Helga Estby's Walk Across America

A suffragist marches coast to coast to save the family farm.

In 1887, Norwegian-born Helga and Ole Estby purchased 160 acres of land in “Little Norway,” an enclave in the town of Mica Creek, 25 miles southeast of Spokane. Shortly after the Panic of 1893, Ole injured his back and was unable to work the family farm.

In a desperate attempt to keep their land and support their eight children, Helga and her daughter Clara took up a $10,000 offer to walk from Spokane to New York. Under the conditions of the contest, the ladies had seven months to finish their journey, could only begin their trip with five dollars, had to wear bicycle skirts, were not allowed to beg, must visit political leaders in every state capital, and were forbidden to use the railroad.

The two set out on May 6, 1896, leaving the remaining seven children at home. Mother and daughter walked 25 to 35 miles a day on a seven-month trip.

The Etsby's began their walk in Spokane and headed south to Walla Walla. Their light pouches contained only the necessities--including a Smith-and-Wesson revolver and a curling iron for Clara’s hair. Washington’s residents refused to sell food to the ladies because they were considered vagrants; it was popular opinion that a woman’s place was in the home with her family. As a suffragist, Helga hoped to prove otherwise.

After ten rainy days they arrived in Boise, where residents were much more hospitable and offered cooking and cleaning opportunities. The Estby women followed railway routes to avoid getting lost. In La Grande, Oregon, the ladies were threatened by a tramp so Helga shot him in the leg.

The kindness of strangers outweighed their fears and the women continued their journey through rain, wind, and heat. They crossed the desert, slept in railroad depots, hiked through the Laramie Mountains in Wyoming, and hoofed through Colorado, where Clara sprained her ankle. In Ohio, the ladies met with President-elect William McKinley before finally reaching their goal at the World newspaper office on Manhattan Island on December 23.

Tragically, not only did the sponsor refuse to honor the $10,000 wager, but two of Helga’s children died from diphtheria days apart from each other while she was stuck in Brooklyn, earning money to get home. Finally, a New York railroad titan, Chauncy Depew, gave the women railroad passes and the Estbys made it back to Spokane. The Estby farm went into foreclosure in 1901 and they moved to 1528 E. Mallon Avenue.

After trekking nearly 3,500 miles, Helga and Clara proved that women were resilient and strong, not the typical opinion of Victorian women. In Spokane, Helga became actively involved in the suffragist movement.