“This is all the home I now have”: Deserted and Widowed Homesteaders

“This is all the home I now have”: Deserted and Widowed Homesteaders

Rebecca S. Wingo, Macalaster College

9780803296794Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History is a co-authored book by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo. Their book is now available through Amazon and the University of Nebraska Press. The authors encourage you to visit their website to explore what they advance as new understandings of the Homestead Act that challenge and provide nuance to some of the accepted scholarship about the law. There you will also find their data, maps, and graphs of the network of witnesses in each township. The following is an adaptation of their findings on deserted and widowed women homesteaders in Nebraska presented by Rebecca S. Wingo at the Western History Association conference in November 2017.





Edward Wells, a blacksmith in Broken Bow, Nebraska, fell ill in early December 1887, the same month he was scheduled to finalize his homestead claim. On December 5th his two witnesses appeared at the land office during his scheduled appointment to testify that he was unable to make the hearing. Abner Brown stated of Edward, “He now requires constant daily nursing—he is not able to lie down and sleep but must sit in a chair to sleep—cannot wear anything but large slippers on his feet.” The land agent pushed the hearing back until December 15th. In his stead, his wife Delila Wells appeared and testified that her husband had died. Her testimony was not enough. Her witnesses had to verify her statement. Thomas Parrott, a witness and boarder on the Wells’ property, said that he,

knows from personal knowledge that the Claimant said Edward J. Wells is now dead, that he was personally present in the house of said Claimant on above described land at the time of the death of said claimant – that said claimant died sitting in a chair, at 3 o’clk and 15 minutes P.M. on Friday, December 9th A.D. 1887 in the said house on their said land–that he has been personally acquainted with said Edward J. Wells since the year 1881 and that he is positive, and cannot be mistaken, that the person whom he saw die as aforesaid was the identical person who made original Homestead Entry No. 9497.

When Wells signed her “X” on her final claim, the land agent signed the final affidavit “Edward J. Wells by Delila Wells his wife,” but then smudged out “wife” and wrote “widow” instead.

The last days of Edward’s life were hard on Wells and complicated even more by the necessity of complying with the General Land Office’s bureaucratic timeframes and appointments. Because of her clear hardship, Wells’s male neighbors and friends came together to help finalize her claim. Her testimony speaks to determination and cooperation as well as sadness. When asked about her residency on the land, she responded, “Actual & continuous—Have had no other home or place to live.” She continued, “I want this land for my own personal home—this is all the home I now have.”[1]

wingo map
Map of the townships in Custer and Dawes counties that comprise the Study Area. Image by Katie Nieland.

             Wells was one of 64 women in our study area who proved up their homestead claims and received title to their land. They comprised 10.3 percent of all study area homesteaders, which is a percentage roughly on par with other samples of women homesteaders across the West.[2] Our study area included 621 homesteaders in ten townships in Custer and Dawes counties, Nebraska, where the majority of the land transferred from the public domain via homesteading. That said, there were more than 64 women using the Homestead Act to build homes, farms, and futures. There were 407 married male homesteaders, or, 407 other women homesteaders not counted because of nineteenth-century conventions. We know from many other accounts that wives were critical to the success of homesteads; their income from sales of butter and eggs often saved the family from starvation when the crops failed or were destroyed. In many cases they also joined men in the heavier work in the fields.[3] While this blog focuses on a few of the 64 women who homesteaded in their own names, we should not lose sight of the larger group of married women who also struggled to succeed at homesteading.

And among those 64 women, widowed and deserted women homesteaders occupied a strange legal space, and—like Wells—often relied on cooperation and support from male neighbors. Within our Study Area, the local community often rallied to support nontraditional women’s homestead claims, particularly inheritance and desertion. However, these women also helped each other in interesting ways.


cramer app
A page of Elizabeth Cramer’s application of final proof at the North Platte Land Office. Image courtesy of Fold3.com.

Inheritance cases like Delila Wells’—whose witnesses had to verify her claim that her husband was indeed dead—were not all that unique. For example, Elizabeth Cramer’s husband died in October 1886, and approximately one year later she sought to prove up the inherited claim. Her statement and those of her witnesses pertained to her deceased husband, not to her own right to the claim. Cramer further had to prove to the Land Office that she was in fact the widow of Paul Cramer. One of her witnesses testified when asked, “Have known her for years. Is the person she claims to be.” Complicating matters, she was unable to reach the land office on her scheduled date due to a severe storm, provoking yet another sworn statement from her witnesses validating her delay. Without the testimony of her neighbors as to her identity, intent of claim, and reason for her tardiness, she may well have lost her land.[4]

cramer testimony
Elizabeth Cramer’s sworn testimony upon final proof at the North Platte Land Office. Image courtesy of Fold3.com.


Cramer identified her profession as “Keeping house & farming for self alone,” but we also catch a glimpse of the importance of her community: she made additional money after her husband died keeping house for a neighbor. During her time of need, her neighbors ensured her a steady income and her right to the homestead. As inheritance cases like Cramer and Wells demonstrate, support from neighbors and others in the local area was often crucial for a claimant to secure her land patents.

