Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Could I Have Done It?  How About You?

A few weeks ago, Kerry at Clue Wagon recommended some books for summer reading.  One of them was Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart.  I'd just finished another book and since the library had it, I borrowed and read it.

Elinore moved to Burnt Fork, Wyoming, in 1909, along with her young daughter, Jerrine, to become housekeeper for a rancher, Clyde Stewart.  She claimed property of her own adjacent to Clyde's property, they married, and she built a house that adjoined his.  While most of her letters tell only bits and pieces of the work she did and much about events and activities in and around the community of Burnt Fork, her last letter told why she thought ranching was a good choice for a woman in 1913 or 1914 and she described her success.  She wrote, “I never did like to theorize, and so this year I set out to prove that a woman could ranch if she wanted to.”  She went on to explain how she grew potatoes on new ground, then planted a vegetable garden of almost an acre.  Her letter continues,
We had all the vegetables we could possibly use, and now Jerrine and I have put in our cellar full, and this is what we have:  one large bin of potatoes (more than two tons), half a ton of carrots, a large bin of beets, one of turnips, one of onions, one of parsnips, and on the other side of the cellar we have more than one hundred heads of cabbage.  I have experimented and found a kind of squash ... that keep well and makes good pies; also that the young tender ones make splendid pickles, quite equal to cucumbers....  They told me when I came that I could not even raise common beans, but I tried and succeeded.  And also I raised lots of green tomatoes....  Experimenting along another line, I found that I could make catchup, as delicious as that of tomatoes, of gooseberries....  Gooseberries were very plentiful this year so I put up a great many.  I milked ten cows twice a day all summer; have sold enough butter to pay for a year’s supply of flour and gasoline.  We use a gasoline lamp.  I have raised enough chickens to completely renew my flock, and all we wanted to eat, and have some fryers to go into the winter with.  I have enough turkeys for all of our birthdays and holidays.

I raised a great many flowers and I worked several days in the field.  In all I have told about I have had no help but Jerrine....  Many of my neighbors did better than I did, although I know many people would doubt my doing so much, but I did it.  I have tried every type of work this ranch affords, and I can do any of it.  Of course I am extra strong, but those who try know that strength and knowledge come with doing....

I found Elinore in the 1910 census on Heritage Quest.  She was 33 and already married to Clyde, age 42.  Her daughter, Jerrine, was 4 years old, and Elinore had a 2-month-old baby, James.  They were living in Burnt Fork, Sweetwater, Wyoming.

Could I succeed now as Elinore did then?  I don't think so.  Would I have succeeded then, had I been alive?  I'd like to think so, but I'm not sure.

Prior to reading Letters, I read Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel.  Schlissel studied more than 100 different women's pioneer journals, remembrances, and letters to find similarities in the their experiences.  The results of her study comprises the first half of the book.  The second half of the book contains the individual journals, diaries, and remembrances of about 15 women who made the westward trek.

I tell you, those ladies were strong!  Strong!  They lived through days of continuous, unending rain and days of temperatures above 100 degrees in the shade.  They cooked over smoky fires and tried to keep fires going in the rain.  They saw children run over by wagons and men sucked into the water while crossing rivers.  They gave birth to babies - having travelled while pregnant - or assisted women giving birth.  They dealt with serious illnesses themselves and/or nursed their families.  They buried children and husbands.  Often they counted the graves by the side of the trail.  But they kept going, day after day, sometimes only 12 or 15 or 18 miles each day.  When they arrived in Oregon or California, there was often nothing there.  Their destinations were usually not homes, but barren land where they intended to build homes.  One woman recorded that her husband drove her to their land, whereon sat a tiny sod hut, and asked her if that wasn't the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen.

I have no known pioneer ancestors of the westward movement, with their unique challenges.  But in many ways, I think all immigrants of years ago faced unique and difficult challenges:  the uncertainty and difficulty of the journey; illness; inconvenience and possibly outright hardship; separation from family and familiar surroundings; and acclimating themselves to new and different environments.  I'm grateful for my ancestors who ventured forth to new lands, especially to America.  I admire their stamina, determination, courage.

Could I do it?  Could I have done it?  Would I have been brave and strong and willing?  I would like to think so, but I just don't know....

How about you?


Copyright ©2010-2017 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Hi Nancy, What fascinating books. Truly amazing women and I doubt that I could be strong enough to do all they did. I have a blog friend in NC that I am going to send your way. She would love these books. Peggy @ Hidden Haven.
    Thanks for sharing these books with us.

  2. Nancy, I am so going to check into finding and reading these books! Thank you for sharing and thank you Mildred for sending me this way.

  3. Nancy, thanks so much for visiting my blog and commenting on my post about my mom (the one with the wedding pictures). I love this post you wrote about strong pioneer women. I don't know if I could have done it, but like to think I could have!


I appreciate your comments and look forward to reading what you have to say. Thanks for stopping by.

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