History,  North Dakota History,  The Cowboy Chronicle

Staking Their Claim: Women Homesteaders in North Dakota

Published in the June 2024 edition of The Cowboy Chronicle

We have read the books and seen the movies about the pioneer families making their way across the prairies hoping to make a new life. We have heard of the grizzled lone pioneer arriving in uncivilized territory to stake his claim. These adventurers faced dangers and hardships but ultimately settled the west.  The Homestead Act spurred settlement like never before. As with all important moments in history we learn the overarching concept, but there are many details and nuances we may not know. When we think about the Homestead Act, most do not realize that a significant percentage of American homesteaders were in fact women; not women as part of family, but single women as homesteaders in their own right. Studies of historical documents have shown that twenty to twenty-five percent of those who filed claims under the original Homestead Act and its various later versions were women. They ranged from the young and adventurous to those who were widowed and raising families. Fifty three percent of Dakota female homesteaders were between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-five.

Congress had been debating versions of the final Homestead Act for many years. The idea to give free land to settlers to encourage western expansion became popular in the 1850’s but was opposed by lawmakers from the south.   When the southern states succeeded from the Union, their representatives were no longer in Congress and the act was able to pass.  “Free” land, a sense of adventure, autonomy, and the chance to build something captivated many. There was now a chance for people of little means to build a future. The prospects for ownership and personal economic growth had never been so great.

The Homestead Act of 1862 gave any citizen who was the head of a family, or a single person over the age of 21 who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, the ability to apply for a quarter section of land (160 acres.)  In the original act, the homesteader had to pay a filing fee of $10.00 and by the end of six months had to be living on the land.  Once they had lived on their claim for six months they had the option to cash out the claim for $1.25 an acre. To attain ownership, they had to “prove it up”. If after five years of continuous residence, the homesteader had proved their claim, they could be issued a patent (deed).  To “prove up” the land they had to build a permanent dwelling, cultivate the land and make other improvements. There was no specific amount of cultivation and improvement that had to be made, but it had to be continuous and show good faith. 

Married women were not considered to be the “head of the family” so they were disqualified from establishing their own claims. While their names may not have been on the official paperwork, millions of wives, daughters and other female family members were part of the great American homesteading experience. However, many officially recognized homesteaders did include women who were single, widowed, deserted or divorced, giving many women an opportunity that would have been denied to them elsewhere. The nationalities and cultural backgrounds of the women who homesteaded were varied. While most were immigrants, some came from families that had been in America for generations. The motives to homestead for women were the same as those of their male counterparts.

There were many reasons a woman would decide to join this great undertaking; the love of adventure, freedom, their place in history, and the chance to own something of her own. Sometimes she homesteaded to add the the family’s overall acreage. For some it provided a way to escape a bad or abusive situation.  The Dakota Territory and the west were portrayed as an exciting place. The future was bright if you were willing to work hard. The railroads published pamphlets and bought ads to encourage this westward movement. Glowing reports of life in the west were sent back east. The first homesteader in what is now North Dakota was Nelson E. Nelson, a Civil War veteran who filed his claim in December 1870. The first woman to file a homestead claim in North Dakota was Margaret Renville. When she filed in January 1871, Margaret was only the fifth claim in then Dakota Territory. Ultimately, thirty-nine percent of North Dakota land would be claimed by homesteaders.

The concept of “free” land of course was a misnomer; turning virgin prairie into cultivated and productive acreage, as well as building a home, could involve considerable expense.  Homesteading was tough. Enormous risks were taken when these intrepid people took on often marginal lands not knowing if the soil would be fertile or the rain plentiful.  The land to claim was isolated.  The homesteader started with nothing but a plot of land and their determination.

Few women or men struck out completely on their own, they often came in pairs or groups of family and friends. According to a study, seventy- four percent of women homesteaders took land near a family member. It was not unusual for family members to make claims adjoining each other. Still, women who homesteaded became independent very quickly. They had to learn to handle the horses, operate machinery and work the fields.  Most would have to work other jobs to augment their income, particularly in the early years and the winters. Neighbors often exchanged work. There were times the women would have to rent their land or hire men to do their field work in order to manage their claim and sometimes they would trade domestic work for field work. Many however did most of the field work themselves, some by choice and some by necessity. While the women may have needed some support, ninety-four percent of women homesteaders oversaw the management of their claim themselves. Also, as it turns out, the rate of “proving” the claim was actually higher among the women than it was among the men.

