Willa Cather Timeline

Major Events & Milestones

1870 — Silas Garber, former captain in the United States Army, and four other men file homestead claims near a site that would soon become the town of Red Cloud, Nebraska.

1871 — In Silas Garber’s dugout, Webster County and the town of Red Cloud are officially organized.

1872 — Charles Cather and Mary Virginia Boak marry on December 5 at the home of the bride’s mother, Rachel Boak, in Virginia.

1873 — Charles Cather’s brother George and his wife Frances A. (Smith) Cather (the eventual uncle and aunt of Willa Cather) stake a homestead on the Divide, a broad stretch of land between the Little Blue and Republican rivers in south central Nebraska, 16 miles northwest of Red Cloud.

Charles and Mary Virginia welcome their first child December 7. Willa Cather is born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, and baptized “Wilella” after an aunt on her father’s side of the family. She will change her birth year to 1876 and her name to “Willa” later. 

Silas Garber is elected governor of Nebraska.

1874 — Willa Cather and her parents move into the home of her paternal grandparents, William and Caroline Cather. The house, called Willow Shade, is located in an area near Back Creek, Virginia. Also joining the Cathers at Willow Shade is Willa’s maternal grandmother Rachel Boak. Charles begins raising sheep.

1877 — William and Caroline Cather follow the lead of George and Frances Cather by moving to Webster County, Nebraska.

Willa Cather’s oldest brother Roscoe Cather is born.

1879 — Railroad begins operating in Red Cloud.

1880 — Willa Cather’s second oldest brother Douglass Cather is born.

1881 — Willa Cather’s oldest sister Jessica Cather is born. Webster County is gripped by a severe blizzard that begins in winter 1880. Francis Sadilek, the father of Annie Sadilek, commits suicide and is buried near a crossroads. Cather, on whom almost nothing was lost, will later use this event in one of her most famous novels, My Antonia.

1882 — Red Cloud becomes a division point for the Burlington and Missouri Railroad.

1883 — A fire destroys Charles Cather’s sheep barn. Willa (now nine years old) travels by train with the rest of the family to Red Cloud. Also accompanying the family are Rachel Boak, the hired girl Marjorie (Margie) Anderson, and Willa’s cousins Bess Seymour and Will Andrews. After arriving at the Red Cloud train depot, the Cathers drive sixteen miles by team and wagon to the precinct of Catherton. They settle at the homestead of William and Caroline Cather. Although this depot no longer stands in Red Cloud, the town’s third train depot, built in 1897 and visited by Cather on return trips, is now on the National Register of Historic Places and open year-round for guided tours.

Winter 1883 to 1884 — Willa Cather attends a one-room schoolhouse in the Catherton precinct of Webster County. She picks up a less formal education by meeting many immigrants in the region and listening to their stories.

1884 — Willa Cather and her family move into town. Red Cloud’s population at the time is 2,500. Charles Cather opens an office selling farm loans and insurance downtown and rents a story-and-a-half frame house on 3rd and Cedar Streets. Built around 1879, the Cathers will call this rented house their home for the next twenty years.

Cather meets William Ducker, an Englishman who teaches her to read Greek and Latin, and the Wieners, a Jewish couple from Europe who allow her to borrow books from their personal library. Mrs. Wiener introduces Cather in French and German by reading to her in those languages. Cather also befriends the Miner family, who would eventually serve as the models for the Harling family of My Antonia.

1885 — The Red Cloud Opera House is built on the second floor above the town’s hardware store. Cather begins attending performances. The population of Red Cloud is now 2,219.

1888 — Having made up her mind to become a surgeon (an occupation considered at the time to be exclusively for men), Cather crops her hair, dresses in the male fashion, and refers to herself as “Wm. Cather, M.D.” and “William Cather, Jr.” Cather also experiments with dissection and vivisection. At the Opera House, she and the Miner girls perform Beauty and the Beast to "benefit the poor." Donning suit, top hat, and wax mustache, Cather plays Beauty’s (Margie Miner’s) merchant father. Cather also rides with area doctors on house calls and helps them in their duties when she can.

