Lily Bell Stearns was no one important when she arrived by train in Montana in 1912. Stearns was a recent divorcee with three children, including one daughter left behind in a mental institution. Yet she now has her own online museum exhibit.
Thanks to Sara Gregg , a University of Kansas associate professor of history and environmental studies, Stearns’ Eastern Montana homesteading story has been excavated like the bones of an unknown dinosaur. By poring over old documents, census records and letters, Gregg has unearthed the sad tale of a single woman struggling to survive in a wild, unforgiving land.
“The tough life she had, being a single woman, she faced more difficult hardships than a man would,” said Julie Sibley, a Valley County Pioneer Museum volunteer whose Swedish grandfather homesteaded near Frazer. “I was impressed with her.”
Sibley read Stearns’ story, which has been preserved on the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society’s website. The virtual exhibition is titled “American Land Rush: ‘A Lonely Homesteader’ Searches for Security in the Montana Homestead Boom.” In Gregg’s research, Stearns personifies a portion of the state’s homesteading era, the struggles settlers faced and the dire situations in which they fought to survive. Many, including Stearns, moved on after failing to thrive in the harsh environment of searing hot summers, plagues of grasshoppers and icy winters, their hopes vanishing like topsoil scattered by the wind.
“They suffered so greatly to stay alive,” said Mary Helland, a Valley County Pioneer Museum board member. “Man they had to work hard.”
Like Stearns, Helland’s great-grandmother was a homesteader. Louise Speer Arno acquired the last homestead in Hill County in 1917. A widow with a 2-year-old son, Arno’s husband had drowned, prompting her decision to move west to be near her sister, Amanda. Arno died at 36, but her spirit lives on in the small house she lived in which Helland acquired and restored. When Gregg came to visit Glasgow to research Stearns, she stayed in the old house with no electricity to get a feel for what the women experienced.
“I really admire her resolve to collect these stories,” Helland said.
Eventually, Stearns’ tale will be part of Gregg’s book on the homesteading era, “Little Piece of Earth: The Hidden History of the Homestead Era,” which examines the Homestead Act and its environmental impacts.
“She was the test case, I suppose, in this part of my project, which essentially sought to lace Euro-American homesteaders into the story of the Homestead Act,” Gregg said.
Growing up an orphan, Stearns learned to take care of herself.
“I think what most impressed me was the way she was able to use all of the tools at her disposal” to develop economic security, Gregg said.
In the Glasgow area that included working as a laundress in town, raising livestock, marrying again and lying to the General Land Office to acquire more land through her institutionalized daughter, whom she eventually brought to Montana.
“It was all a matter of survival,” Gregg said. “Three-hundred-and-twenty acres is not going to create much of a ranch. So people had to adapt.”
The homesteaders, some recent immigrants to the United States, were quick to realize there was no such thing as free land, given the costs involved in settling, Gregg said. Many couldn’t cope. Out of the 4 million homestead claims filed, less than half were finalized. Montana, followed by North Dakota, led with the most claims acquired.
Gregg’s journey into Stearns’ past began when she found a letter in the Montana State Historical Society’s archives. In the letter, Stearns had written to the Secretary of Interior as she pleaded for help keeping her homestead along the Milk River, west of Glasgow.
“I found it very evocative,” Gregg said. “The more I dug, the more I found. And it became clear to me that she had a story worth capturing.”
Stearns wrote dozens of letters that have been archived, which Gregg found by visiting the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C.
“She was incredibly prolific and a really good advocate for herself in all sorts of ways,” Gregg said.
She also searched census records, genealogy archives and visited Glasgow to piece together a tragic tale of struggle common to the era.
“I found all of these different hints about Lily’s life in different places,” Gregg said.
In the end, it was a somewhat disheartening story.
“A robust archival record testifies to the suspicion she engendered — likely stemming from hostility to her faith (Reformed Latter Day Saints), her sexuality (neighbors accused her of conducting an affair with her son’s employer), and her dishonesty (adjacent homesteaders joined in contesting her expanded homestead, arguing that she did not reside permanently in her shack),” Gregg wrote on the Rachel Carson Center website.
Stearns arrived in Glasgow a month after divorcing her husband, a Saskatchewan farmer. She joined many others seeking free land under the 1909 Enlarged Homestead Act. Being single and a woman was no hindrance to homesteading. Gregg said about 10% to 20% of the homesteaders in that era were widowed or single women seeking to establish a nest egg.
