In 1909, Elinore Pruitt headed west with her three year old daughter. Her husband had died in a railroad accident, and Elinore wanted to start a new life for herself. Under the Homestead Act, she secured a section of land in Wyoming near a fork of the Green River, and she began to prove her claim. Elinore didn’t have experience homesteading; she had previously earned her keep doing laundry and housekeeping for a wealthy woman, Mrs. Coney, in Denver. But Elinore was determined. She wasn’t afraid to work hard and find her own way, even as she mourned the loss of her husband.
Life on the frontier was filled with excitement, challenge, loneliness and sadness. Elinore built her own home, learned to ranch, and welcomed and befriended nearby settlers. She endured harsh weather, fended off thieves, and attended more funerals. Certainly, her life in Denver as domestic help would have seemed the easier choice, especially with a small daughter to raise. But Elinore had a different vision. She wrote in a letter to her former employer, “Those who try know that strength and knowledge come with doing.”
I read Elinore’s story, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, two years before Rob died. We’d just spent extended time camping in Wyoming and northern Utah, and I’d fallen in love with the contours of the land. I could envision the terrain as I read Elinore’s letters. The scrub bushes and dry soil. The coyotes and mountain lions and hawks. The hot sun and the storms that rose quickly and raced violently across the land. I loved its beauty even in the harshness. Like Elinore, I craved the feeling of a spacious sky above.
Though we are separated by 100 years, my grief journey isn’t all that different from Elinore’s. Like Elinore, I work hard each day to coax life into our family’s parched landscape, to cultivate the soil of a new life without Rob. I endure the windstorms of sorrow, the deep quiet of isolation and loneliness, the steep learning curve as I take on responsibilities I have never had to shoulder.
I hope too that I possess a measure of Elinore’s pluck and faith as well. As she reflected on her life on the frontier, Elinore wrote, “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.”
Elinore’s story is a guiding light in my grief journey. I find I want the same things she wanted in the face of loss. To see beauty, to grow, to find fruitful labor. To discover independence and interdependence. To build a home of my own.