History is the sum total of choices and actions that make up the past. A historic record is evidence that is left behind for those in the present and future to read or ignore, interpret, try to understand.
Do you ever wonder about your ancestors? How did they live? What choices did they make? What events shaped their lives?
One of the best known pieces of U.S. public land legislation is the Homestead Act of 1862. This land act signed into law by President Lincoln brought thousands of people west. According to Elizabeth Jameson, who wrote the forward to “Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota”, between 1868 and 1955 the United States government distributed almost 250 million acres of land to private individuals. In exchange, homesteaders were expected to pay a small fee, improve the land and live upon it for at least 5 years.
The perception is that homesteaders were men or families headed by men. In reality, thousands of single women and women with children homesteaded as well.
“Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota” by E. Elaine Lindgren is a study of just 306 of the women that chose to participate in the western movement and settlement or resettlement of land in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.
These women came from a variety of backgrounds and ethnic groups. Each made the decision to homestead in North Dakota, and filed preemption, homestead or tree claims in their own names. Her work not only draws upon the records themselves, but also from questionnaires, interviews, letters, documents and pictures provided by a sample of these homesteaders and/or their friends and relatives.
It is important to note here that married women could not file a claim in their own name, unless they were the designated head of household; so these are not women that followed their husband’s desire for land. These are all women that chose on their own accord to participate in the westward movement and settlement of the United States.
Like most settlers, many of these women came with friends or family, and established their homes nearby. Yet their choices and experiences provide additional insight into the makeup and historical development of North Dakota; and shed light on opportunities available to women during this time period.
Lindgren’s work opens the door on the motivations, lives and experiences of the women in the study. She has placed tables of information amongst pictures, letters and personal stories. Lindgren provides analysis without detracting from the personal stories.
One hundred percent of the women in her study “proved up”. Some chose to stay on their homestead for the rest of their life. Some sold it and used it to finance their life elsewhere. One sold hers to pay her mother’s medical bills. Some left, but kept the land for the rest of their lives, using rent from the land to generate revenue. Others lost their land to economic woes.
If you’d like a glimpse into the lives of women that homesteaded in North Dakota, check out this book. If this subject interests you, the notes provided by Elizabeth Jameson at the end of the foreword and Lindgren at the end of the book provide a number of articles, journals and books for further exploration.