Desertion occurred in only two instances within our Study Area. These women had trouble asserting a right to the land because of both misinformation and legal barriers. They, like their widowed counterparts, relied on the advocacy of their male neighbors to secure their patents. For example, Mary Candee and her husband, Russell, built their homestead in Dawes County in 1887. Twenty-seven years old at the time, Candee found herself running the homestead alone after Russell abandoned her and their four children in April 1891. Candee continued to reside on the land and make improvements in compliance with the law, but she failed to understand the legal nuances of the time limits to file.

candee proof

Mary Candee’s Proof of Posting. Image courtesy of Fold3.com.

Candee knew that without finalization, her husband’s claim to the land expired after seven years. She wrongly concluded that she had to wait until Russell’s claim expired to re-file on the land, then wait five more years to prove-up and earn the title in her own name. That would total 13 years of continuous residency with no title to show for it. According to the law, however, if she could simultaneously demonstrate her husband’s failure to prove-up and her own success, she could count all her years toward her own claim. This stipulation meant that her claim would expire when Russell’s did—in 1894 instead of 1899 like she believed. Candee nearly missed her window. She realized this only in the seventh year. Two men—Lincoln and William Shove—testified on her behalf that her residence was continuous since 1887, her husband did indeed desert her and her children, and her improvements were legitimately hers alone. Candee undeniably worked hard to improve her claim, which included a buggy shed, cave, frame barn, hen house, and log house worth approximately $350. Without the support of her neighbors and the leniency of the land agent, however, Candee easily could have surpassed the time limit to file, and lost the land and her improvements to another settler.[5]

In the other desertion case, Mary Steinman of Custer County was left with an inherited homestead and four children to care for after her husband, William Gardner, died in 1881. She remarried to Jacob Steinman in 1882. In 1883 Jacob abandoned her, and thanks to 19th century law, Jacob’s name was now on the claim. Not to be stymied by two marriage failures (although I’m sure William didn’t mean to die), Steinman swore an affidavit at the Land Office on her own behalf: “For the last two years my husband…has deserted me and has not contributed to myself or family.” Interestingly, her two witnesses both testified that she was “formerly” the wife of Jacob, and further testified to her status as “head of a family,” shifting her claim status from Widow/Remarried/Abandoned to Head of Household in order to prevent Jacob from returning to claim the property. In other words, her neighbors helped her accomplish a legal status that she would otherwise have been denied.  Steinman’s case demonstrates not only the power of community, but also the necessity of it.[6]

steinman witneses

Testimony of one of Steinman’s witnesses that she is the “head of a family.” Image courtesy of Fold3.com.

There’s a thread throughout the examples I just gave about the importance of men in women’s homesteading. Just marinate in that irony for a second. Our data, however, shows that women were intentionally pushing forward their own social and legal liberation through the act of witnessing. Out of 557 male claimants, only in two instances did men use women as witnesses. Women, though, called upon other women as witnesses at over ten times the rate as men. With little exception, women witnesses provided the same information in the same vernacular as male witnesses, leaving no discernable difference between male and female testimony. Whether or not to use a male or female witness would seem to have been decided by social norms, or perhaps the preferences of the local land agents.


Though women were rarely listed as possible witnesses, and even more rarely called to testify, Dawes County contains the only instance in which women serve as both of the witnesses, in Josephine Lane’s claim. They were all widows. Lane asked Martha Bowdish and Ellen Abbott to testify on her behalf, and used them rather than the two men listed in her Proof-of-Posting. Bowdish and Abbott testified on behalf of Julius, Lane’s husband who had died on April 19, 1891, before he could finalize his claim. The witnesses discussed “his” improvements (worth $1500) for “his” family on “his” land. Rather than acknowledging the property as inherited by Lane, the women gave testimony for the deceased. What’s more interesting is that at the time of each of their proofs, Bowdish, Abbott, and Lane had geographically closer male neighbors. They bypassed them in favor of choosing their female friends nearby.

Delila Wells’ words are haunting: “This is all the home I now have.” But for some women, the homestead was more than a home. It was a place to challenge the status quo and their own place in it. The use of women as witnesses in the claim process, even though rare, indicates social as well as legal change, spurred on by women, for women. Women homesteaders—not just those who claimed land in their own names—often formed the heart of social activity on the Great Plains, but they hardly occupied an equal place in the legal sphere. And that went double for widowed and deserted women, many of whom started the process as part of a married partnership. Women pressed the bounds of imposed limitations with and sometimes without the help of their male counterparts. The women homesteaders in the Study Area also press the bounds of current homesteading scholarship, suggesting that widowed women may have more commonly taken advantage of a presumed single woman’s law than previously thought.


[1] Delila Wells, Homestead Records: North Platte Land Office, Township 17N, Range 24W, Section 33, Fold3.com Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014, http://www.fold3.com/image/283893798/.

[2] See in particular, Sheryll Patterson-Black, “Women Homesteaders on the Great Plains Frontier,” Frontiers 1 (Spring 1976): 67-88; Elaine Lindgren, Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 52; and Paula Bauman, “Single Women Homesteaders in Wyoming, 1880-1930,” Annals of Wyoming 58 (Spring 1986): 39-53.

