Helga Estby – Walked Across America To Save Her Family

Helga Estby (left) and her daughter Clara, 1897 in Minneapolis.| Unknown photographer [Public domain]

SPOKANE. Wash., May 4.(1896) -Mrs. H. Estby and her daughter, aged 18, leave tomorrow morning to walk to New York City. They are respectable, but will “rough it” as regular tramps and carry no baggage. Their object is to wear a new style garment, which they will exhibit when they reach New York. Mrs. Estby is the mother of eight children, all of whom are living with their father on a ranch near here, except the one going with her. The family is poor and the ranch is mortgaged. Mrs. Estby, seeing no other way of getting out, concluded to make the journey afoot.

 

What would you do for $250,000? That’s the equivalent today of the $10,000 promised to Helga Estby for walking across America in 1897 in an effort to get money to save her family farm. Helg’s story is amazing. Even if she only had one adventure, it was quite a big deal.

Helga’s Life Before Her Walk

Helga Estby had a tough life all around. She was born in Norway in 1860. Her father died, her mother remarried, and in 1871, when Helga was 11, they moved to Michigan. At sixteen she married Ole Estby, they had eight children, and they lived the first part of their married life in Minnesota. Their lives were like many pioneer families; the winters in Minnesota were brutal, they had to endure prairie fires, illnesses like diphtheria, hunger and the death of children.

In 1884, seeking an easier life, the Estbys moved to the area around Spokane, Washington. they bought a home in Spokane Falls and lived there with their six surviving children. But bad luck seemed to follow them. Helga was injured in a fall on a slippery street and injured her pelvis, requiring an operation. The family moved once again, to Mica Creek, about 25 miles southeast of Spokane, to a community with other Scandinavian immigrants.

Helga’s Desperate Wager

In April 1893, an economic depression hit the U.S. Ole couldn’t work because of a back injury, and they took out a loan on their property. But they couldn’t pay back the loan. They were in danger of losing their farm. In desperation, Helga somehow found a wealthy sponsor for a trip across America. She would receive $10,000 for making the trip with her 18-year old daughter Clara.

The conditions for the trip were specific: They had to work to get money, they were required to wear and publicize a new type of woman’s clothing (illustrated in the photo above),  and they had to arrive by a specific date, no more than seven months later. They also had to get a signature from the governor of every state they passed through, to document their travels.

Helga’s family and neighbors were not happy about this trip. The trip was seen as irresponsible, unseemly for a woman, and even scandalous. They were advertising Ole’s inability to care for his family, and women in traditional communities should never seek publicity.

I wasn’t able to come up with a name for the mysterious sponsor. One source said it was a woman, and others said it was someone in New York. Being naturally suspicious of anonymity, I read of Helga and Clara’s adventures with increasing concern.

Helga and Clara’s Journey

Helga, 36, and Clara, 18,  started on their 3,500-mile journey on May 5, 1896. They had to walk and decided to follow railroad tracks to keep from getting lost. They knew the tracks would take them into towns where they could buy things and find work. “Putting one foot in front of the other,” they set off, taking only a few things: a revolver, homemade pepper spray, and a curling iron for Clara.

They endured rain and sleet and were not welcomed in some of the towns because they were seen as “scandalous vagrants.” To cross the Blue Mountains, they had no blankets, boots or food. Averaging 27 miles a day, they were in Baker City, Oregon on May 24. In Boise, Idaho, they got their first signature.

In Park City, Utah, they found the Mormons more welcoming, and they got another signature. At this point, they picked up their new ankle-length bicycle skirts and continued.

Through Wyoming, where they were lost in forests and had adventures with mountain lions, they moved into Greely, Colorado. At this point, they needed new shoes (they wore out a total of 32 pairs of shoes on the journey). They were able to find shelter most nights and were often fed, especially as their story became known.

Somewhere after Park City, Helga and Clara started to gather more publicity. Railroad workers left jugs of water by the track for them, and they often received welcoming parties in the towns they visited.  Clara injured her ankle and they had to rest for 10 days. This was a bad setback, putting their trip 10 days behind schedule.

William Jennings Bryan, c. 1896 | Copyright by Geo. H. Van Norman, Springfield, Mass. [Public domain]
Congressman William Jennings Bryan and his wife welcomed them in Lincoln, Nebraska. Bryan was in an election contest for the presidency against William McKinley of Ohio, so both he and the Estbys got publicity from the meeting.

In my research, I found an article Helga wrote while after her trip while she was stranded in New York trying to earn money to return home. The article in a Norwegian newspaper describes Helga’s experiences as a gold and silver miner She used an ordinary frying pan to pan for gold in Boise, Idaho and she was able to go down into a silver mine in Park City, Utah.

Helga and Clara arrived in Des Moines, Iowa on October 17. They bought new shoes and raincoats and headed to Chicago. The weather was turning to fall, which meant rains and cold nights. In Canton, Ohio, McKinley signed a letter for them. They quickly marched through Pennsylvania, fending off two attackers with their revolvers.

They continued trudging onward. Linda Lawrence Hunt, author of Bold Spirit, says, “Each new destination strengthened Helga’s sense of achievement” and her confidence.

The Sad Aftermath of The Journey

Finally, on December 23, 1896, they arrived in New York, at the agreed-upon location of the New York World magazine. The sponsor refused to pay, saying they had arrived late (only a few days, and mostly because of Clara’s injury). They had no money and had to work to survive. All the mother and daughter wanted was to go home. Finally, a wealthy railroad owner gave them a ticket to Minneapolis, but it took them until the spring of 1897 to get back home.

Things got worse. During the time they were stranded in New York, two of her children died of diphtheria. The family blamed her for not being there to care for them. (Yes, that’s irrational; she probably couldn’t have saved them, but it was her duty as they saw it.)

Helga had made extensive notes and kept a journal of her trip, and she hoped to write a book about it for money. She started writing, but couldn’t finish. I was able to find one magazine article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that reproduced an article from an interview with Helga.

After Helga and Clara returned, the family farm was sold. They hadn’t saved it after all. Friends and neighbors turned their backs on the family and the family never talked of what had happened. When Helga died in 1942, a daughter burned all her notes.

It was only recently that one of Helga’s descendants found some material, which set Linda Hunt on a search for more, resulting in her book Bold Spirit.

Helga became a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement in later life. I think her journey made her think differently about women’s place in the world and how women can do anything they set out to do. She was brave, if naive, and I admired her courage.

Sources:

Most of my information came from Bold Spirit. This article from HistoryLink was also a source.

Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.

 

 

 

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Helga died in Spokane in April 1942. Her obituary in the Spokane Daily Chronicle made no mention of her amazing trip across the U.S.

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