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Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota.

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 own families.

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 recovery."

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 say. .."

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.

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