[3] On the importance of the homesteader’s wife’s work, see Barbara Handy-Marchello, Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier, 1870-1930 (St. Paul: Minnesota State Historical Society, 2005), Chapter 3.

[4] Elizabeth Cramer, Homestead Records: North Platte Land Office, Township 19N, Range 21W, Section 28, Fold3.com Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014, http://www.fold3.com/image/283895307/.

[5] Mary Candee, Homestead Records: Alliance Land Office, Township 30N, Range 51W, Section 35, Fold3.com Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014, http://www.fold3.com/image/273498176/.

[6] Mary E. Steinman, Homestead Records: North Platte Land Office, Township 17N, Range 24W, Section 31, Fold3.com Digital Archive, accessed June 26, 2014, http://www.fold3.com/image/283873664/.


The Hired Girl in Norwegian America

The Hired Girl in Norwegian America

Lori Lahlum, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Upon completing my coursework for a master’s degree in history, I moved back to the family farm to finish researching and to write my thesis.  Moving back home with one’s parents while completing a degree is not so unusual.  That summer, however, I also had a job on the farm: hired girl.  (And, that was official job title I typed on the W-2 form.)  My duties included: cooking when my mother was gone, moving machinery to and from the fields, running errands, canning, and helping out as needed.  The cooking would be significant because at the time my mother served as chairwoman of the Farm Bureau Women’s Committee and, as such, was also a member of the North Dakota Farm Bureau Board of Directors.  She traveled for meetings and special events, and when she was gone I did the cooking.  Quite frankly, there were days when I made almost no progress writing that summer because I was busy cooking, getting lunch ready, and then canning.   As a hired girl, I continued a long work tradition in Norwegian America that also hearkened back to Norway.  The type of labor, though, differed historically in the two countries.

In Norway, most women in rural areas spent a portion of their youth working as servants on farms.  The farm buildings and barns were clearly the domain of women.  This meant women milked cows, mucked out the barns, raked and stacked hay on the hesje (a special fence to dry hay), and fed and watered the typically shedded livestock, among other duties.  Seasonally, women might plant and harvest crops, although this varied regionally.  On larger farms, some young women were hired to provide domestic labor in the house.  The farmwoman oversaw these household and barnyard activities.  Of the servants, the budeie (or dairymaid) was the most important on the farm.  She spent her summers at the high mountain pasture (sæter) milking cows and goats and processing the milk into butter and cheese, which were crucial for the farm economy; she milked cows and did barn chores the rest of the year.  The dairymaid performed gendered labor, and men rarely served in that role.  The farm labor of female servants was crucial for the success of Norwegian farms. [1]

When Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States in large numbers after the American Civil War, they encountered a very different system of agricultural production undergoing labor changes.  Increasingly, as historian Joan Jensen has noted, by the mid-nineteenth century men took over milking responsibilities on American farms in states like Pennsylvania. [2]  For young Norwegian immigrant women who hired out, they may or may not have continued the gendered labor practice from Norway of female milkers.  Hired girls, especially those who worked for Americans, often worked in the house and not in the barn.  Bertina Serina Kingestad hired out to an American farmer in Illinois in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and she appreciated the fact that she no longer milked cows or mucked out barns. [3]  Other Norwegian American hired girls continued to milk cows.  Young women might also move regularly in search of employment.

lahlum norwegian hired girls
Photo from the collection of Mary Ann Anderson.

Harvest was a particularly busy season that required additional labor on farms.  As a young, unmarried woman, American-born Anna Billet Monson provided domestic labor on the North Dakota farm owned by her half-sister and brother-in-law in the mid-1910s.  The image below shows Anna Billet Monson and the male threshing crew that included her brother-in-law and his father (my great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather), as well as men from their Norwegian American community.  The photograph encapsulates significant differences between hiring out in Norway and the United States.  Monson’s role as the hired girl focused on home and hearth, although her American-born half-sister did continue to milk the cows.

The tradition of girls and young women hiring out in Norwegian America continued long after the Department of Agriculture declared the day of the hired girl had “pass[ed”] in 1920.  Indeed, my paternal grandmother appears in the 1930 census as a servant on the farm of her future husband.  My grandmother’s experience was quite common for Norwegian American farm girls in the 1930s and 1940s. [4]  Girls and young women hired out in Norway and in Norwegian America, albeit working in agricultural systems that often differed.  In both, these hired girls helped make agriculture successful.

See this previous post for a discussion of gender in contemporary Norwegian farming.


[1] For Norwegian agriculture see, Reidar Almås, ed., Norwegian Agricultural History (Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Academic Press, 2004); Brit Berggreen, “Idealmønstre og realmønstre: Kryssing av Kjønnsrollegrenser i norsk bondekultur ca 1850-1920″ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oslo, 1990); Brynjulv Gjerdåker, “Continuity and modernity 1815-1920,” in Norwegian Agricultural History, 236-295; Jon Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers: The Migration from Balestrand, Norway, to the Upper Middle West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Øyvind Østerud, Agrarian Structure and Peasant Politics in Scandinavia: A Comparative Study of Rural Response to Economic Change (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1978); and Eilert Sundt, Sexual Customs in Rural Norway: A Nineteenth-Century Study, trans. and ed. Odin W. Anderson (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993).

