Historian Anne Webb uncovered the forgotten stories of strong pioneer women who homesteaded on their own. She found records of thousands of female homesteaders — unmarried, widowed or divorced — who cultivated crops, built homes, raised children and eventually owned their land.
“You draw a strength from their success, or their perseverance,” Webb, a Metropolitan State University history professor, said during a 1987 interview discussing her research.
Webb, a pioneer in her own right, died May 18 at a care facility in Bloomington from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. She was 87.
“It was groundbreaking work,” said Jean Brookins, retired Minnesota Historical Society Press publisher. “It was early in the women’s history movement and not many people were doing women’s history, especially on the frontier.”
Webb was born and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., and later Springﬁeld, Mass., the daughter of Harold and Marie Smillie. In high school, she was told perhaps college wasn’t for her.
A defiant Webb went on earn her bachelor’s degree in history in 1953 from St. Lawrence University, and even studied abroad at St. Andrews University in Scotland for a year. Webb earned her master’s degree in 1967 and her doctorate in history in 1976 from the University of Minnesota.
“She was strong-willed and she was intellectual,” said her daughter, Jennifer Fusaro, of Eden Prairie.
Throughout her career, Webb devoted her research to women on the frontier, and colleagues said her findings were stunning, uncovering census and property records of thousands of lone women homesteaders — some who ventured to the edge of civilization on their own and others who survived after the death of or abandonment by a spouse.
“She was a true feminist. She believed women’s accomplishments were not as well recognized,” said retired Metro State colleague Carleton Brookins. “She really fixated on the idea that there must be stories of women on the frontier. She came back with incredible stories. She did not want to concentrate on abuse. What she wanted to concentrate on was the efforts and successes of women.”
Webb also played an important role in more modern history. She was one of the original faculty members of Metro State, becoming a full-time member in 1975. She was instrumental in developing almost all aspects of the university, including founding the history department, her colleagues said. She also strongly believed in women holding leadership roles.
“She believed until the day she died she was the equal to any man. She had a brilliant mind,” Carleton Brookins said.
Outside of her work, Webb loved creative writing. She was the co-founder of Creme de la Crime, a successful mystery writing group. She also loved to sail. She navigated Lake Pepin, Lake Superior, the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest.
She was devoted to her four grandchildren and relished taking them on adventures.
“She wasn’t a soft, warm and cookie-type grandmother, but she loved taking them to theater, musicals and museums,” Fusaro said.
Besides her grandchildren and daughter, Webb is survived by her ex-husband John Webb, of St. Cloud, and son John Webb, of New York City.
A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday at Gill Brothers Funeral Chapel, 9947 Lyndale Av. S., in Minneapolis.