Letters of a Woman Homesteader

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According to Bogart (2014), Elinore Pruitt was born in 1869 within what is today the state of Oklahoma, educated at Pierce Institute, and orphaned by 1893, moved, together with her daughter, to Denver, Colorado soon after the death of her first husband in 1906. There, she eventually worked in housekeeping for one Mrs. Juliet Coney, who was also a widow. In 1909, she moved to Burntfork, Wyoming for a housekeeping job in response to an advert by one Henry Clyde Stewart, an immigrant Scottish cattleman. Arriving there in March that year, Elinore filed a claim, which was later accepted, under one of the Homestead Acts for a 160-acre piece of land next to Clyde’s homestead. Shortly afterward, she started her correspondence with Mrs. Coney through letter-writing and also married Clyde. The letters would continue until 1914 and Mrs. Coney, who found them fascinating, would have them published in the Atlantic Monthly. Through this medium, they became famous and would letter provide the material for the two texts: Letters of a Woman Homesteader and Letters on an Elk Hunt.

In the letters in the Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Elinore expresses unmistakable enthusiasm and joy at the prospect of owning her own homestead (Stewart, 1914). She also displays a remarkable hardwork ethic and determination that were among the features of rural inhabitants in early twentieth century American West. Elinore’s sense of humor is also hard to miss in her letters. Besides her documentation of the rural American hardwork ethic and determination of the time, Elinore vividly documented some other aspects of rural American life in the West at the time.

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One of these concerns the sizes of homesteads at the time. While Elinore advances some homesteads as having, due to mostly circumstantial and unavoidable barriers, few children, she advances others as having as many children as seems in line with the noted high birth rates and fertility rates of the time (Dimitri et al., 2005; Jones & Tertilt, 2008, p. 15; Mercer, 2011). Indeed, while Cora Belle turns out to be the sole child of the Edmonsons due to the deaths of both her parents, Tam Campbell’s family is said to have up to six children (Stewart, 1914, pp. 20, 28). This is not unlike the five children that Elinore eventually had with Clyde. As a demonstration of the high infant mortality of the time, two of Elinore and Clyde’s children died while infants (Bogart, 2014; Thompson, 2016).

Another aspect of the American West rural life documented by Elinore in the letters is the transportation used. During her account of how she arrived at Burnfork, Elinore stated that she had been “twenty–four hours on the train and two days on the stage” (Stewart, 1914, p. 2). This corroborates the historical view of rural transportation there and then of consisting mainly of trains for interstate and very-long-distance travel. Combined with Elinore’s numerous other accounts, it also advances that carriages, coaches and wagons, pulled mainly by horses, were the main modes of shorter and slightly longer distance travels of the time. The account also demonstrates how far railway stations were from the typical rural American homestead at that time.
Also, Elinore’s relatively detailed accounts of her farm-life give us a glimpse of the daily life materials and activities of the early twentieth century rural West American homesteader. For one, according to Elinore, chicken, cattle, vegetables, fruits and dairy products all constituted core components of the diets and businesses of Burntfork residents (Stewart, 1914). Canning as a means of storing food reserves for winter is also highlighted in Elinore’s letters as when she and Mrs. O’Shaughnessy visit Zebbie’s home and have canned food preserved for them (Stewart, 1914, p. 25). This visit to Zebbie’s also brings to light the reality of the use of lamps for lighting in the night, an indicator that electricity had yet to penetrate rural America at that time. Atypical in other historical accounts but seemingly common in Elinore’s accounts was the rearing of sheep and the use of their wool for moneymaking as, for instance, when Cora Belle ventures into this business at the advice of Mrs. O’Shaughnessy (Iowa Public Television, 2016; Stewart, 1914, p. 21). However, the distinction of sheep-rearing in rural American homesteads of the time is also suggested in Elinore’s letters as when she advances that Cora Jane’s parents objected to her marriage to a Cora Belle’s father because he was a “sheep-man” (Stewart, 1914, p. 20).

Dietary components in Elinore’s accounts that seem to obscure, rather than highlight, the realities of rural American life at that time and place include honey and biscuits (Stewart, 1914, p. 28). In addition, some of Elinore’s accounts, which seem questionable, are likewise obscuring. Consider her accounts of the deaths of Cora Belle’s father and one Benny Lauderer, a German officer returning home from Philippines (Stewart, 1914, p. 16, 20). The latter account, which Elinore claims to have been “the only one who has heard it”, seems too romanticized and is thus likely exaggerated either by Elinore or by the ex-Sherriff she claims to have heard the story from during one Christmas (Stewart, 1914, p. 16). Both this story and that Cora Belle’s father seem to suggest that rural life in the American West at the time was more dangerous than it likely was. A similar effect is achieved by the account of George Goley’s death and its aftermath (Stewart, 1914, p. 24).

In all, Elinore’s letters provide a rich and detailed picture of rural life in the American West at the turn of the twentieth century. While there are some accounts in the letters that obscure some aspects of the same, it seems clear that historians are generally on safe grounds when using the letters as a historical reference for the subject. Indeed, even though it has been remarked that Elinore “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”, historians should be keen to not let the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of Elinore’s “storytelling” get in the way of her letters as a rich source of historical information on rural America in the early twentieth century (George, 2004).

  • Bogart, B. A. (2014, November 14). Elinore Pruitt Stewart, writer and homesteader. Retrieved from https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/elinore-pruitt-stewart-writer-and-homesteader
  • Dimitri, C., Effland, A., & Conklin, N. (2005). The 20th century transformation of U.S. agriculture and farm policy (EIB-3). Retrieved from U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Economic Research Service website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=44198
  • George, S. K. (2004). Stewart, Elinore Pruitt (1876-1933). In D. J. Wishart (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Retrieved from http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.gen.036
  • Iowa Public Television. (2016, December 5). Rural Midwest farm life in the early 20th century. Retrieved from http://www.iptv.org/iowapathways/artifact/rural-midwest-farm-life-early-20th-century
  • Jones, L. E., & Tertilt, M. (2008). An economic history of fertility in the U.S.: 1826-1960. In Frontiers of family economics (pp. 165-230). Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald Group.
  • Mercer, M. (2011, May). A consideration on early 20th century American culture. Retrieved from http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/Imagine-living-through-the-progress.php
  • Stewart, E. P. (1914). Letters of a woman homesteader [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://the-wow-collection.com/software/lstead.pdf
  • Thompson, D. (2016, February 11). America in 1915: Long hours, crowded houses, death by trolley. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/02/america-in-1915/462360/

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