Caroline Boa Henderson

Caroline Boa Henderson

Growing up on an Iowa farm, Caroline Boa Henderson 1901 dreamed of having a piece of land she could call her own. In 1907, the year Oklahoma became a state, she boldly journeyed there to stake out a homestead claim. Henderson’s story is featured in the 2012 Ken Burns documentary, The Dust Bowl.

At Mount Holyoke, Henderson studied languages and literature; her senior class prophecy predicted that her future would be found "somewhere on a Western ranch." After graduating, Henderson returned to Iowa where she taught high school English and Latin for six years. She then moved to the Oklahoma panhandle for a teaching job and to stake her claim on a quarter section of land. "Out here in this wilderness," Henderson wrote to a college friend, "has come to me the very greatest and sweetest and most hopeful happiness of all my life."

In 1908, she married Will Henderson, a farmer and former cowboy she’d met when she hired him to dig her wells. Their daughter, Eleanor, was born two years later. During the wheat boom, the couple prospered and expanded Henderson’s homestead claim to a full section (640 acres). When the Oklahoma panhandle suffered a ten-month drought from the fall of 1912 to July 1913, Henderson began submitting articles about life on the plains to magazines in the East in order to bring in extra money. Her Lady’s World column entitled "The Homestead Lady" became a popular feature.

Henderson and her husband continued to farm as the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s and drought destroyed the overcultivated farmlands of the Great Plains. Between 1931 and 1937, Henderson attracted a national following for "Letters from the Dustbowl," a series of letters and articles published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. These pieces chronicled daily occurrences on her farm in the heart of the Dust Bowl region and the harsh realities facing other farmers on the southern plains. Henderson’s writing also drew attention to the changing face of agriculture in America.

Henderson stopped writing for publication in 1937. In December 1965, she and her husband left their farm to live with their daughter in Arizona. Just days after returning to the Oklahoma panhandle for a visit the following spring, Henderson’s husband died. She died five months later on August 4, 1966. According to her wishes, Henderson’s homestead was placed in trust, with the condition that it never be plowed again.

The producer of The Dust Bowl chose Henderson to be the historical voice of the documentary based on the 32 letters she wrote to MHC classmate Rose Alden (1901) and to Rose’s mother between 1908 and 1957. The letters are housed in Mount Holyoke’s Archives and Special Collections.

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Mount Holyoke College

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