The Wild West of Yester-Year

Elinor Pruitt Stewart
By Rachel Kovaciny

When we think about the Old West, often images of showdowns at high noon, handsome cowboys on endless cattle drives, or thrilling bank robberies fill our minds. Those images have elements of truth though we have romanticized and fictionalized them over the years. I adore stories of gunfighters, cowboys, and lawmen, but I also enjoy learning about the not-so-famous people of the Old West, the everyday folks who had the courage and fortitude to live on the edge of the known world. The people who worked hard to make their personal dreams come true.


One of those ordinary people left us an entertaining record of her life on the frontier of the early 1900s. Elinore Pruitt Stewart wrote fascinating letters to her friend and former employer eventually collected into books which offer us a glimpse of what life could be like for Wyoming homesteaders. Elinore was a divorced single mother with a daughter to support and a willingness to work hard. In 1909, she left her job as a housekeeper in Denver to stake her claim to her own land in Wyoming. Woman homesteaders were not that rare. According to, a little more than ten percent of homesteaders were single women seeking the opportunity to acquire property and make a life for themselves.


On the advice of friends, Elinore Pruitt answered a newspaper advertisement for a housekeeper for Clyde Stewart, a respectable Wyoming widower. She planned to clean and cook for him to earn money while living with her daughter on their claim. Once she arrived in Wyoming, she wrote letters to her former employer and friend. And what letters she wrote—funny, observant, descriptive, and filled with joy. One of my favorite passages is in her first letter, when she's describing Mr. Stewart's penchant for playing the bagpipe: "It is 'The Campbells are Coming,' without variations, at intervals all day long and from seven till eleven at night. Sometimes I wish they would make haste and get here." That wonderfully wry, cheerful flavor runs throughout her letters, collected in two volumes, Letters of a Woman Homesteader and Letters on an Elk Hunt.


As you can guess by her name, Elinore eventually married Mr. Stewart and had to give up her claim to a homestead which she had filed as a single woman, because married women could only file jointly with their husband. She continued to champion the idea of homesteading for women and men alike. In another letter, she said, "To me, homesteading is the solution of all poverty's problems, but I realize that temperament has much to do with success in any undertaking, and persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone. At the same time, any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end." 

Although historians suspect Elinore’s letters were not strictly nonfiction (she said herself she "never let the facts get in the way of a good story"), they show us the things people faced on the frontier a hundred-plus years ago. Stewart lost children to sickness, helped neighbors through hard times, made friends with strangers, delighted in simple pleasures like a pretty sunset or a good crop of potatoes, and showed anyone who reads her writings you don't need a fancy education to share your story or a lot of money to enjoy life.

I recommend her books to anyone who wants to learn more about the kinds of people who made new lives for themselves on the western frontier.