As time went on later acts and amendments were passed to make homesteading easier and attract pioneers to some of the more marginal land. An act that brought more settlers to the Dakotas was the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916. This act promised a total of 640 acres of public land for ranching. In 1919 the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed. This act promised an additional 160 acres for a total of 320 to those willing to claim more of the marginal lands in the Great Plains where irrigation was difficult. This law was a response to the dry land farm movement that began at the turn of the century.  Land that previously was thought useful only for grazing was now valuable for agriculture as farmers adopted new techniques and seeded drought-resistant crops.

It was in this era that Blanche Vanderhoof and her sister began their homesteading venture. Blanche was an example of the homesteader whose family had been in America for generations. Her family had come from New Jersey to Wisconsin in the 1890’s, and then to the Mondak region in 1909 to take advantage of the homesteading opportunity there. After the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed Blanche set her sights on 320 acres in a little coulee along the Montana North Dakota border, and filed her own homestead claim. Blanche’s father had one request, to take her sister Lila with her so she wouldn’t be alone. The sisters worked together well, but eventually each got married and went their separate ways. Blanch did “prove up” her land and was granted a patent for the 320 acres in 1924.

The percentage of woman claimants in North Dakota rose after 1900, from a low of five percent pre- 1900 to over twenty percent. McKenzie County had one of the higher rates of women claimants, reaching twenty percent in the years soon after the new century began. Why the increase?  Perhaps it was more socially acceptable in these years. Women’s suffrage was becoming a major issue and the changing attitudes towards women may have contributed.  Women homesteaders helped create an atmosphere where women’s rights could grow. They owned land, they paid taxes and they wanted representation.  Many places in the west women already had the right to vote in local and state elections. North Dakota was one of 20 states, with the exception of New York all Midwest or western states, where women enjoyed the vote in some capacity.

Also as time went on, the women who came to North Dakota with their families were turning 21 and were eligible to get land on their own.  Additionally, this new generation of homesteaders had a better chance of success due to advancements that had come over the years.  In many places there were now roads, automobiles, electricity, and the train connecting the many small towns that dotted the prairies.  Homesteaders were not as isolated anymore and it was easier to get to those jobs many needed to supplement their homesteading income. Only a third of women homesteaders did not have an additional job while they were homesteading.  The most common jobs were schoolteacher, housekeeper, and seamstress. Other jobs women took were as a nurse, waitress, cook or sales clerk.

Homesteading would also offer a young widow the chance at a new beginning and a way to control her destiny. Many women did not choose to homestead on their own, but persevered when they found themselves alone and needing to provide for their family.  Margaret Barr Roberts, a NDCHF inductee in the Pre-1940’s Ranching division from 2003, epitomizes this.  Margaret was born in Ireland, but came to America as a child. She married another immigrant, John Lloyd Roberts from Wales in April 1871. He started as a contract supplier of beef for the army, and then worked as a foreman for the Custer Trail Ranch, and in 1883 he and Margaret started the Sloping Bottom Ranch near Medora. In the brutal 1886 winter John Roberts disappeared. He had left for Cheyenne Wyoming carrying $2000 in his pockets and was never heard from again. Margaret believed he had been murdered for the cash he was carrying.  She found herself a 33 year old mother of 5 daughters alone on the frontier with very few other women around. Margaret continued working the ranch she and John had started, eventually filing a homestead claim in 1899.  She sold meat, butter, eggs, and other foods to neighboring ranchers and Medora businesses. She would also take in laundry and sewing for the local cowboys.  She was tireless and courageous as she provided for her family.  Margaret became friends with Theodore Roosevelt who spoke highly of her and called her “the most wonderful little woman in the Badlands.”

Some women after proving up their land sold it and invested in other endeavors, but many chose to keep their land and pass it down to their descendants.  The Homestead Act remained in effect one way or another until 1976 when it was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.  With the Homestead Act ten percent of U. S. public lands were passed into the hands of individuals. The Homestead Act was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in America’s history. It led to the settlement of vast portions of our country, it set up families for generational security, and it gave women the same chance at ownership and prosperity as men.

Women Homesteader Resources













Windfall: The Prairie Woman who Lost her Way and the Great-granddaughter who Found Her, Erika Bolstad, Sourcebooks, Naperville, Illinois  2023

Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota, H. Elaine Lindgren, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996




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