Walking Across America As A Woman In 1896

Photo via Unsplash/Pixabay

Can you imagine walking across America from Washington to New York on foot?

For me driving from NYC to Colorado was challenging enough; but walking?! Though with the proper gear to help you face the elements I guess it wouldn’t be excruciating.

Now picture walking across America in 1896.

As a woman in a dress.

With no change of clothes or smartphone.

Without support from your family and community.

Climbing mountains in winter.

With just $5 in your pocket.

This isn’t a scenario I just made up. It’s the true story of Helga Estby, a woman I recently discovered and became obsessed with. I finally have an answer to the question “If you could have dinner with anyone dead or alive who would it be?”

Helga Estby: A Feminist Pioneer

Helga Estby was a bad*ss, to put it bluntly. I thought it was tough going against societal norms to be a solo female travel blogger; but Helga embarked on an adventure I’d never dare do with proper equipment, let alone knowing I’d need to read a compass and sleep in wet clothes.

The exact details change slightly depending on what sources you look at, but the gist is that Helga was born in 1860 in Norway, moving to USA — Michigan to be exact — in 1871. By age 15 she became pregnant, which wouldn’t have been too big a deal if she’d married the father. Modern accounts are not sure who the father was, but they do say she married another Norwegian immigrant named Ole Estby, who was 28 to her 16, to avoid shame.

This was her first of about eight children, and the girl was named Clara. At the age of 18, it would be Clara who’d accompany her 36-year-old mother across the country.

walking across america

Helga came to the USA on a ship called Order in 1871 when she was 11 years old. Photo via Unsplash/Pixabay.

Tough Times

Life was not easy for the Estbys. They eventually moved to Minnesota and then Spokane, Washington. Helga lived a typical prairie life doting on her husband, sewing, churning butter, tending to the home and raising the family. By all accounts Helga found this quite stifling, especially as a feminist.

Helga and Ole dealt with illness and injury — she broke her pelvis falling into a poorly marked construction site at night, while Ole had a horse fall on him — as well a their home burning down.

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