Cather’s brother James Cather is born.

Silas Garber begins building the Farmers and Merchants Bank in downtown Red Cloud.

Death of Archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy in Santa Fe; Lamy serves as the prototype for Archbishop Latour in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

1889 — Construction of the Farmers and Merchants Bank is completed. It will close just four years later, a victim of the Panic of 1893.

Blind Boone, a well-known African American pianist, performs at the Red Cloud Opera House.

1890 — Willa Cather graduates from Red Cloud High School in June and delivers a graduation oration in the Red Cloud Opera House. One of only three members in her class, Cather is the only student not proclaimed as being bound for lofty things by the local newspaper. Only sixteen years old, Cather enrolls at the University of Nebraska’s preparatory school in order to attend the 4-year college.

Cather’s sister Elsie Cather is born.

1891 — Now a freshman at the University of Nebraska, Cather writes "Essay on Carlyle." It is published without her knowledge in the Nebraska State Journal in March. It is this event—seeing her name in print for the first time—that Cather later credits as the reason she wanted to be a writer. Cather befriends Louise Pound, Mariel Gere, and Dorothy Canfield.

1892 — Willa Cather becomes literary editor of the Hesperian, student publication of the University of Nebraska. She holds this position until 1893.

Cather publishes a short story for the first time when “Peter” is printed in The Mahogany Tree, a Boston weekly.

In the summer Cather visits Red Cloud.

Annie Sadilek, the prototype for Cather’s novel My Antonia (1918), having recently returned to her mother’s dugout in Webster County after being lured west by James William Murphy, has a child and baptizes her Lucille at the St. Juliana Falconeri Catholic Church in Red Cloud.

Cather’s youngest sibling, John (Jack) Cather is born.

1893 — Cather’s grandmother Rachel Boak dies.

1893-1894 — Cather now serves as managing editor of the Hesperian.

1893 — Cather manages the 1895 University of Nebraska yearbook for her graduating class and is now working as a reporter for the Nebraska State Journal. Her first regular column appears under the heading “One Way of Putting It.”

Silas Garber’s Farmers and Merchants Bank closes in Red Cloud.

1894 — Accompanied by her brother Roscoe and fellow students Grace Broady and Mariel Gere, Cather visits Brownville, Nebraska. A feature story about Brownville titled "The Old River Metropolis" was published in the Nebraska State Journal on August 12, 1894.

1895 — Cather graduates from the University of Nebraska and joins the staff of the Courier. While still working for the Nebraska State Journal, she sees, then meets, Stephen Crane.

Cather travels to Chicago to see the Metropolitan Opera on tour.

1896 — Cather’s cousin Retta Ayre marries Charles (“Hugh”) Miner, making her a “shirttail relative” of her close friends, Carrie and Irene Miner, two of Charles’s four sisters.

After a brief, somewhat depressing stay in Red Cloud, Cather accepts a job in Pittsburgh as the editor of the Home Monthly. She begins work in July and will continue working until 1897.

Her first short story to be published in a national magazine, “On the Divide,” appears in Overland Monthly.

Annie Sadilek marries John Pavelka at St. Juliana Falconeri Catholic Church.

1897 — The short story "A Resurrection," set in Brownville, Nebraska, is published in the April 1897 issue of Home Monthly.

Cather returns to Red Cloud for the summer.

1898 — Cather begins working at the Pittsburgh Daily Leader.  Cather visits Red Cloud.

1899 — Cather meets Isabelle McClung, with whom she develops a deeply emotional relationship.

Cather visits Red Cloud.

1901 — Cather takes a job teaching high school students in Pittsburgh and moves into the home of McClung and her parents. Cather will continue teaching high school until 1906.

1902 — Cather and McClung travel abroad for the first time. They visit England and France and are met by Dorothy Canfield, Cather’s friend from the University of Nebraska. Together, they visit A. E. Housman in England.

