Tough women for tough times

Little has been told about the women who took up the offer with the Homestead Act for 160 acres of land; all they had to do was prove they were head of household, be at least 21, a citizen and make something of the land-and fight off men who tried to take their property.

Rachael Stillman / Special to The Malibu Times

The 1862 Homestead Act made it possible for people, who otherwise could not afford it, to own up to 160 acres of land. From 1862 to the 1920s, about 30,000 to 40,000 homesteaders inhabited the Santa Monica Mountains. Women comprised 5 percent to 15 percent of the homesteader population nationally, and about 8 percent of the homesteader population in the Santa Monicas. This was a rather large group of women to participate in a venture that was considered risky even for men, but often they are left out of the history all together.

As a part of the National Park Service of Santa Monica Mountains’ ongoing lecture series programs, on Saturday, speaker Professor Patty Colman explored the little told history of the “Pioneer Women of the Santa Monica Mountains.” In particular, those hard working homesteading women who were required to live and tend a plot of land for five years before they could own it.

To qualify for the act, a settler had to be a head of a household, over the age of 21 and a citizen of the United States or the proof of intent to become a citizen. To obtain a land patent, a homesteader was required to set up house, make something of the land for five years and then bring witnesses with them to attest to their success.

Colman, who teaches American, American Indian and women’s history at Moorpark College, focused on the unique experiences and hardships women homesteaders faced in the Santa Monica Mountains. For the last six months, she has been piecing together some of these women’s lives through homestead files. Colman’s talk centered around five of the extraordinary women homesteaders in the area.

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Lillie Svenson, an immigrant from Norway, came to the U.S. at the age of two. At the age of 30, the never married teacher took up homesteading in the Topanga Canyon area. She cultivated about four acres of crops, and tended to her many grapevines. Her two-room home was already on the land before she came. In the winter, she would leave for a couple of months to teach in Santa Monica. Her witnesses also noted that she would sometimes leave to attend school; extra education for teachers was certainly not usual at the time, especially for a homesteader. She received her land patent in 1910.

Matilda Ellis was a 60-year-old widow when she came to Calabasas in 1885 to acquire a piece of land (where Mulholland and Stunt Road meet). She built a two-room house, stable and cultivated 10 acres of land, most likely with her children’s help. She was illiterate, but had no trouble defending herself. When she was a year late to file the patent for her land, she had someone detail her problems receiving her widower’s pension, which delayed her progress.

Elizabeth and Lizzie Friederich, 54 and 23 respectively, were a mother-daughter team who filed for land in 1904. Elizabeth was originally from Switzerland and had problems proving that her dead husband, Gottfried, had been a naturalized citizen, so she ended up having to become a naturalized citizen. They filed for adjoining pieces of land, which they built on and ran themselves. Elizabeth built a large home and farm with two private roads and cattle. Lizzie cultivated five acres of land, built a barn, stable, chicken house, two miles of fencing and a large, five-room house. According to Elizabeth’s testimony, they were both harassed by a man named Moses, who claimed their land was his and set up his own homestead. He refused to move and allegedly tried to poison their well, which Lizzie became ill from. Though the files do not indicate what happened to Moses, the two women did eventually receive their patents.

In 1891, Lavinia White had to commit her husband Seth to an insane asylum. In 1898, after he passed away, she came out to the Rancho Las Virgenes area in Calabasas to homestead. She had trouble with Jesus Seldano, a man who set up homestead on her land. They were involved in a number of skirmishes, including one in which she threatened him with a gun. On Nov. 8, 1899 she was in the city buying supplies when her house was burnt down. The courts said there was not enough evidence to prosecute. Nevertheless, White did receive her patent; it is not known what happened to Seldano.

According to a 1916 article headline from the Los Angeles Times, Viola Cliett “Set New High-Water Mark for Progressive Feminism” when she was able to prove that though she was married, she was the head of her household.

She was the first woman to legally declare herself the head of her family’s household in the U.S. A man set up homestead on her land, saying that Cliett’s land was his because she was not the head of a household. When the case went to court and they asked Cliett why she considered herself the head of her household, she said that she was the one who built the house, tended to the land, cooked and cleaned. She won.

More information on homesteading can be obtained by visiting the National Archives and Records Administration at www.archive.gov.

More information on the National Park Service Lecture Series can be obtained by calling 805. 370.2301 or visiting the Web site, www.nps.gov/samo

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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