[2] Joan M. Jensen, Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 93.  For Norwegian American agriculture, see Gjerde, From Peasants to Farmers.

[3] Lori Ann Lahlum, “Women, Work, and Community in Rural Norwegian America, 1840-1920, 90-92, in Norwegian American Women: Migration, Communities, and Identities, eds. Betty A. Bergland and Lori Ann Lahlum (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).

[4] Florence E. Ward, “The Farm Woman’s Problems,” United States Department of Agriculture Department Circular 148 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1920), 10; Anna Anderson, 1930 roll census for Norma Township, Barnes County, North Dakota.

Empires, Nations, and Native Women

Empires, Nations, and Native Women

Cynthia Prescott, University of North Dakota


5113rg2fssl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I finally carved out time to read Anne F. Hyde’s masterful Empires, Nations and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860.  Once I  picked up Hyde’s 650-page volume, I had trouble putting it down.[1]  Winner of the prestigious 2012 Bancroft Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, Hyde’s 2011 book is part of a University of Nebraska Press series that reassesses the field of United States Western history.  Hyde brings together the latest scholarship in ethnohistory, colonialism and settler colonialism into a wide-ranging yet highly engaging narrative of the trans-Mississippi West.  By tracing the networks built by prominent interethnic families engaged in the fur trade, Hyde makes sense out of the seeming disorder of global economies and geopolitics.  She guides her reader through the complex and often messy world of hunters, merchants, and politicians from St. Louis to San Francisco, from Fort Vancouver to Santa Fe, and from the Great Lakes to the Arkansas Valley.

By focusing on a few prominent families, such as the Chouteaus in Missouri, McLoughlins in Oregon, Vallejos in California, and others – such as Stephen Austin and Kit Carson who seemed to be everywhere at once, Anne Hyde brings to life the complexities and contingencies of fur trade and frontier life.  Hyde’s narrative provides a culturally complex picture because she focuses on the interethnic family networks that these “great men” built in places that became known as the American West.  She painstakingly reconstructs these Euro-American men’s marriages and informal unions with French, Anglo-American, and Native women from many different Indigenous nations, and their resulting children and broader kinship networks.  Perhaps even more clearly than the rich scholarship of the fur trade, Hyde demonstrates the centrality of these interethnic family relationships to the history and culture of the region.  Native women provided needed labor and cultural knowledge, and offered entrée into Native cultures.  White traders survived and even thrived largely because of their relationships with Native women.  And, as Hyde makes equally clear, many of them struggled to maintain or abandoned those familial ties in the 1850s and 1860s as American racial understandings hardened around fixed categories.  In memory, a Catholic Canadian of Scottish and French descent could become the white American “Father of Oregon,” but his Cree and French Canadian wife could not become the “Mother of Oregon” (and John McLoughlin’s Ojibwe first wife gets forgotten altogether).

Yet as Hyde admits in her introduction, “[m]uch of what I describe is really an updated version of ‘great man’ history” (Ecco 2012 ed., p. 21).  Rich collections of correspondence among Euro-American businessmen reveal their thoughts and actions and, in some cases, their ethnically mixed sons.  While their Native and mixed race wives and daughters contributed greatly to the overall success of their undertakings, these women’s experiences and perspectives remain frustratingly unclear if not completely invisible.  Hyde does an admirable job of attempting to recreate these women’s experiences, but too much of what we would like to know about them is simply not in the written records.  The lives and thoughts of these fur trade women – like those of Native men and women throughout the region who did not marry prominent white traders – receive little attention in the available written sources.

Uncovering the history of rural women is extremely challenging due to their dual invisibility as both rural people and as women.  Studying them is challenging because rural people and women often failed to leave much written record.  Moreover, these groups were long disregarded by scholars, archivists, and even their own descendants, so what records they did create have been lost to us.  All of these challenges are exaggerated in regard to women of color, who were even less likely to be literate and their experiences less likely to have been recorded and preserved.  And while many Indigenous cultures valued women’s contributions and granted women authority in ways that white society did not in the early nineteenth century, those traditions tended to be oral rather than written, and had very different conceptions of time than did the Euro-American culture out of which the historical profession developed.

Important work has been done uncovering the contributions of Native and mixed-heritage women in the fur trade, particularly in the Great Lakes region and eastern Canada.  Those scholars’ innovative methods could be applied to other regions and cultural contexts.  Much more research is needed to uncover nineteenth-century Native women’s lives.  At the same time, much more work should also be done to preserve contemporary Indigenous women’s voices throughout the American West and around the world.

Anne Hyde gives us a sweeping yet intimate narrative of the worlds that Euro-American traders and Native peoples built in the early-nineteenth-century West.  It should also serve as a call to arms to delve deeper into researching, documenting and preserving Native women’s voices both past and present.


[1] Hyde summarized her detailed study in this C-SPAN video: https://www.c-span.org/video/?321943-1/empires-nations-families.


