Review: Letters of a Woman Homesteader
I downloaded Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart on the strength of a review on Amazon that said, simply, I wouldn’t regret it. And I didn’t. There are 26 letters, written from Elinore to her previous employer Mrs Coney. They span the years 1909 to 1913 when Elinore took her daughter Jerrine to Wyoming to take up a homestead and work for a cattle rancher, Clyde Stewart, as a housekeeper.
It turned out that Elinore was not only a useful housekeeper but quite at home working the farm, hunting, riding and generally embracing a life on the land. She also writes of these experiences lovingly and beautifully. Even though the historian in me had many questions about the truthfulness of the letters, the reader in me fell into the story anyway.
Elinore was mostly self-educated as her parents died when she was young and she had to bring up her eight younger siblings. She married Harry Cramer Rupert, a railroad worker, and Jerrine was born in 1906.
According to the letters, after his death she moved to Denver to work as a washerwoman for Mrs Coney before taking the job as a housekeeper with Stewart and filing a land claim in 1909. Her land adjoined his so she could work for him while ‘proving up’ her place. She had a house built and planted potatoes. She became close friends with other women in the area and often travelled into the wilderness to camp out and visit friends. Elinore believed that any woman could be a homesteader as it “requires less strength and labor to raise plenty to satisfy a large family than it does to go out to wash”, and in the letters she regularly explains how homesteading is a wonderful path for a woman.
An early feminist? Probably not, but she did believe in independence and wanted to life a full and interesting life.
Eventually she reveals that she married Clyde Stewart just six weeks after arriving in Wyoming (it is unclear how long she knew him before this). She had three sons, one of which died as an infant. In the letters she says that she kept this a secret from Mrs Coney because she didn’t want her to think badly of her.
The historian in me wanted to know more so I found an academic journal article about Elinore written in 1991 called ‘Single Women Homesteaders: the perplexing case of Elinore Pruitt Stewart’ by Sherry L. Smith and downloaded the pdf to my Kindle(!) so I could read it after I’d finished the letters themselves.
This article answered a few questions. It seems that Elinore’s first husband didn’t die – they divorced and that she didn’t tell Mrs Coney about her quick marriage because it was done mere days after she had filed her claim for land as a widow (as the rules ‘technically’ allowed). The house she had built was in fact an addition to her new husband’s existing house and she and her husband worked the two homesteads together.
Besides this, the article discusses how women homesteaders use the legal loopholes to improve their family’s situation, rather than being true ‘single women homesteaders’. It is an interesting read. I’d like to find something a bit more recent to read about this topic too.
As for the letters, they are a fascinating glimpse into an uncommon woman’s approach to life, even today. They are engaging, funny and descriptive so that even someone far removed from the type of life she lead, could understand the events and situations she was in.
Tomorrow I’m going to read (but not photograph – that is another story) my own family’s letters and papers at the State Library of Victoria so that will be fascinating.
The image is of Elinore working the fields.