Thursday, February 21, 2013

Women on the Prairie

City Hotel in St. John, Kansas
In searching for images to accompany this blog I observed that often the women photographed in everyday scenes were at the back of the picture, standing behind the men.  You will need to click on the image at the right to enlarge it enough to find the women at the rear door of the City Hotel in St. John, Kansas.  That is an appropriate allegory for how the role of women in homesteading the prairie is often seen--a wife surrounded by children standing behind her husband.  Certainly many of the women on the prairie were wives who came with their husbands to stake a claim, but it must be remembered that those wives, and the children as well, worked side-by-side with their husbands, not necessarily doing the same chores but doing other things that needed to be done if they were to survive and prosper.
The requirements for homesteading were that the claimant be the head of the household or be single and at least 21 years of age.  The claimant's gender was not specified.  As a result, many homesteaders were women--single, widowed, or divorced.  The ratio of men to women homesteaders varied from place to place and year to year, but estimates range from five to twenty percent of homesteaders being women.
Woman gathering buffalo chips for fuel
The women in my family who came to Isaac's community to build a new life on the prairie came with their husbands--Susan Beck, Theresa Hall, and Mary Wilson.  However, two of Isaac's nearest neighbors were women homesteaders.
Persis Vosburgh was an unmarried lady, born in New York state in about 1837.  She came to Kansas with her younger brother Jerome and his wife Ann.  After Ann's death, Persis helped raise her brother's children who were still at home--Fay, Leila, and Fannie.  Because of her close connection with her brother, (she was counted in his household in both the 1880 Federal Census and the 1885 Kansas Census), there were those who raised an objection to her claim as a homesteader, believing Persis had not maintained a residence on her claim.  At a vigilance meeting at the Naron School in the spring of 1885 to discuss what to do about claim jumpers, Isaac, William Campbell, and C. W. Shattuc supported Persis against those who said she did not meet the requirement of residing on her land.
In 1888 Persis Vosburgh died while on a visit to New York state to see family.  Isaac farmed her land following her death, growing corn and plowing fire guards to protect her trees from prairie fires.  Her heirs eventually conveyed it to G. G. John, the man who cared for Isaac during the final five months Isaac was able to remain in his own home.
Isaac's other unmarried neighbor was Isabel Ross, a divorced woman with children still at home.  When Mrs. Ross made the decision to claim her homestead just to the east of Isaac's timber claim, Isaac called on her to make out a lumber list for what would be necessary to build her soddy.  He wrote in his journal that she had so many architectural ideas that he was glad the job of contractor went to Tousley, another neighbor.  However, Isaac worked on the job from the time the soddy was staked until he dug her well after the structure was finished.
Although divorce was rather uncommon in those times, the court records on file explain why Isabel Ross filed against her husband.  She claimed he abused her and their children and he claimed she was an unfit mother, but she prevailed in the suit and was given custody of their children.  Over time, Isaac's initial opinion of her changed, and his journal records many kindnesses he showed her--taking corn husks and cobs to her for fuel in storms, helping tie down her stable roof in winds, papering inside her soddy roof to reduce drafts in the winter.  Despite these acts of thoughtfulness, Isaac continued calling her Mrs. Ross, avoiding the more personal use of her first name.
Susan Beck & daughter Anna Marie
My great grandmother Susan Beck is a good example of women who remained on the land with their children after misfortune.  Her husband, Aaron, suffered a stroke in about 1891, and Isaac's journal describes a sale at the Beck's about that time. During the 1890s, Susan taught in nearby Pratt County country schools.  Their older child, Royal, was a teenager, old enough to do work on the farm with direction, and by the time of Aaron's death in 1900, Royal and Susan had bought land and had begun building a house.  Daughter Anna Marie was already following her mother's footsteps as a teacher in Stafford County schools, and both mother and daughter spent a year teaching in Colorado before setting up their household in St. John.  Royal remained on the farm and brought his bride, Lillian Hall, to the home he and his mother had built.  Although Susan was not initially widowed, she did become the primary provider for her family as her husband's health failed, and she kept the family together in their prairie home.
The roles of women on homesteads, whether as the claimant or the wife, daughter, or unmarried sister or aunt of the male claimant, should not be overlooked or minimized in the settling of the prairie.  You might enjoy Staking Her Claim:  Homesteading the West, by Marcia Meridith Hensley,

 P.S.  The woman pictured gathering buffalo chips is Ada McColl, believed to be the first female photographer in Kansas.  She is known for documenting everyday life on the prairie, as well as for portraiture.  Her homestead was in Kearny County, and she began working as a photographer in the late 1800s in Garden City.  The image is taken from an old postcard.  

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