That Pioneer Spirit

In researching my family tree, I’ve become a little obsessed with one great-great-grandmother who chose to become a pioneer in the Old West.

She chose to!

This was about 5 years before the Homestead Act made it more appealing, an easy way for down-on-their-luck families to earn their own 160-acre tracts of land by working the land and contributing to Westward expansion. The government hadn’t made that grand offer yet, so the Hemphill family bought their own land smack dab in the middle of Injun country.

And as far as I can tell, it was something they wanted to do for the adventure of it.

In 1883, my grannie (x3) was a widow woman doing pretty darn well for herself. Though she’d grown up in the East coast with a wealthy family, she and her first husband, a bricklayer, decided to move to the Midwest to get in on all the building of the new cities. He died on the way, leaving her with 3 young girls to raise and only a spinster sister for company.

Undaunted, she decided to pick out a pretty little town even further west, in Iowa, to settle into. She bought herself a piece of land and had a house built to her specifications – with extra bedrooms that she rented to boarders. She even did a little tailoring on the side. She was doing just fine without a man around.

Enter young Mr. Hemphill. He had no money to speak of, no family name to flash around, and he was just getting started in his trade, carpentry. He was only 20 to her 35. I like thinking of him as her scruffy-bearded boy toy.

They married, of course, and almost immediately got the itch to find new land.

Pioneer records have yet to be digitized, so it’s hard to know exactly who lived where in those days, but through census records we know their farm was near Helena, Nebraska, a now-defunct town southeast of what is now Lincoln. The Sac, Fox, Oto, Pawnee, and Omaha tribes were still living in this region then, though the American government was doing its best to change that. In Nebraska alone, there were 18 separate treaties signed in the 1800s to chase them off their land.

I picture the Hemphill family right in the center of this, trying to work the virgin lands. Though they eventually cashed it in and returned to city life (Iowa), they made a go of it for five long years.

I’m confident that’s five years more than I’d have lasted.

The sheer number of skills you’d have to master to be able to tackle a life like this: house building, farming and preserving food, tending livestock, hunting and trapping, building and repairing darn near everything yourself. And that’s in a world where everything you wear is homemade. Everything you eat was made from scratch and cooked over a fire you built yourself. You’d better know a fair dab of first aid and herbal medicines, too, because you won’t find a doctor soon.

I can’t wrap my mind around it. I’ve tried to start small, like picturing a month-long camping trip … where you can’t take any store-bought food … and I know I wouldn’t have the mettle to survive.

There was something special in the hearts of these pioneer folk. I think John Wayne said it best:

They found a howling wilderness, with summers too hot and winters freezing … Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? … They did not! They looked at the land, and the forest, and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids and their houses. And then they looked up at the sky and they said, “Thanks, God, we’ll take it from here.”

— John Wayne
Top photo by Stephen Hui on; center photo by Dan Meyers on

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