Candy Moulton: Give Me A Homestead

Columnist Candy Moulton writes, "Homesteading was not for the faint at heart as Elenore and her young daughter Jerrine found out. They left for the small Wyoming community of Burntfork in response to an ad placed in early 1909..."

Candy Moulton

June 05, 20245 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

“Any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed,” wrote Elenore Pruitt Stewart in 1913 of her effort to establish a Wyoming homestead for herself and her daughter.

Not only will such women succeed, Stewart wrote in one of her letters to a former employer in Denver on Jan. 23, 1913, but she “will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end.”

Oh, and she will have calloused hands, dirt under her nails, and most likely freckles on her nose even if she wears a good sunbonnet or hat.

Homesteading was not for the faint at heart as Elenore and her young daughter Jerrine found out.

They had been living in Denver but left the city for the small southwestern Wyoming community of Burntfork in response to an ad placed in early 1909 by Clyde Stewart, whose wife had died.

Stewart wanted to hire a woman who could assist with housekeeping but he wasn’t seeking a mail order bride (at least not in an outright appeal for one!)

Working for Stewart, Elinore and Jerrine enjoyed Wyoming’s wide-open spaces. They went on camping trips and she wrote about some of those adventures in other letters that became her book Letters On An Elk Hunt.

Elinore was a pragmatic woman, who had every intention of filing on homestead land when she made the decision to take her daughter and leave Denver.

Aware of homestead laws, she knew she could qualify for a 160-acre section and that claiming land would give her more opportunity.

Determined to improve her lot in life, soon after she started working for Stewart she filed a homestead claim on land adjacent to his.

And while she may have craved independence, Elinore was also a practical woman. Because a house was a requirement to prove up on any homestead, she and Clyde joined efforts.

Instead of constructing a separate house that was one key component to proving up on a homestead, they built a 12 x 16-foot addition to his house. It straddled the property line of their two homesteads.

This meant it was a single house to maintain and they believed that the two adjacent living spaces fulfilled the requirements of the 1862 homestead law.

The house she and Clyde lived in became a sprawling structure that is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Elinore wanted her own land, and her own house, but once she had set herself up for independence, she and Clyde Stewart got married!

This change in her domestic status put Elinore’s homestead claim at risk since married women could only claim jointly with their husbands.

Further, if a husband and wife filed on separate homesteads, as Elinore and Clyde had done, they needed to maintain separate residences.

Instead of adding on to his house they should have built a separate structure just feet from his home.

Now married and not willing to risk losing the land she had claimed, Elinore relinquished her claim to her new mother-in-law and in that way kept the land in the family.

While the land might not have remained in her name, almost certainly she still felt the attachment and opportunity it offered to her.

For years after she moved to Wyoming, Elinore wrote letters to her former employer in Denver, expressing her interest in and work developing the homestead.

The letters Elinor Pruitt Stewart wrote became a book Letters From a Woman Homesteader. Decades later the material became inspiration for the film “Heartland.”

Homesteading was a long-established practice in the West by the time Elinor Pruitt filed her claim.

When the Homestead Act went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman was in Brownville, Neb., to claim the ground he wanted along Cub Creek not far from the town of Beatrice, Neb. His claim was recorded as Certificate No. 1, Application No. 1, in the Brownville land office.

More than 400 other men also filed for homesteads that day in other land offices, but Freeman’s land claim is promoted as the first in the nation. His land near Beatrice, Neb., is now a part of Homestead National Monument of America.

The homestead law was open to anyone who met very basic and progressive requirements, including women, most (but not all) immigrants, and, beginning in 1868, African Americans. Eventually, homesteads were found in 30 states.

Because government regulations defined the head of household as the husband, women were forced to forestall marriage for five years if they wished their land titled to themselves, but this did not deter many women who were determined to strike out on their own.

Cases in point are the Chrisman sisters, who lived in Custer County, Nebraska, in the heart of the Sandhills near Broken Bow. Their father and brothers already had homesteads. Lizzie Chrisman was the first of the girls to file a homestead claim near her male relatives, doing so in 1887. 

Sister Lutie Chrisman filed her claim the following year.  Although both built homes, they took turns living with each other so they could fulfill the residence requirements without being alone.

Younger sisters, Hattie and Jennie Ruth, had to wait until they came of age to file and while Hattie did claim land, the nearby property was all taken before youngest sister Jennie could homestead.

The Chrisman sisters had claimed their own land, but it like the land Elinor Pruitt had claimed, became part of a larger family ranching operation.

Candy Moulton can be reached at

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Candy Moulton

Wyoming Life Columnist

Wyoming Life Columnist