“The ensuing surge into Montana represents the largest successful movement of homesteaders in U.S. history, and it briefly transformed the northeastern quarter of the state from a vast expanse of rolling grasslands into a patchwork of small farms,” Gregg wrote.
As settlers moved in, Native Americans were pushed out. Homesteaders near Glasgow laid claim to a region the Assiniboine tribe had long called home. Under an 1886 accord, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes were settled on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Three years later the Great Northern Railroad built a route across the land, eventually hyping the untilled prairie’s bounty to eager farmers as a way to boost railroad revenues.
With the help of a local land locator, Stearns filed her first application for 160 acres about 14 miles northwest of Glasgow. To acquire the land at no cost, homesteaders had to live on the property for five years, build a house and farm the land. Stearns noted in one of her letters that she hand dug her own well.
“it takes a [brave?] Lady to prove up a homestead and I am not afraid of no one if they will face me, let me tell you, dear friends,” Stearns wrote in a June 1915 letter to the Department of Interior. “You will never know what it is to try to earn a home here, they will come and steal from me, last summer some one came at night and stole my things and me at home, this spring they stole my posthole spade and me home, came at night, last winter while I was in Glasgow doing laundry work.”
Two months after having a 14x16-foot home built on the property, a “terrable cyclone” blew through the region and “tetotlay destroyed” the structure, all of Stearns’ dishes and groceries, she wrote in another letter. She hung on to finally establish legal claim to her land, but by 1918 she’d had enough. After conveying the homestead and its mortgage to her son, Emory, she left.
“Drought ultimately doomed Stearns’s gamble on the shortgrass steppe,” Gregg wrote. "Once again transient, she moved west to Great Falls, Montana, where she remarried for a third time, and then followed this husband down to the Texas coast, where, divorced once again, she died in 1931."
Stearns’ story is one of four Gregg is writing for her book on homesteading. Other states where Gregg is conducting research include Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma. One part will examine Native American movements across the land prior to the Homestead Act.
“They understood you couldn’t set up shop on 160 or 320 acres,” Gregg said.
The Stearns online history display was an offshoot of a 2017 fellowship Gregg received at the Rachel Carson Center in Berlin. The museum hosts the display as a way to build a global conversation about environmental change.
“For me it became very clear while I was doing the research in Glasgow that this story couldn’t just stop with me and a book,” Gregg said. “There had to be a way of opening up these stories to a broader audience. Because the ways in which somebody like Lily experienced life in Glasgow in the 19 teens are evocative of broader patterns.”
She’s hoping to do something similar for each of the stories in her book.
The online display includes photos of settlers from the Glasgow area, excerpts from Stearns’ letters to the GLO where she pleads for help keeping her homestead and a brochure from a local land locator touting the bountiful northern Montana landscape and the promise it holds for newcomers.
“(Stearns) envisioned she would be able to use that land as a jumping off point,” Gregg said. “She succeeded in so far as she proved up on the claim and was able to move on.”
“At the time, Stearns was one of 14,891 homesteaders who successfully proved up in Montana in 1917, the year of greatest homestead success during the long homestead era (1863–1986),” Gregg wrote. “The majority of settler-colonists who tried their luck in Montana, known as ‘boomers,’ drifted off like Lily in search of more reliable pastures.”
Stearns’ son eventually abandoned the homestead. With the boomers going bust, Glasgow’s population had peaked in 1910 at 13,600.
“Today, Valley County houses an average of 1.5 people per square mile, just over half the density of 1910 (2.8 people per square mile),” Gregg wrote. In a 2018 article, the Washington Post called Glasgow the “middle of nowhere” based on its small size and distance from a major urban center.
Glasgow’s fortunes over the years, although remaining centered on agriculture and livestock, have seen other booms. The construction of Fort Peck Dam in the 1930s and the creation of an Air Force base in the 1950s spurred the area’s economy but also played out. Not unlike Lily Stearns, those people moved to Montana’s northeast plains seeking prosperity or a better life. History takes little note of most of these individuals, making the story of a common woman like Stearns powerful in its universality.
“There’s this constant struggle for success that even the simplest story can help clarify,” Gregg said. “There’s no such thing as an ordinary life. The closer you look, the more extraordinary everyone looks.”