Early life and education
Cather was born Wilella Sibert Cather in 1873 on her maternal grandmother's farm in the Back Creek Valley near Winchester, Virginia. Her father was Charles Fectigue Cather (d. 1928), whose family had lived on land in the valley for six generations. Cather's family originated in Wales, the family name deriving from Cadair Idris, a mountain in Gwynedd.:13 Her mother was Mary Virginia Boak (died 1931), a former school teacher. Within a year of Cather's birth, the family moved to Willow Shade, a Greek Revival-style home on 130 acres given to them by her paternal grandparents.
At the urging of Charles Cather's parents, the family moved to Nebraska in 1883 when Willa was nine years old. The rich, flat farmland appealed to Charles' father, and the family wished to escape the tuberculosis outbreaks that were rampant in Virginia. Willa's father tried his hand at farming for eighteen months; then he moved the family into the town of Red Cloud, where he opened a real estate and insurance business, and the children attended school for the first time.:43 Some of the earliest work produced by Cather was first published in the Red Cloud Chief, the city's local paper. Cather's time in the western state, still on the frontier, was a deeply formative experience for her. She was intensely moved by the dramatic environment and weather, the vastness of the Nebraska prairie, and the various cultures of the European-American, immigrant and Native American families in the area. Like Jim Burden in My Antonia, the young Willa Cather saw the Nebraska frontier as a "place where there was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the materials out of which countries were made...Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out".
Mary Cather had six more children after Willa: Roscoe, Douglass, Jessica, James, John, and Elsie.:5–7 Cather was closer to her brothers than to her sisters whom, according to biographer Hermione Lee, she "seems not to have liked very much.":36 Cather read widely, having made friends with a Jewish couple, the Weiners, who offered her free access to their extensive library. She made house calls with the local physician, Dr. Robert Damerell, and decided to become a doctor.
After Cather's essay on Thomas Carlyle was published in the Nebraska State Journal during her freshman year at the University of Nebraska,:72–3 she became a regular contributor to the Journal. In addition to her work with the local paper, Cather also served as the managing editor of The Hesperian, the University of Nebraska's student newspaper, and associated at the Lincoln Courier. She changed her plans to major in science and become a physician, instead graduating with a B.A. in English in 1894.