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Ellen Toothaker

Jen's YouTube video about single women homesteaders inspired me to look for something similar in my own family. I didn't find anything, so I decided some random genealogy was in order.


In the fall of 1876, Ellen Toothaker made the payment for her homestead: 80 acres in O'Brien County in northwest Iowa. She swore she was a single woman over the age of 21 and had lived on the land continuously since the fall of 1871. In those five years, she had built a 10x12-foot house with one window and one door, along with a stable, a well, a half-mile long hedge, and a half-acre of forest trees.


map of land in O'Brien County, Iowa
Location of Ellen's land in O'Brien County, Iowa

Ellen Toothaker would have been more difficult to find had her brothers Charles and Isaac not homesteaded in the same section of land as she did--which was easy to find using the Bureau of Land Management website. Most records of her lifetime list her name as Nellie, with her middle name Sophronia and variations of Elenor thrown in on occasion.


Nellie was born in 1849 in southeast Iowa. By 1856, her father had died and she was living with her mother and two brothers in central Iowa. She would have been just 22 years old when she staked her claim in the far corner of the state.


However, she must not have lived on the land much longer after her application was complete. By the 1880 federal census she's back in southeast Iowa, living with her mother. Nellie's name even appears among the students at a local school that offered a college preparatory course. Nellie's mother Lucy died in 1894, after which Nellie would be found in yet another corner of the state.


On the 1900 federal census, Nellie is in Pottawattamie County in southwest Iowa. She's employed as a matron at the Christian Home, which had been established around 1883 to care for orphaned and destitute children. It appears the idea for the home began when its founder, Rev. Joseph Leman, preached a sermon about temperance. As an example of the evils of drink, he told a story about an alcoholic whose suicide left his wife and six children destitute. A seed was planted, donations were taken, and so on. I found that history all very interesting, since I live about 6 miles from the location of that Christian Home, and I had no clue about the origins of the organization it has since become.


Nellie had moved even farther west in the early years of the 20th century. She was in Northern California by 1906 and in Los Angeles by 1924, where she would own her home. Her employment as a housekeeper was consistent, as was her political affiliation. The voter rolls of Los Angeles county show that she was a member of the Prohibition party.


Nellie seems like she was a pioneer in more ways than just her homesteading. Her parents were born in Maine, and she pushed through the plains all the way to the sunny shores of the west coast. She appears among the students at a school that offered preparation for college. She appears among the voters of Los Angeles County 4 years after women gained the right to vote.


Nellie Toothaker died in 1933 at the age of 84. She is buried next to her brother Isaac; her gravestone reads "Aunt," as she also remained single throughout her life.


Homestead paperwork is pretty boilerplate. Well, it's literally boilerplate. When I got to one section of the pre-printed form among Nellie's papers, I smiled. It states that the applicant "has lived in the said house and made it his exclusive home." Only for this this application, "his" was crossed out and "her" was added. Go, Nellie.

part of homesteading form




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