“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.

image 1
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.

Sources in Rural Women’s History, Part V: Indigenous Women’s Sources in Entangled Encounters

In honor of the upcoming thirty-fifth anniversary of Joan M. Jensen’s publication of her landmark collection of primary documents,With These Hands:  Women Working on the Land (1981), the Rural Women’s Studies Association sponsored a roundtable highlighting innovative uses of primary sources for studying rural women at the 2015 annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society in Lexington, Kentucky.  This panel showcased recent research and discussed the unique sources employed to investigate the diversity of women’s experience in the rural United States and Canada.  Today we are featuring the work of one of those accomplished scholars, Karen V. Hansen, which draws on her excellent recent book Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930 (Oxford, 2013).


 Indigenous Women’s Sources in Entangled Encounters

Karen V. Hansen

Brandeis University

Inspiration of Joan Jensen’s work

With these Hands interweaves narratives of different groups, always with an eye to concurrent histories, structures of inequality, and gender. It sets up what Gunlog Fur (2014) calls an “entangled” history.   Fortunately for us, Joan Jensen has spent decades pursuing illusive paper fragments, long-disappeared narratives, and slanted accounts of farm laborers. She has interpreted them through layers of silence and distortion.

Jensen’s intersectional frame, as with her most recent book, Calling this Place Home, is exemplary in giving equal consideration to Native Americans, settler immigrants, Euro-Americans, and African American women in rural society. She never loses sight of the fact that women in different social locations can have profoundly different experiences, even when they share some important conditions of life.

Mapping Who Owns the Land

In my own quest to understand the lives of Dakota and Scandinavian women, especially with the scarcity of personal narratives, I sought whatever I could find that spoke to on-the-ground entanglements. I listened to stories of family history and mistreatment by the U.S. government.  I scrounged through federal archives and found Dakota women defying dominant portraits of them.  Cast as non-agriculturalists, they cultivated prize-winning, multi-acre gardens.  Reported as recalcitrant housekeepers, some assiduously avoided monitoring by the federal field matron, while others cultivated her alliance and cooperation. Testimonies at federal hearings enumerate Dakota women’s charges against Indian agents, and they document women’s participation in tribal governance.

Underlying these accounts is a powerful story about land. No history of indigenous women can ignore the importance of dispossession and how it shaped everything subsequent: economic possibilities, Indian-white political relations, cultural practices, the meaning of land, and of course, how much land Native people could claim.


Entanglements—integration on the Reservation

The government legislatively structured the conditions of land taking via the Dawes Act of 1887.  After its passage, Dakotas fervently lobbied Congress to increase the acreage allotted women. Through their efforts, allotments to women, including married women, doubled to 80 acres.

Map 1: Unallotted Land, Devils Lake Sioux Indian Reservation, 1904
Map 1: Unallotted Land, Devils Lake Sioux Indian Reservation, 1904

In a nutshell, after allotment of private property to individual Indians, like reservations around the country, the Spirit Lake Dakota Indian Reservation was opened to white homesteading. This map marks in red the lands ON the reservation (formerly misnamed, Devils Lake Sioux Indian Reservation) that were NOT allotted to Dakota Indians. In 1904, this swath of land was opened to white homesteading.

Map 2: Plat Map of Eddy Township, 1910
Map 2: Plat Map of Eddy Township, 1910

In that entangled space, Dakota women took title to their allotments. Their ownership is recorded via the handwritten names on historical plat maps.

This slide of the plat map of Eddy Township in 1910 is divided by a squiggly line, the Sheyenne River, which denotes the southern border of the reservation.

Map 3: Section of Eddy Township plat, 1910

Map 3: Section of Eddy Township plat, 1910

In this enlarged view, I have marked in yellow those plots belonging to Dakotas, and blue, those owned by Scandinavians. As you can see at a glance, the blue and yellow squares are interspersed. Also, in this section of reservation, the blue outnumber the yellow.


Women’s Landownership–1910

If you looked even closer, you would see more than a few women’s names: Kristen Wree; Anna Berg; Inga Erikson.  Emma Sunkaska; Mrs. Blueshield; Mahpiyatowin.

In fact, in 1910, on the reservation as a whole, women were 38% of Dakota landowners. Among the Scandinavian settler-homesteaders, women constituted 12% of landowners. This was higher than all other Yankee and immigrant groups on the reservation, and in most of North Dakota. That said, in comparison to Dakotas, Scandinavian women made but a fraction of female landowners on the reservation.

Map 4: GIS analysis of Women’s landownership at Spirit Lake, 1910
Map 4: GIS analysis of Women’s landownership at Spirit Lake, 1910

This GIS analysis of the landownership data arrays the Dakota women’s land in red grid and Scandinavian women’s in blue dots.