1903 — Cather’s first book, a collection of poems titled April Twilights, is published.

Cather meets lifelong companion Edith Lewis.

1905 — Cather’s first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, is published by S. S. McClure.

1906 — Cather accepts a job at McClure’s in New York, one of the United States’s most successful and popular literary magazines and muckraking journals.

1907 — The Life of Mary Baker G. Eddy and the History of Christian Science is published after being comprehensively rewritten by Cather as one of her assignments for McClure’s.

1908 — Cather meets Annie Fields, and through her, Sarah Orne Jewett.

From 1908 until 1912, Cather oversees McClure’s as its managing editor.

1909 — Cather rejects poems submitted by Zoë Akins, but the two women cultivate a friendship anyway. Akins will, in 1935, receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Cather meets William Archer, H. G. Wells, and Ford Madox Ford.

Cather visits Red Cloud.

1910 — Willa Cather meets Elizabeth Sergeant, soon to be another close friend.

1912 — Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, appears in McClure’s as Alexander’s Masquerade.

Cather tours the Southwest for the first time while visiting her brother Douglass in Winslow, Arizona.

Cather and Edith Lewis rent an apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. They will live there together until 1927.

Cather visits Red Cloud.

1913 — Cather’s first “Nebraska novel,” O Pioneers!, appears in print.

Cather agrees to write S. S. McClure’s autobiography. When finished, My Autobiography runs under McClure’s name only, without credit to Cather.

1914 — During an interview, Cather befriends opera singer Olive Fremstad, who is said to be the model for the character Thea Kronborg in her next novel, The Song of the Lark.

Cather visits Nebraska. 

1915 — Cather publishes The Song of the Lark.

Cather visits Mesa Verde for the first time, accompanied by Edith Lewis.

1916 — Cather travels to Red Cloud while en route to see Roscoe Cather in Wyoming. While there, she decides to write a novel based on the life of friend Anna Pavelka and soon begins work on My Antonia.

1917 — Cather returns to the University of Nebraska to receive her first honorary degree, a doctorate of letters.

1918 — Cather publishes My Antonia.

Cather visits Red Cloud.

1919 — Red Cloud closes its Opera House. (It would not reopen until after the Willa Cather Foundation begins its restoration efforts beginning in 1991 and ending in 2003.)

1920 — Cather travels to France. While there, she visits the grave of her cousin, G. P. Cather, whose death in World War I and letters written home inspired Cather to begin the novel Claude, later to be renamed One of Ours.

In September, Cather signs with a new publisher, Alfred Knopf, who publishes Youth and the Bright Medusa.

1921 — Bladen, Nebraska, citizens host a ceremonial parade and funeral upon the return of G. P. Cather’s body. Newspapers declare G. P. the first Nebraska officer and the first person from Webster County to die in World War I.

Cather switches publishers from Houghton Mifflin to Alfred A. Knopf 

1922 — Cather teaches at the Bread Loaf School (Middlebury College, Vermont).

"The Novel Démeublé" is published in April. One of Ours follows in September. 

In December, Cather returns to Red Cloud and she and her parents are confirmed in Grace Episcopal Church by the Bishop Dr. George Beecher. She had been raised a Baptist.

1923 — A new edition of April Twilights and Other Poems is released. 

A Lost Lady, a novel based in part on events in the lives of Silas Garber and his wife Lyra Garber, receives serial publication in Century at about the same time.

In May, Cather receives the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours.

1924 — Cather meets D. H. Lawrence.

She receives an honorary degree from the University of Michigan.

Marjorie (Margie) Anderson, the Cather’s hired girl from Virginia, dies and is buried in the Cather family plot in the Red Cloud Cemetery.

1925 — The first film version of A Lost Lady premiers in Red Cloud. 

Cather meets Robert Frost at his birthday party in March.

The Best Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett is published with a preface and story selection by Willa Cather.

The Professor’s House is published in serial form in Collier’s and in book form by Knopf.

