This book is another excellent choice made by the conveners of my 19th century bookgroup. Letters of a Woman Homesteader (photo from here) is the story of Elinore Pruitt told in letters to her former employer, Mrs Coney. Elinore was a widow with a two year old daughter, Jerrine, when she decided to leave Denver where she had worked as a laundress, & go out to Burnt Fork, Wyoming as housekeeper to homesteader Clyde Stewart. Elinore longed for the great outdoors & felt stifled in town. Another incentive for the move was the fact that she could file a claim on land to build herself a home when she could afford it.
The overwhelming flavour of these letters is good humour. One of the bookgroup commented that Elinore was the kind of person who never met a stranger. I can’t put it any better than that. Elinore was a kind, helpful, practical woman who saw the good in everyone she met. She had replied to an ad placed by Mr Stewart &, when you think about it, that was taking a leap in the dark. To set out on a long journey into unknown territory with a stranger & a young child was quite a leap of faith. Elinore was very practical. She doesn’t confess this to Mrs Coney for some time but she & Mr Stewart were married only six weeks after arriving in Wyoming & she had been prepared to take this step from the beginning. The marriage may have begun as a practical proposition but it seems to have been happy. Elinore was a hard worker & not above bamboozling her husband to get her own way but she is genuinely fond of him & Jerrine (who also writes a letter to Mrs Coney) calls him “Our Clyde”.
Elinore’s appreciation of nature & the landscape of her new home is one of the beauties of the letters. On a trip to Green River, “I had more fun to the square inch than Mark Twain or Samantha Allen ever provoked.” They camped out on the week-long trip & only saw one house.
After driving all day over what seemed a level desert of sand, we came about sundown to a beautiful cañon, down which we had to drive for a couple of miles before we could cross. In the cañon the shadows had already fallen, but when we looked up we could see the last shafts of sunlight on the tops of the great bare buttes. … The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun’s last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes… Then we stopped to camp, and such a scurrying around to gather brush for the fire and to get supper!… It was too beautiful a night to sleep, so I put my head out to look and to think. I saw the moon come up and hang for a while over the mountain as if it were discouraged with the prospect, and the big white stars flirted shamelessly with the hills.
On her journeys, Elinore makes friends. On a camping trip she took with her daughter Jerrine, they are at risk of being lost when she comes across the lonely homestead of Zebulon Pike, a southerner who had lived alone with his animals for many years. He takes them in & next day helps them find their way. Elinore is troubled to think that Zeb has had no contact with his family for years (he’d left home after an unhappy love affair), so she writes to his sisters & tells him about his life. The result is that he makes a trip home to see his family & Elinore & her husband even arrange for someone to stay at Zeb’s farm & care for his animals. This is the pattern of Elinore’s life. She soon meets all her neighbours & becomes involved in the life of the community.
Elinore’s voice is comfortable & chatty. She begins one of her letters,
Dear Mrs Coney,
I feel just like visiting to-night, so I am going to “play like” you have come. It is so good to have you to chat with. Please be seated in this low rocker; it is a present to me from the Pattersons and I am very proud of it. I am just back from the Patterson ranch, and they have a dear little boy who came the 20th of November and they call him Robert Lane.
Elinore’s life is not without its sadnesses & challenges. Her first baby with Mr Stewart dies & she writes movingly of Jamie’s death & the fact that she read the service herself as there was no minister,
For a long time my heart was crushed. He was such a sweet, beautiful boy. I wanted him so much. He died of erysipelas. I held him in my arms until the last agony was over. Then I dressed the beautiful little body for the grave. Clyde is a carpenter; so I wanted him to make the little coffin. He did it every bit, and I lined and padded it, trimmed and covered it… it was a sad pleasure to do everything for our little first born ourselves. As there had been no physician to help, so there was no minister to comfort, and I could not bear to let our baby leave the world without leaving any message to a community that sadly needed it. His little message to us had been love, so I selected a chapter from John and we had a funeral service, at which all our neighbours for thirty miles around were present. So you see, our union is sealed by love and welded by a great sorrow.
Elinore had no formal education as she spent her childhood looking after younger siblings after the death of her parents when she was 14. She was a great reader & her letters are full of allusions to her favourite books. The letters span the years from 1909-1914. Elinore’s homestead still exists & her family are raising money for its restoration. There are photos of it here. I loved reading about Elinore’s hard but happy life. I downloaded my copy of Letters of a Woman Homesteader for free from ManyBooks. It’s also available from Girlebooks.