Women’s Landownership–1929

Map 5: GIS analysis of Women’s landownership at Spirit Lake, 192
Map 5: GIS analysis of Women’s landownership at Spirit Lake, 192

An updated analysis arrays the transformation of landownership just 19 years later. The map tells a story: Dakota women owned less land over time.  Dakota women continued to be significant landowners in the tribe: 35% of those who owned land in 1929. But fewer Dakotas owned land, and they owned smaller parcels.

Their neighbors, Scandinavian women, accumulated land and became 24% of Scandinavian landowners by 1929. More women owned land; and they owned bigger parcels.

Given the fixed boundaries of the geographic reservation space, one group’s gain meant Dakotas’ loss. This is what dispossession looks like in the early twentieth century.

Women’s Agency—“Native Women Don’t Buy Land”

Dakota and Scandinavian women were active agents in this tug of war over land. Dakota women who sought to make their allotments yield nutrition and income required intentionality, fortitude, and no small amount of hard work. Once women were allotted land, not only did some make every effort to retain it, but some Dakota women, like Mary Blackshield, also bid on land and purchased it.  She cultivated some of her land, rented some, and generated enough income to support her elderly mother and herself after her husband died. Some Dakota elders, like Eunice Davidson’s grandmother, admonished their people to hold onto the land.

Making a homestead claim on formerly uncultivated land, proving it up, living on it, was no casual accident. My analysis of the reservation reveals that Scandinavian women actively sought homesteads and land titles. And because they also bought land when they could, the number and proportion of women owning land increased over time.


In a Jensen-ian tradition, I have situated my research at the nexus of interactions between Dakotas and Scandinavian settler colonists. I have witnessed how their seemingly parallel lives—grounded in the land—intertwined and entangled.  I have been challenged to search for new sources of evidence, to re-evaluate those I thought I knew, and to find new vantage points from which to re-interpret the taken-for-granted.

Joan Jensen challenges us all. And for that, I am extremely grateful.

To learn more about interactions between Dakotas and Scandinavian settler colonists, read Karen V. Hansen, Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930 (Oxford, 2013).

New Issue of AGRICULTURAL HISTORY Highlights Rural Women’s Studies

New Issue of Agricultural History Highlights Rural Women’s Studies

by Jeannie Whayne

AGRICULTURAL HISTORY Volume 89, Number 3 (Summer 2015) highlights recent scholarship in rural women’s studies.

Three years ago the RWSA met in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada at St. Thomas University for its triennial meeting.  It was the first – hopefully not the last – time that the RWSA held a meeting outside of the United States, and we were all very pleased to have excellent attendance from around the world.  Inspired by discussion at the business meeting, it was decided that we should explore the possibility of publishing some of the superb papers that were presented.  Linda Ambrose, Jenny Barker-Devine, and Jeannie Whayne agreed to devote time and attention to that prospect, solicited contributions from presenters, had them refereed by scholars in the field, and ultimately selected essays by Kelly Houston Jones, Kristin Mapel Bloomberg, and Grey Osterud.  These essays, which span time and place, appear along with an introduction by Ambrose, Barker, and Whayne in the Summer 2015 issue of Agricultural History.

Jones’ essay, “Bondswomen’s Work on the Cotton Frontier: Wagram Plantation, Arkansas,” examines the role of slave women in farming newly reclaimed land in southeastern Arkansas. As Jones explains, the work of women in this environment was essential to the functioning of the plantation, not merely as support but also in terms of the production of cotton.  While many of the slave men were put to the task of felling old growth timber, removing stumps, and breaking ground, the women assumed roles more typically assigned to men in the older South.  Although conditions were harsh and unrelenting there, the bondswomen were able to claim some control over their situation.  This was made more possible because the Wagram plantation was an absentee operation and overseers came and went with some regularity.  Controlling slave women’s bodies often eluded attempts of the transient overseers, and the bondswomen both orchestrated and were the beneficiaries of their failure.

Kristin Bloomberg’s “women and Rural Social Reform in the 1870s and 1880s: Clara Bewick Colby’s “Farmer’s Wives,” takes us into another world in a far different time and place. Although focusing on the 1870s and 1880s, Bloomberg’s essay intersects in an interesting way with Jones’ essay in that she finds that the frontier experience for farm women in eastern and Midwestern was more burdensome to women than to men.  Although they enjoyed a much better quality of life than did slave women, they were located on isolated farmsteads and often faced loneliness and even despair.  And while their financial situation was far superior to the bondswomen of the Arkansas delta, the farm wives in the Midwest faced economic instability and often found it difficult to secure recognition for their contributions to the home and farm.  The practice of marrying early interrupted their acquisition of education and limited their ability to fully contribute to the family income.

