I love to read about pioneer women, about their struggles and hardships, their courage and strength. They worked so hard, found joy in tiny simple things, and came together in celebration and sorrow.
I know that the pioneers made their lives by destroying the world of the Native Americans. This sentence would logically be followed by a “but...,” and an excuse, but I have no exculpatory statement to make about the brutal imperialism of the westward movement. I only have my belief that we must take history as we find it, and my awareness that my own comfortable life is built on the oppression of others, at home and around the world, and so I won’t cast the first stone.
Elinore Pruitt Stewart was a homesteader in Wyoming when she wrote these letters to her friend Mrs. Coney. She had been working in Denver as a laundress, furnace tender and housekeeper to support herself and her 4-year-old daughter Jerrine. She hated the city, and wanted her own homestead, so she placed an ad seeking employment on a ranch, with the idea she would learn about ranching life as she established her claim. A Scottish homesteader, Clyde Stewart, hired her as a housekeeper for his small cattle ranch.
Elinor was an adventurous young woman. She says, “I wanted to just knock about foot-loose and free to see life as a gypsy sees it. I had planned to see the Cliff Dwellers’ home; to live right there until I caught the spirit of the surroundings enough to live over their lives in imagination anyway. I had planned to see the old missions and to go to Alaska; to hunt in Canada. I even dreamed of Honolulu ...I aimed to see all the world I could, but...first I wanted to try homesteading.” As it turned out, homesteading was all the adventure she had, and all the adventure she needed.
Clyde Stewart is a comical character in her letters. “Mr. Stewart is absolutely no trouble, for as soon as he has his meals he retires to his room and plays on his bagpipe...It is ‘The Campbells are Coming,’ without variations,...from seven till eleven at night. Sometimes I wish they would make haste and get here.” Six weeks after her arrival, she married him. She kept it a secret from Mrs. Coney for a year, ashamed that she married so quickly. “But although I married in haste, I have no cause to repent. That is very fortunate because I have never had one bit of leisure to repent in.”
Even after marriage she was resolutely independent. She had filed her first claim, on the land adjoining Mr. Stewart’s, soon after she arrived in Wyoming, and planned to file for another 160 acres in the desert as soon as she had enough cash: $40 to file and $160 after five years. “I should not have married if Clyde had not promised I should meet all my land difficulties unaided. I wanted the fun and the experience.”
In her first summer in Wyoming, Elinore mowed hay for over two months. She also milked the cows every day, did all the cooking for the ranchhands, and put up sixty pints of jellies made from wild fruits.
When the ranchhands departed for the roundup and there was a lull in the work, she went camping in the mountains with a saddle horse and pack horse, Jerrine riding behind her. On their second morning they woke to find new snow weighing down the tree branches that sheltered them. It was still snowing hard, and she says, “I began to think how many kinds of idiot I was. Here I was thirty or forty miles from home, in the mountains where no one goes in the winter...”
But as they rode through the snowstorm they came across the little farm of Zebulon Pike Parker, an 80-year-old sheep farmer who was too tender-hearted to sell any of his thirty sheep. They spent the night with him, breakfasting on coffee, venison steak, hoe cakes and honey, and then he accompanied them on the two-day journey home. Zebulon and Elinore became the best of friends, and later she reunited him with his southern family - he was illiterate so he had not been able to stay in touch.
Elinore made friends of all ages and types. When the ranch hands were out on the range and there was no one to cook for, she was free to go off on adventures. With Mrs. Louderer, a lonely German widow, she prepared a Christmas feast for the shepherds in a dozen distant camps. Because cattle men and sheep men were enemies, she didn’t mention her Christmas plans to Clyde, but after cooking for several days to keep her household supplied, she set off to Mrs. Louderer’s ranch.
“I never worked harder in my life or had such a pleasant time... We roasted six geese, boiled three small hams and three hens. We had besides several meat loaves and links of sausage. We had twelve large loaves of the best rye bread; a small tub of doughnuts, twelve coffee-cakes...and also a quantity of little cakes with seeds, nuts and fruits in them, - so pretty to look at and so good to taste...I had [brought] thirteen pounds of butter and six pint jars of jelly, so we melted the jelly and poured it into twelve glasses.” They drove across the country in their four-horse sled - “Tam O’Shanter and Paul Revere were snails compared to us” - delivering twelve boxes of Christmas feasts to the delighted shepherds.
Elinore was quick to help a a stranger in need, who then became a friend. She organized a huge birthday celebration for an ancient woman who was raising her granddaughter. The feasting went on all day and the guests left the next morning. At the end of a long letter telling the story, she mentions that she has been very busy, arranging the funeral for "a dear little child [who] has joined the angels."
A year and a half later she confessed to Mrs. Coney that it was her own son who had died. “For a long time my heart was crushed. He was such a sweet, beautiful boy. I wanted him so much. He died of erisypelas. I held him in my arms till the last agony was over. Then I dressed the beautiful body for the grave....Little Jamie was the first little Stewart. God has given me two more precious little sons. The old sorrow is not so keen now. I can bear to tell you about it, but I never could before.”
Elinor’s life was filled with love, adventure, humor, friendship, and incredibly hard work. She relished life even when she was engulfed by sorrow. “When you think of me, you must think of me as one who is truly happy.” She lists her blessings: “my home among the blue mountains, my healthy, well-formed children, my clean, honest husband, my kind, gentle milk cows, my garden [with] loads and loads of flowers...chickens, turkeys and pigs which are my own special care. I have some slow old gentle horses and an old wagon. I can load up the kiddies and go where I please any time. I have the best, kindest neighbors and I have my dear absent friends. Do you wonder I am so happy? When I think of it all, I wonder how I can crowd all my joy into one short life.”
Note: Elinor made ample use of poetic license in her letters. According to information on wyomingtalesandtrails.com, Stewart left her first husband after a year of marriage. He was still alive when she married Clyde. Though she presents herself as a southerner, she actually grew up in Oklahoma. And Clyde was born in Pennsylvania, rather than being an immigrant from Scotland. She lost the right to file a claim when she married, so her claim had to be made in the name of her mother-in-law, who was a head of household.
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