“Dear Miss Cushman”: The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

“Dear Miss Cushman”:

The Dreams of Eva McCoy, 1874

Sara Lampert, University of South Dakota


As an early republic historian working on the gender history of commercial entertainment, I am always on the lookout for Carrie Meebers, or women and girls who can open up the longstanding trope of the country girl seduced by the city. Carrie Meeber is the heroine of Theodore Dreiser’s turn-of-the-century novel Sister Carrie. This is a quintessentially urban tale: Carrie is awakened to the seductions and possibilities of mass culture and urban life by her explorations of the city. Her rural girlhood and the dreams that brought her from Waukesha to Chicago are dispensed with in the first page as the rural landscape of her Wisconsin childhood rushes by on her train bound for Chicago. These gestures deploy familiar tropes, rural girlhood as ennui. Carrie releases a faint sigh for “the flour mill where her father worked by the day” and the “familiar green environs of the village,” but as then train picks up speed, “the threads which bound her so lightly to her girlhood and home were irretrievably broken.”[1]



Dreiser does not give us a chance to spend more time with Carrie in Waukesha, to read her letters with sister Minnie in Chicago, survey the sheet music on her parlor piano or open the chest in which Carrie might have kept press clippings and women’s periodicals and catalogs. How might her rural girlhood have shaped her expectations about the world she would exit into at other end of the train line?


Charlotte Cushman.  Half plate daguerreotype, ca. 1855.  Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division LC-USZC4-13410.


In Washington D.C. while researching 19th century American actress Charlotte Cushman, I briefly stumbled into the world of Eva McCoy, a girl from rural Illinois who penned a piece of fan mail to her idol in 1874.[2] The letter survives today taped into a red bound volume in the Charlotte Cushman Papers in the Library of Congress. It is likely that the letter was received and read by Cushman’s life partner Emma Stebbins, and later saved by Stebbins, who took on the weighty task of managing Cushman’s legacy after the actress’ death from breast cancer in February 1876. The letter was preserved and later mounted, along with miscellaneous fan mail, much of it from the 1870s and much of it from other women.

In 1874, when McCoy wrote to Cushman, she was living in Thomson, Illinois, a town on the Mississippi River that by 1880 counted a population of only 390 people. McCoy painted a portrait of financial depravation matched by frustrated ambition. At only twenty-three, she was “‘alone in the world’ having my own resources to depend upon for existence.” Like Cushman’s other correspondents, McCoy balanced appeals to necessity with testimonial to her passion for the stage. She explained, “Since I was a very little girl, I have been desirous of becoming an actress; however, I have never had an opportunity of becoming educated for the Stage.”

Here was the reason for her letter. McCoy wanted instruction, but not from the “gentlemen…managers of the Stage.” Though she readily admitted to an “adventurous and courageous nature,” McCoy feared for her virtue: “strange men may be ‘hideous monsters’.” Instead, she fantasized about coming to live and study with Cushman. She promised, “I will love you as a darling sister, or a mother,” “be obedient,” and “become your own.” Whether as a “servant or companion,” McCoy only hoped to “sustain a relation” to Cushman in “whatever capacity it may please you to place me.” She enclosed a photo.

McCoy’s desperate and passionate appeal was not unusual. Other women and girls who wrote to Cushman struggled to frame professional desires and naked worship of their celebrity object in a more socially acceptable narrative of economic necessity, often describing poverty and family need. Like McCoy they collapsed the fantasy of student in the role of devoted servant to their desired object. As Cushman’s biographer Lisa Merrill has demonstrated, throughout Cushman’s life and career, women were drawn to her, whether because of her performances and the inspiration and lessons that they read from her life and career. Cushman’s determination to be breadwinner for her widowed mother and siblings was an established feature of her biography, which also shaped her reputation as a true woman who was both virtuous and charitable. Merrill points out, however, that some women may well have read the “code” of female erotic desire in Cushman’s relationship with Stebbins or her performances of male roles like Romeo.[3]

Correspondents like McCoy dreamed that Cushman would be moved to aid them. McCoy’s letter in particular reminds us that Cushman’s publics included girls and women who had never seen her perform, would never see her perform, but for whom Cushman’s celebrity held significance and inspiration.

But was Eva McCoy exactly as she appeared? Was her careful appeal actually a careful manipulation of sympathy or did it conceal an even sadder truth?

McCoy had lived in rural Illinois her entire life. Her parents John Vallette and Clarinda (Walker) Vallette came to DuPage, Illinois from the Northeast in 1839 during a period of rampant land speculation in the Big Woods.[4] Their daughter Evaline was born a decade later, the eldest of three. In 1860, her father was earning a living as a “homeopathic physician” with only $100 to his name owning real estate worth $1000.[5] After serving briefly as a hospital steward with an Illinois regiment toward the end of the war, he seized the opportunity of new settlement made possible by postwar railroad construction.[6]

In 1866, he went into partnership in the dry goods business with the widow of a local physician and druggist. Their new home would be a small village laid out by the Western Union Railroad in a valley on the banks of the Mississippi River at the western edge of the state.[7] The new partnership and move to Thomson was a boon to the family fortunes. In 1870, Vallette boasted a personal estate worth $5000 and $3000 in real estate. The former “homeopathic physician” now titled himself “medical doctor” on the federal census. His son clerked in the family business and his daughter was married to a young lawyer, Daniel McCoy.[8]

The couple had married in November 15, 1865. He was twenty-two, she eighteen.[9] By 1870, Daniel possessed a respectable personal estate of $1000. After 1870, he disappears as does Eva McCoy, though we know that in 1874 she was writing Charlotte Cushman hoping for…something.