F. Scott Fitzgerald writes Cather to explain that it is only a coincidence that passages in his book The Great Gatsby closely resemble a passage in Cather’s A Lost Lady.

Cather has a house built for herself and Edith Lewis on Grand Manan Island off the coast of Maine.

1926 — My Mortal Enemy is published.

Cather visits Red Cloud to see her sick mother.

Cather spends a month

1927 — Death Comes for the Archbishop is published in The Forum and by Knopf.

1928 — Cather’s father, Charles Cather, dies, prompting Cather to return to Red Cloud.

Cather’s mother, Mary Virginia, suffers a stroke.

Cather accepts an honorary degree from Columbia.

Cather spends two weeks in Quebec City, then begins work on Shadows on the Rock.

1929 — Cather is elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and Yale awards her an honorary degree.

1930 — The American Academy of Arts and Letters awards Cather the Howells Medal for Fiction for Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Cather meets Moshe and Marutha Menuhin, parents of young violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin.

1931 — Cather accepts honorary degrees from the University of California at Berkley and Princeton. She is the first woman to receive such a degree from Princeton.

Willa Cather appears on the cover of Time Magazine.

Cather’s mother, Mary Virginia Cather dies in California.

Cather visits Red Cloud for the last time to open the house for family. 

Shadows on the Rock is published.

1932 — Cather publishes Obscure Destinies, her last collection of short stories. From the collection, “Old Mrs. Harris,” is based on the lives and personalities of Cather, her mother, and her Grandmother Boak. The likely model for “Neighbour Rosicky” is John Pavelka, and the one potential prototype for Robert Emmett Dillon in "Two Friends" is James Miner, father of friends Carrie and Mary Miner.

1933 — Cather is awarded the Prix Femina Americain for Shadows on the Rock.

She accepts an honorary degree from Smith College.

Cather and Edith Lewis settle in a "quiet apartment" on Park Avenue in New York City.

1934 — Upset by a new film version of A Lost Lady, Cather vows not to allow any more adaptations of her works. She later stipulates this in her will.

1935 — In the midst of the Great Depression, Cather, who is used to helping her friends in Nebraska in times of need, sends $50 to Annie Sadilek Pavelka to be used for a gift. Annie uses the money to pay for taxes on her farm instead.

Lucy Gayheart is serialized in Women’s Home Companion and published by Knopf.

1936 — Knopf publishes Cather’s only book of essays, Not Under Forty. In the book’s introduction, Cather states that for her, “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.”

1938 — Cather is elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Isabelle McClung dies. Cather comments that all her books had been written for Isabelle.

Getting ready to write a novel about Virginia (Sapphira and the Slave Girl), Cather revisits that her native state with Edith Lewis.

Douglass Cather dies.

1940 — Cather publishes Sapphira and the Slave Girl, her last complete novel.

Cather meets and befriends Sigrid Undset, Norwegian novelist and 1928 Nobel Prize-winner for Literature.

1942 — Cather meets Truman Capote, eighteen years old and working for The New Yorker.

1944 — Cather receives a Gold Medal from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

1945 — Cather’s brother Roscoe Cather dies.

24 April 1947 — Cather dies in New York City and is buried four days later in Jaffrey Center, New Hampshire.

1948 — Knopf releases The Old Beauty and Others.

Cather Timeline Bibliography

  • Bennett, Mildred R. The World of Willa Cather. 1951. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995.
  • Capote, Truman. “Willa, Truman. Truman, Willa.” Vanity Fair Nov. 2006: 236-38.
  • Nebraska Department of Education. “Willa Siebert Cather.” 20 Dec 2006.
  • O’Brien, Sharon. Chronology. Early Novels and Stories : The Troll Garden, O Pioneers! the Song of the Lark, My Antonia, One of Ours. By Willa Cather. Ed. Sharon O’Brien. New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1987.
  • Turner, Barry. Simply My Antonia. Barry Turner, M.D., 1997.
  • Woodress, James. Willa Cather: Her Life and Art. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1970.