Grey Osterud’s “The Meanings of Independence in the Oral Autobiographies of Rural Women in Twentieth-Century New York,” echoes some of the themes developed by Jones and Bloomberg but explores how many women sought opportunity away from the farm and – sometimes – did not return.  Focusing particularly on the exodus of young women from the farms of New York in the early twentieth century, Osterud explores the desire on the part of many young women to escape the dependency and limited freedom that farm life involved in this period.  Many intended to return to the farm after securing education and skills in nearby towns.  What they wanted was an equal partnership with men and the ability to participate in the decision-making process.  As her oral histories suggest, they were sometimes but not always successful in these goals.

Agricultural History 89 (No. 3) also includes three other fine essays by scholars familiar to most of the journal’s readers and many RWSA members: Melissa Walker has an essay entitled, “Can You Be a Productive Scholar at a Teaching Institution? Yes, with Mindfulness and Planning”; James C. Giesen and Anne E. Marshall, “Reading Stone and Steel: Statues as Primary Sources for Agricultural History”; and Frederic Aparisi,“Village Entrepreneurs: The Economic Foundations of Valencian Rural Elites in the Fifteenth Century.”

Sources in Rural Women’s History, Part I: Letters from the Edge: Life on the Rural Margins of Industrial New England

Earlier this month, in honor of the upcoming thirty-fifth anniversary of Joan M. Jensen’s publication of her landmark collection of primary documents, With These Hands:  Women Working on the Land (1981), the Rural Women’s Studies Association sponsored a roundtable highlighting innovative uses of primary sources for studying rural women at the 2015 annual meeting of the Agricultural History Society in Lexington, Kentucky.  This panel showcased recent research and discussed the unique sources employed to investigate the diversity of women’s experience in the rural United States and Canada.  Today we are featuring the work of one of those accomplished scholars (and RWSA co-chair), Katherine Jellison.  Stay tuned for future installments in this series, “Sources in Rural Women’s History.”

Letters from the Edge:  Life on the Rural Margins of Industrial New England

By Katherine Jellison, Ohio University

Historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras owe a particular debt to an often-overlooked group of record keepers:  homesick women.  Americans were on the move—fighting war in the South, seeking industrial employment in the Northeast, and looking for new farmland in the West.  In this period of extensive geographic mobility, literate Euro-American women became record keepers by necessity.  As Joan Jensen notes in her introduction to With These Hands, “Letters home kept women in touch with their families.”   She also notes that New England women, who enjoyed over a ninety-five per cent literacy rate by mid-century, were particularly active in maintaining home ties through the written word. For one pair of New England sisters—Emma and Caddie Sherman—“home” in the 1860s and 1870s was wherever their father Chauncey (“Cheney”) Janes Sherman resided.  The sisters’ vivid letters illustrate a number of significant themes of the period, including the extent to which frequent relocation from the countryside to the city and back again remained a central characteristic of life in the industrial Northeast.[1]

Writer Lillian Smith once noted that Civil War-era newspapers—all focusing on an identical set of political speeches and battles—reflected the war’s “group sameness,” while women’s personal writing of the period recorded the “individual differences” in how particular families, neighborhoods, and communities experienced the war.  The Sherman sisters’ correspondence strongly supports Smith’s argument.  I discovered their letters a year ago while renting a Maine vacation cottage that their great-niece Marion Echols built in 1960 and christened “Timberock.”  In a letter that Emma wrote from New York City on June 25, 1860—a full century before the cottage where her letters now reside was constructed—she was not concerned with sectional strife or the upcoming presidential election but with the breakdown of her parents’ marriage.  Writing to her brother George’s wife Sarah at Sarah’s parents’ Conway, Massachusetts, farm home, Emma reported that Cheney and Marion Caldwell Sherman “had agreed to separate . . . entirely” and described her unemployed, 53-year-old father as now “dying by inches” in New York.  The solution, however, was simple:  He would take refuge from urban failure in the countryside of his native Brimfield, Massachusetts.  Indeed, until his death twenty-four years later, Cheney Sherman remained in south-central Massachusetts, boarding with neighbors or relatives in exchange for farm labor and receiving gifts of clothing and sympathetic letters from his children.[2]

Finding refuge in the countryside remained a major theme in Emma’s correspondence—and later that of her younger sister Caddie—for the next two decades.  Writing from New York in 1862 to her father in the farming village of East Brimfield, Emma only briefly mentioned the war news—including casualties at the recent Battle of Second Bull Run—before launching into lengthy discussion of family matters.  Her husband Johnnie—unemployed in the city for two months—would soon be joining the Union Navy, and her brother George had “broke[n] up housekeeping” in Springfield, Massachusetts, following the recent death of his wife Sarah and their infant son.  Emma noted, however, that while George had left for employment as a machinist at the Colt Armory in Hartford, Connecticut, he had placed his five-year-old daughter “little Emma” in a more wholesome environment—her maternal grandparents’ Conway, Massachusetts, farm home.[3]