Where was Daniel McCoy in 1874? Born in Ohio, he was one of the many Daniel McCoys who served in Illinois regiments in the Civil War. Was he the Daniel McCoy who had served with the 45th Illinois Infantry and died March 18, 1873, laid to rest in Peoria, Illinois?[10] Perhaps he had been mustered out for the very injury that would cause his death eight years later. Perhaps Eva’s loneliness was not that of a widow but of a deserted wife. Most likely he died and she hauled stakes. Though its unlikely she received a reply from Cushman, perhaps writing the letter gave her the courage to leave the comfortable estate her father had built for himself in Thomson and try her luck in Chicago, travelling by the Western Union Railroad, a little bit older and perhaps with a bit more saavy, though less ultimate success, than Sister Carrie Meeber.


[1] Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (Penguin Books, 1994), 3.

[2] Eva McCoy to Charlotte Cushman, November 15, 1874, Charlotte Cushman Papers, Library of Congress.

[3] Lisa Merrill, When Romeo was a Woman: Charlotte Cushman and her Circle of Female Spectators (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999).

[4] The History of Carroll County, Illinois (Chicago: H. F. Kett & Co., 1878), 425.

[5] 1860 U.S. census, Wheaton, Du Page, Illinois, page no. 195, dwelling 1451, family 1494, John O. Vallette, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com).

[6] Rufus Blanchard, History of Du Page County, Illinois (Chicago: O.L. Baskin & Co. Historical Publishers, 1882), 121.

[7] History of Carroll County, 365.

[8] 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 36, dwelling 278, family 278,  John O. Vallette, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com); 1870 U.S. census, York Township, Carroll, Illinois, page no. 34, dwelling 257, family 257, Daniel McCoy, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com).

[9] Illinois State Marriage Records, Illinois Marriage Index 1860-1920 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Illinois State Marriage Records.

[10] Daniel McCoy, Pvt. Co. C, Regt. 47, Illinois Infantry, date of death March 18, 1873, digital image, Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1879-1903 [database online], Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com) based on Card Records of Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, ca. 1879-ca. 1903.

Story About a Man Named Jed: Gender Constructions in The Beverly Hillbillies


Story About a Man Named Jed: Gender Constructions in The Beverly Hillbillies

Margaret Weber, Iowa State University

One of the most popular television shows of all time, The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the first situational comedies to find a place in America’s living room hearts. As the hit theme song proclaimed, this was a story about a man named Jed. A born and bred mountaineer, the clan patriarch Jed strikes oil, and with some prompting, moves his family to the Hollywood hills. This set the stage for the show’s many gags and jokes, as the seemingly helpless Clampetts maneuver their way through high society. When I originally started working on this topic, I thought that I too had struck oil. An easily recognizable hit show with a wealth of information and little scholarly discussion… my graduate-student heart gave a slow pitter-patter. To me, the narrative and context of the show was simple, Jed directly addressed the postwar crisis in masculinity. His characterization showcased a longing for older forms of manhood, something that was perceived to be lost in the transition to a post-war society. Jed, the show’s fulcrum, was a startlingly anti-thesis to the man in the grey flannel suit, a foil to the Male Panic of late 50s.

However, while the idea came to me easily, the actual writing experience proved to be quite frustrating. So, what exactly was I missing? Thinking it over, a small thought crossed my mind. What if the story was not really all of Jed? What if femininity was key to this whole conundrum? To my shame as a gender historian, I had made the same mistake of traditional scholarship. I had forgotten that gender was not created in a vacuum. I had neglected about the women; Granny, Elle May, even Ms. Hathaway. Maybe just listening to a story about a man named Jed missed the real narrative behind the show’s meaning. In the end, Jed’s masculinity was predicated on his relations with his mother-in-law and daughter, his status as rural patriarch.

“Title Screen from The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Simple yet dignified, the show’s portrayal of agrarian patriarchy rested on Jed undisputed control of his family. Even Granny, the taciturn firecracker, ultimately bent to his will. This can be seen in the very first episode of the series, “The Clampetts Strike Oil!” Having decided to move out to Beverly Hills, Jed was annoyed to find that Granny had refused to go. Grumbling, “Dang if I ain’t got me the mulest women,” Jed marched back to his shack to convince his mother-in-law to journey to his new home. After Granny rebuffed him and declared that she was not moving from her rocking chair, the next shot was of the old woman, still in her chair, now placed in the back of the moving truck. It is a humorous interplay but its intent went beyond simple humor. By showing the viewers this interchange, producers firmly placed Jed as both clan leader and a man willing to use his physicality to solve problems. While Jed was willing to talk through his problems, ultimately he would not hesitate to utilize his strength and power to get his way. What is more telling was that Granny accepted his solution. She did not continue to protest moving away from the only home she had ever known nor did she hold a grudge against the restraint of her physical movement.

