Female Homesteaders

Miss Mary Longfellow holding down a claim west of Broken Bow, Nebraska, circa 1880s

Miss Mary Longfellow holding down a claim west of Broken Bow, Nebraska, circa 1880s
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1953-a

The Homestead Act of 1862 stated that any person age twenty-one or head of a family could claim land. The Act also contained the provision that widows of Union soldiers could deduct the time of service their husbands spent in the Civil War from the five-year residency requirement. So, while the phrase "head of a family" did place limitations on which women could file, many women took advantage of the Homestead Act and other laws to file claims in their own names.

In 1874, Mattie Oblinger wrote back to her relatives, the Thomas family, in Indiana and talked about a typical day in the family’s sod house. Uriah is her husband, and Ella is her young daughter.

Uriah and Mattie Oblinger with daughter Ella, circa 1870s

Uriah and Mattie Oblinger with daughter Ella, circa 1870s
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG1346-1-2

Sunday forenoon April 12th, 1874
Fillmore Co Neb

Dear Father & Mother & Bros & Sister

"Well we are home again and I will try and finish letter. Uriah is doing up his work while Ella is sitting by me eating a piece of bread & butter. This paper will tell you what I am doing. Ella has been eating nearly all the afternoon. She eat when I got dinner at home and after we went to Giles and he come home. I got dinner again for him and she eat and soon as I got home she said she wanted a piece. Guess she is not hungry for she has laid her piece by and is nursing the cat. . . . "
"My plants are looking nicely. I have not made a garden yet, will make some tomorrow if it does rain. It has the appearance of rain this evening. I would have made some this last week but the ground was not ready and Uriah wanted to finish his wheat. I feel like killing my old hens. They will not go to setting [laying eggs]. I expect when they do take a notion to set, they will all want to set at one time. I have made two table clothes & two shirts for Uriah &one for my self out of our wagon sheet. . . .

"Don’t you think I will have a good time washing them this summer? Uriah looks so odd with an everyday white shirt on. I have commenced piecing a quilt. I know no name for it. It is pieced of dark & light calico. I did think I would piece an Ocean wave [pattern], but when I piece that I want it for a nice quilt. I have seen some scrap quilts pieced that way here and they look real well. I do not need the white yarn. There was a little ball of my white yarn at Elliotts. I had forgot it, so I did not have to borrow. Nett I tried a new way to make bread custard. I use water instead of milk and it does real well. If you doubt it, why just try it & see. If you was living in Nebraska, you would try a great many projects that you never think of in Indiana. . . .

"I told you in my last that I was expecting Mrs. Morgan. She came, but it stormed all day. She said she was bound to come and it did not hurt her any. Mrs McClane & Mrs Furgison was here yesterday. Mrs McClane brought me about half a pound of butter. Ella was wonderfully pleased. Oh yes, I suppose we will live high now as Uriah has taken a step toward the white house. He was selected School director last Monday and voted a five dollar salary for him. Guess he will not have to work now! I torment him considerable about it. Nett, how do you do up your hair now days. Does the boys hurry you as they used to when you go to comb? I do mine up just as I used to for Sunday and every day too, for my old net is played out. If I had a braid I could do my hair up as you used to."

Discussion Questions:

Who was Mattie Oblinger?

What did she like about living in Nebraska?

What did she dislike?

The Chrisman Sisters

The Chrisman Sisters on a claim in Goheen settlement on Lieban (Lillian) Creek, Custer County, 1886. Left to right: Hattie, Lizzie, Lutie, and Ruth

The Chrisman Sisters on a claim in Goheen settlement on Lieban (Lillian) Creek, Custer County, 1886. Left to right: Hattie, Lizzie, Lutie, and Ruth
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, RG2608-1053
Like single men, single women responded to the call of free land and took claims. Because government regulations defined the head of household as the husband, women — unlike men — were forced to forestall marriage for five years if they wished their land titled to themselves.

The Chrisman sisters lived near the Goheen settlement on Lieban Creek in Custer County. Lizzie Chrisman filed the first homestead claim in 1887. Lutie Chrisman filed her claim the following year. The sisters took turns living with each other so they could fulfill the residence requirements without living alone. The other two sisters, Hattie and Jennie Ruth, had to wait until they came of age to file. All the land was gone before the youngest sister was old enough to file, but all four were well-known members of the community.

One letter from Ruth Chrisman describes life on the homestead,and one from a more modern relative gives us details of the photo

Discussion Questions:

Who were the Chrisman sisters, and why are they important?

For more advanced students

How could the Chrisman sisters make twelve claims and acquire 1,920 acres?