While the countryside served as a haven from urban job competition for Cheney Sherman, it was also the site of intense physical labor.  Writing from her lodgings in Harlem to her father on September 5, 1864, Emma reported that her husband Johnnie had made it through the Battle of Mobile Bay without “a scratch” and would be using a portion of the $15,000 owed him for capture of a Confederate vessel to purchase a home of their own where Cheney could come live with his daughter and son-in-law and “not have to work much longer.”  Approximately a week later, however, Emma’s husband came home to New York seriously wounded, and she wrote to her father in East Brimfield on October 10 that she, Johnnie, and their two-year-old daughter Carrie were in nearby Chickopee, Massachusetts, where they hoped a “change of air” might ease her husband’s suffering before a possible return to the Brooklyn Naval Hospital.  Emma’s plans for ending her father’s toil on the land ultimately came to naught.  Writing on black-bordered stationery from the home of her brother’s in-laws at Conway, Emma mused on August 16, 1865:  “Father I am very sorry that you have to work as hard in your old day’s [sic] . . . How much Johnnie and I anticipated having a pleasant home so that we might have you with us.  You were always connected with all our future plans but it was not to be so.  [H]is death has made a sad change.”[4]

Like her father before her, Emma now sought escape from her woes in the Massachusetts countryside but instead found there a life of hard labor.  During her visit to western Massachusetts in the summer of 1865, Emma met the man who a year later would become her second husband.  Unlike her marriage to Johnnie, this match was one of convenience rather than love, and subsequent letters to Cheney Sherman from both Emma and Caddie indicate that Emma’s second husband was an undependable provider and an indifferent stepfather to Emma’s daughter Carrie.  Writing from Williamsburg, Massachusetts, near the Conway home of her brother’s in-laws, Emma reported to her father on August 19, 1869, that her husband Clark was “hard at work this summer . . . farming most of the time and getting out timber.”   Apparently dissatisfied with this work, Emma’s husband soon moved his small family to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he labored on the police force until the city’s hot weather and high cost of living caused him “to dissipate.”  As Caddie described the “dreadful” situation in a long letter to their father, her sister’s Arkansas sojourn brought both Clark and Emma “to their senses” and made them realize “that all this western life and success was a myth.”  Back in Massachusetts, Emma continued her life as a farm laborer’s wife, while Caddie worried in a letter to their father on February 11, 1872, that “country life” was not good for Emma:  “[It] is hard work and it begins to tell on her.  [M]akes her grow old.  Clark is a good enough fellow but not the one for Em I am sorry to say.”  When Emma herself wrote her father from the tiny western Massachusetts village of Florence on October 28, 1878, she was working as a seamstress, 16-year-old Carrie was earning $5.50 a week at the local silk mill, and Clark was once again searching for work, now hoping to rent or labor on a farm near his father-in-law Cheney.[5]

Located at various sites throughout the state of Massachusetts—the very birthplace of America’s industrial revolution—members of the Sherman clan resided in the boundaries between agrarian and industrial America.  They also frequently resided on the edge of poverty, which sometimes necessitated industrial employment (in a silk mill, gun factory, or on a naval steam ship) and other times required labor on the land.  As the Sherman sisters’ correspondence suggests, for these and many other New Englanders, one’s identity as a farmer or industrial laborer—or as a rural or urban dweller—remained necessarily flexible during this period of geographic mobility, national crisis, and economic change.

[1] Joan M. Jensen, “Introduction, “ in Joan M. Jensen, ed., With These Hands:  Women Working on the Land (Old Westbury, NY:  The Feminist Press, 1981), xvii-xviii.  The author thanks Sharon Wood for photographing the Sherman letters and Sherry Gillogly for her genealogical research on the Sherman family.

[2] Lillian Smith, “Autobiography as a Dialogue between King and Corpse,” in Michelle Cliff, ed., The Winner Names the Age:  A Collection of Writings by Lillian Smith (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), 190-191; Emma Sherman [married name?] to Sarah Dexter Sherman, June 25, 1860.

[3] Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, [September?] 1862.

[4] Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, September 5, 1864; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, October 10, 1864; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, August 16, 1865.

[5] Caroline M. (Caddie) Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, May 13, 1866; Cheney Janes Sherman to Emma Sherman, August 5, 1866; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, August 19, 1869; Caddie Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, May 28, [1870?]; Caddie Sherman Spooner to Cheney Janes Sherman, February 11, 1872; Emma Sherman to Cheney Janes Sherman, October 28, 1878.