Jed was also particularly concerned about the gender-bending characteristics of his only child Elle May. He mentioned several times that the major reason he chose to move was reintroduce her to correct feminine behaviors. After stopping Elle May from wrestling with her older cousin Jethro (a fight that she wins), Jed finally decided to sit down and talk to his daughter about proper roles. He explained, “You see Elle, I raised you like a boy and I was wrong to do it. I reckon every man would like to have a son and you were my only young’in. But it ain’t fittin, it ain’t right for folks to go against nature.” Pointing to their long-faced hunting hound, Jed asserted that one cannot turn a dog into a cat, “Nature turned you into a girl, you’re pretty.”[1] He then convinced the buxom young woman to try her hand at helping Granny in the kitchen and with the rest of the housework. By utilizing gender as a biological imperative and attempting to regulate Elle away from the physical world of men, Jed reinforced his own masculine position in the household and in society. Neither Granny nor Elle May resented his control over their appearances, occupations, or even physical bodies. Jed was the undisputed masculine leader of the clan, ready to enforce gender norms on his family.

In conclusion, this story was about so much more than a poor mountaineer turned millionaire. It was about the intersection between environment and gender, families and individuals. As most agricultural historians know, no one actually farms by themselves. Even as cultural portrayals of farmers would have us believe in a lone yeoman, we all know that behind that individual stands so much more.


The YWCA: Creating a Moral Landscape on the Prairie

The YWCA: Creating a Moral Landscape on the Prairie

Thomas Harlow, University of North Dakota

In November, Michael Lansing discussed the impact of women in prairie politics as participants of the male-dominated NPL in both the United States and Canada directly before and after World War I. Just as the NPL’s power was waning politically, there emerged a dramatic cultural shift as many young rural women fled the economic decline of the farms for the surrounding prairie towns, and beyond. Local YWCAs often served their temporary and long-term needs.

Beginning in the early 1920s—a full decade before the Great Depression—a growing number of young women left farms seeking employment to sustain themselves, and for many, to provide some support to their families. Frequently these women found assistance from women’s clubs. In turn, these clubs attempted to influence the behavior of these young women, and publically justify efforts to support them, by providing protective services and constructing fictive homes that reflected gendered ideals of family life. The YWCA of Grand Forks, ND provides an excellent case study of this relationship.

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James and Ruby Dinnie home (1910).  Courtesy of the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota.


Directly after WWI, the national YWCA was undergoing a crisis of identity. In 1907, the incorporation of a national organization established evangelicalism and missionary work as their primary goals. However, community-based YWs sought a greater emphasis on the needs of industrial working women. Prairie YWCAs were inclined to support the more conservative view of Christian salvation. Typical activities included prayer meetings, bible studies, and evening Vespers services.

However, the reality of supporting the needs of so many required pragmatic policies of action that later served as a template for larger urban counterparts after the onset of the Great Depression. For example, the Grand Forks YWCA developed a community fundraising effort for the local Community Chest (the forerunner to the Salvation Army), which in turn redistributed funds back to local relief agencies. YW members also created an employment service networked to their husbands who made up many of the professionals and business owners of Grand Forks. In addition, they provided employment for many themselves through the operation of their cafeteria, short and long-term housing, and their central office.

The demands placed on the voting members of the YW at this time were significant. As the farm crisis worsened throughout the 1920s, the migration off the farms became a full-fledged exodus. In 1910, the population of Grand Forks stood at 7,600 individuals. By 1930, it swelled to over 17,000. Nearly 55 percent of these were women; many needing the services of the Y. Throughout the 1930s, the annual requests for these services exceeded more than 1,000 per year. For instance, in 1938 YWCA facilities housed 46 permanent annual residents, over 600 in need of temporary shelter, and almost 1,500 requests for employment.

Demographically there were of course striking differences between the association members and the young women they sought to protect. The YW members were generally older, more sedentary, and tied to property. In addition, they were almost all native born compared to the number of immigrants coming from the farms. Throughout the 1920s, the city of Grand Forks maintained a high immigrant population. In 1920, thirty-two percent of adult women living in Grand Forks were foreign-born. In contrast, Grand Forks YW members were almost exclusively born in the United States.

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The YWCA facility completed in 1957.  Facility is currently a recreation center for Central High School (2008).

These women saw their assistance as not only moral protection of these unattached women, but to the community as a whole, as they sought to demonstrate their values in a community with a large transient population. For example, their long-term residence at the North 5th Street House not only publically represented their moral vision of how young unattached women should live, but also as signifier to their middle-class status within the community. Club members policed the conduct of women staying in their facilities. They utilized the services of the city police matron to control such behaviors as drinking and smoking. And, in one extreme example in 1937, evicted the residents from their North 5th street house and destroyed the property, when the behavior of one guest was considered extremely egregious to the membership. 

