Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in
Book review by Marion Mertz
Lindgren, H. Elaine. Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota. Fargo, North Dakota: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1991.
Refusing to accept the stereotype that females were "reluctant
pioneers," H. Elaine Lindgren sets out to prove that homesteading
women, as well as men, accepted the challenge of life on the prairie
with hope and determination. These active and decisive women were
visionaries seeking independence, freedom, and security. They staked
their own claims.
Punctuated by tables, statistics, and legal records, Lindgren's
story tells of these determined women whose love of this virgin
land drew them to the Garden of the World, North Dakota. The author
substantiates her findings with 306 case studies garnered from personal
interviews, questionnaires, documents, written accounts, news articles,
pictures, personal interviews, and information from friends and
relatives. The book is replete with photographs, names, recorded
land transactions, diary entries, and vivid anecdotes. It has a
fund of information for those seeking background histories on their
We read about one of these staunch women: After a long, arduous
journey in 1908 by rail, stage, ferry, and buckboard from Grantville,
25 miles east of Minot, to Alexander in McKenzie County, Ada Kelsey,
on arriving with her sister at the shack which their father, Alex
Kelsey, had built £or them, recalls, "I'll never forget
that cabin as long as I live. It was a one-room shack, eight by
ten feet, and sided with clapboard. There was a door in the center
and a small window at each end. The boards of the curved roof were
covered with tarpaper. Dad had dumped a load of coal on the ground
to last our stay. A few feet away stood a small outhouse made from
scrap boards and covered with burlap. For a moment we just sat there
in the buckboard and quietly stared. I think even the horses wanted
to go back."
In that sparsely settled country, doctors were scarce and medical
facilities were few. “When Barbara Stracker became desperately
ill she hung out a white cloth as a signal £or help. The mail
carrier saw the cloth and summoned assistance. Barbara was taken
to a hospital in Miles City, Montana, where it was discovered that
her appendix had ruptured seven days earlier. She made a miraculous
Another story of an enterprising woman is that of Caroline May,
who "...helped build fence, milk cows, raise chickens, and
a garden. They had to mine their own coal for winter. She helped
with the haying. She helped outside but never got much help inside."
Hanna Amanda Boesen Anderson wrote: “I have learned to handle
a saw, so I have made windowsills and a doorsill. My neighbor came
over and said it was well done for a woman.”
Helma Nelson, after reading an erroneous newspaper account that
she had frozen to death, wrote to the editor: "My 'shanty'
is not of the warmest kind and I was caught there in the big blizzard
of March 14, 15, and 16. I had only a limited supply of fuel and
had not reckoned on a storm like that. When my fuel was gone, I
broke up my table, bed and everything I had and burned it. After
that I appropriated the bedstead and floor for fuel out of a claim
shanty about twenty feet away, belonging to Miss Hannah Sollin.”
Karen Kittelson Olson told of "...having to wait for six weeks
until she had the two cents to buy a stamp to mail it [a letter]."
Incidents of rape, abuse, and assault were rarely talked about.
However, one newspaper article stated: "Last Saturday noon
a tramp of the lowest type appeared at the home of a young lady,
who is holding down her claim some few miles south of here and demanded
something to eat. After finishing his meal, he immediately made
an unsuccessful attempt to rape her. The young lady fought herself
free from the brute and escaped to the home of a neighbor..."
Sexual harassment victimized pioneer women in indirect ways as
well. One mentioned “turning down a teaching position when
she heard a man brag that he slept with all the teachers."
Not all life on the prairie was fearful. Many women found enjoyment
in knitting, sewing quilts, painting, music, woodcarving, poetry,
and playing the organ and piano. Annetta Erickson wrote two books
of songs. Special events were a time for fun. Carrie Doolittle recalled
a Halloween prankster printing "Doolittle and sit much"
in chalk on her shack.
In her diary, Effie Vivian Smith recorded her feelings about a
literary society meeting. "Next Fri. I am on again & the
question is: Is marriage a failure: I can't think of a thing to
Land in Her Own Name is easy reading. The print, set well
with plenty of white space, keeps one reading cover to cover. It
is packed with colorful portraiture, intriguing anecdotes, historical
references, and many names. The index has a broad referral to the
pioneers mentioned in the book. The bibliography encourages further
study with references given chapter by chapter.
H. Elaine Lindgren is a sociologist at North Dakota State University
in Fargo. Her primary interest is in the process of social change.
She helped to establish a women's study program at NDSU. Lindgren
lives in Fargo with her husband, Jon, who teaches economics at NDSU.
They have a son and a daughter.