Norwegian & American Women of Distinction: Helga and Clara Estby

Helga and Clara Estby, mother and daughter who walked across Victorian America

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Helga Estby (left) and her daughter Clara, 1897 in Minneapolis, after completing their walk.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Helga Estby (left) and her daughter Clara, 1897 in Minneapolis, after completing their walk.

Carole Estby Dagg
Daughters of Norway Literary Society

Helga Estby and her daughter Clara were prototypes of the emerging New Woman of the late 1890s, on the leading edge of social change, daring to do what men—and most women—thought was impossible. From May to December of 1896, they walked from Washington State to New York City, wearing out thirty-two pairs of shoes. Along the way, they met the whole range of late 19th-century American society, from hobos to homesteaders and even President-elect William McKinley.

Publicity started on April 26 with a feature article in The New York World. A sketch, taken from a studio portrait, depicted Clara and Helga Estby in their Sunday-best Victorian dresses. The caption read:

“Mrs. H. Estby and her daughter of Spokane, Wash., have announced their intention to walk from that distant city to New York. They expect to break all records in the line of pedestrianism and will travel rapidly, with very light equipment. They intend to write up their adventures afterwards if they survive the experiment.”

Their neighbors in Mica Creek, known as Little Norway, were scandalized. A woman’s place was in the home, not tromping across the country. Why was Helga willing to go against local opinion and devote the next seven months of her life to what seemed like an impossible feat? As Helga said to the interviewer of the Spokesman Review, “Well, to make money.” After the Financial Panic of 1893, the Estby family was among the thousands of families on the brink of losing their homes and farms. Helga had made a wager with “a mysterious party in the East.” If she and her daughter could cross the country on foot in seven months, they would win $10,000.

Clara and Helga had another agenda too. Helga Estby was an outspoken suffragist. Walking across the country would prove that women could do more than nurse babies and clean house. She wanted to prove that women deserved the vote.

Helga Avilda Ida Marie Johanssen was born in 1860 in Christiania (now Oslo), Norway. In 1871, she came with her family to the United States and settled in Manistee, Michigan. Helga married Ole Estby, from Grue, Hedmark (Norway), and homesteaded near Canby, Minnesota, in a one-room sod house. From there they moved to 160 acres near Spokane in the Norwegian enclave of Mica Creek. By the time Helga was 35, she had borne 10 children, eight of whom were still living in 1896.

Clara was the oldest child, born in 1877. She was shy where her mother was outgoing. She was steady where her mother was mercurial. But they were both determined to meet the challenges of a 4,000-miles trek.

Two weeks after the New York World article, Clara and Helga packed their satchels and headed east along the railroad tracks toward New York City. Although they had no room for a change of voluminous Victorian clothing, they did pack a first aid kit, compass, maps, pistol, canteen, notebooks and pens, pepper spray—and a curling iron. After all, they wanted to look their best when they gave interviews at every newspaper office they passed and when they called on mayors, governors, and other notables.

Leaving in May, they had dressed in long spring-weight gray dresses. For the first month, it rained all but three days. On day fifteen of their walk, taking the Oregon Trail route over the Blue Mountains, they climbed into a blizzard. They had barely thawed out when they were accosted by a ruffian and resorted to shooting him in the leg to defend themselves.

Despite carrying maps and following the railroad lines most of the way, they got lost twice—once in the barren Snake River Lava Fields. For three days, they were lost in 100-degree heat without food, very little water, and no shelter before they found their way back to civilization.

Every night they had to ask strangers for food and shelter. With few exceptions, they found someone to take them in. On at least one occasion, they camped with Native Americans who shared what they had, just as homesteaders did. According to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Utes were curious about what they carried in their satchels. The curling iron puzzled them, so Helga and Clara demonstrated how to use it.

Mother and daughter walked an average of twenty-five miles on the days they walked, but whenever they needed new shoes or their dresses started to fall apart, they stopped to earn money.

When they reached New York City on December 23, their arrival was reported in newspapers across the country. The New York Times article “Mother and Daughter Walked from Ocean to Ocean on a Wager” on December 24, 1896 started: “A pedestrian trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic is a big task for men, but when women perform it, it becomes remarkable.”

The New York World headline read “Two women walk armed.” The sketch of the Estbys shows them brandishing a pistol in one hand and a dagger in the other like gun-toting women of the Wild West. The article failed to mention one of their goals for the walk: supporting women’s suffrage.

They had proved the endurance of women, but by one account they were three days late and did not win the $10,000. Adding to their dismay, they learned that one of Clara’s sisters, Bertha, had died of diphtheria while they were gone.

At home, they were not treated as heroines. The community castigated Helga for deserting her family for nearly a year, even though it was for a good cause. Clara was so distressed at the local reaction that she left home and disappeared for more than twenty years before reuniting with her family. All the hundreds of pages of notes Helga and Clara had written about the trip were burned, and the family vowed to never talk about the trip again.

In 1910, Helga worked in the drive to amend the Washington State Constitution to grant women the right to vote. She was also active at the national level of the Daughters of Norway. The Mountain Home, Idaho, lodge (founded in 2007) is named after her.

Helga Estby died in 1942, the book she meant to write about the walk unwritten. Clara Estby died in 1950. Despite the family’s earlier vow of silence, whispers about their trek filtered down through the generations. Times changed. What had been considered scandalous and irresponsible behavior in 1896 was considered heroic and forward-thinking a hundred years later. Two books applaud Helga and Clara’s epic trek across Victorian America.

• Bold Spirit, by Linda Lawrence Hunt
• The Year We Were Famous, by Carole Estby Dagg

For more information about the Daughters of Norway, visit the organization’s website and Facebook page.

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