book for our further interest and edification about the text. All has been carefully researched and documented.
Despite the arduous and frustrating struggles, most of these women earned a sense of triumph over adversity. They exemplify the often questing human spirit at its best. And they show us once more how women should not be underestimated, then or now.