While the efforts of the Grand Forks YWCA were foremost to be of service to God, and to carry His word to those they deemed at risk, their practical achievements during the inter-war period were astounding and had an impact on the urban landscape of Grand Forks. Even before the destruction of the North 5th street house, the Grand Forks YWCA had developed plans for a larger facility. It was to provide more services for young women, and serve as mechanism to resist the encroachment of the YMCA, which had expanded operations in the 1930s to include membership for women and families. They viewed their operations as a moral imperative, not a place for simply family gathering. Unfortunately, despite its completion in 1957, their services for protecting single women diminished after WWII. Further, prairie communities such as Grand Forks preferred to embrace the family strengthening model championed by the YMCA. The YMCA and YWCA merged in Grand Forks in 1970.



Ma Kettle Revisited

Ma Kettle Revisited

Frank Garro, Texas Tech University

As a child in the 1970s my mother’s generation had begun the job of moving from rural Northern Ohio into nearby cities.  My generation would eventually  finish that job.  At the time we still had a connection to the land and a few family farms with the relatives left and we would occasionally return for family picnics and gatherings.  As children were usually hard pressed to hang around the adults much as open fields and dangerous hay lofts beckoned.  When it was time to eat we were ushered to one of the tables full of cousins.  We would eat then rush back to play always keeping an eye out for that mean rooster that pecked.  As my cousins ran off I found myself under the influence of long ears (as my father would say) and lingered over my plate to listen to the secrets and mysteries of adults conversation.  Oftentimes an aunt or a adult female cousin would recount a misadventure they recently had in the city.  “Oh, we went to a Chinese restaurant,” one began.  “They didn’t have knives or forks, only chopsticks.”  “I looked like Ma Kettle in the big city and almost starved.”  This always brought a chuckle followed by a faux pas hit parade coupled with Ma Kettle citations.  It felt as if these women were marking their  transition from being rural to being urban.  I chuckled quietly so as not to draw attention to my “big ears” even if I didn’t always understand the context or humor.

I was familiar with Ma Kettle from the series of movies made in the 1950s.  We would occasionally run into her and Pa on a rainy Saturday afternoon when forced indoors.  Watching the local UHF channel showing reruns was a constant struggle.  One had to continually adjust the antenna to get a decent picture.  Back in those days the Kettles seemed like harmless fun and we laughed the same as we would at Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.  Having fifteen children  in those pre-Duggar days was humorous.  Ma shook her head at Pa as her station, and her family’s way of life depended upon his ups and downs.  The fish out of water rubes going to the big city was always good for a laugh.  Daughters returning back to the sticks from college were encouraged to play dumb by Ma in order to get a man, and so on.  Today I see those movie’s cultural depictions of rural women in a much darker light.  The role of Ma Kettle, played by Marjorie Main, portrayed the rural woman as a  dependant bumpkin amidst a sea of hack rural entertainment tropes.  There was an opposite in the form of the alliterative simple, solid, and saintly one dimensional mother.  An example of this would be Beulah Bondi in the Gary Cooper movie Sergeant York.  For rural women over the age of twenty one it was typically one Hollywood depiction or the other.

A comic foil in the  nature of Ma Kettle risks the development of a detrimental image of rural women a society only familiar with the face of Ma Kettle.  This statement might seem like overreach, nevertheless when a character is part of a successful franchise the possibility should be addressed.  Ma and Pa Kettle make their first appearance in Betty MacDonald’s bestselling book The Egg and I as well as the follow up hit movie.  The characters were a hit and a total of ten Ma and Pa Kettle movies would be made over the course of ten years.  There were credited with helping to save Universal Studios from bankruptcy.  A case might be made that for a decade in the mid twentieth century Ma Kettle was the face of the American rural woman.  It’s only Ma Kettle,  but I see her as a slightly less offensive character than that of the earlier African American depiction of Stepin Fetchit.  The Kettles, Ma in particular, are an interesting and possibly rich area of study with regard to the cultural history, especially her effect on the outside perception of rural women.  She is part of a Genesis like list of character lineage, as in Ma begat the women in the show The Beverly Hillbillies, who begat Petticoat Junction, who begat Green Acres, and on.  I don’t include The Andy Griffith show as it leaned more towards the Beulah Bondi type.  While the Ma and Pa Kettle movies have fallen by the wayside, the television shows mentioned are still in rerun.  Ma Kettle is no longer the face of rural women, but her entertainment genetic legacy endures.

My thought now return to Ohio in the 1970s where I failed to mention the most important part of my remembrance of family’s gatherings.  I turn now to the grandmothers and great aunts of my family.  These were women born at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and were contemporaries of Ma Kettle.  They were nothing like the character from my rainy Saturday afternoons.  Through our eyes these were women made of the same cast iron they wielded in the kitchen.  They were famous for keeping the books with the balance never off by a penny.  They ran their farms alongside their husbands and they did a bit of everything as part of their daily routine.  These women kept the family together as men fought World Wars and as the banks threatened foreclosure during the Great Depression.  It was impossible for me to make any sort of connection between these women and the image from the television screen.  I saw them in person, and heard the stories told about them through my “long ears” for years after they had gone.  Ma Kettle may be a cultural echo with a long lineage today, but I would rather focus on the women I remember from my youth.