Willa Cather was born on December 7, 1873 in Back Creek Valley (a small farming community close to the Blue Ridge Mountains) in Virginia. She was the eldest child of Charles Cather, a deputy Sheriff, and Mary Virginia Boak Cather. The family traces its ancestors to Ireland, from which they settled in Pennsylvania in the 1750's.
In 1883 the Cather family moved to join Willa's grandparents William and Caroline and her uncle George in Webster County, Nebraska. At the time her family included Willa's two brothers, a sister Jessica and her grandmother Rachel Boak who lived with them. A year later they moved to Red Cloud, a nearby railroad town, where her father opened a loan and insurance office. The family never became rich or influential, and Willa attributed their lack of financial success to her father, whom she claimed placed intellectual and spiritual matters over the commercial. Her mother was a vain woman, mostly concerned with fashion and trying to turn Willa into "a lady", in spite of the fact that Willa defied the norms for girls and cut her hair short and wore trousers. While living in the town Willa met Annie Sadilek, whom she later used for the Antonia character in My Antonia.
Willa graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1890. She soon moved to the state capitol in Lincoln in order to study for the entrance at the University of Nebraska. She was accepted and spent time editing the school magazine and publishing articles and play reviews in the local papers. In 1892 she published her short story "Peter" in a Boston magazine, a story that later became part of her novel My Antonia. After graduating in 1895, she returned to Red Cloud until she was offered a position editing Home Monthly in Pittsburgh.
While editing the magazine, she wrote short stories to fill its pages. These stories, published in a collection called the Troll Garden in 1905, brought her to the attention of S.S. McClure. In 1906 she moved to New York to join McClure's Magazine, initially as a member of the staff and ultimately as its managing editor. During this time she met Sara Orne Jewett, a woman from Maine who inspired her to later write about Nebraska. In 1912, after five years with McClure's, she left the magazine to have time for her own writing. After the publication of Alexander's Bridge, also in 1912, Cather visited the Southwest where she was fascinated by the Anasazi cliff dwellings.
In 1913 O Pioneers was published and in 1917 she wrote My Antonia while living in New Hampshire. By 1923 she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her One of Ours, and in this year her modernist book A Lost Lady was published. At the time her novels focused on the destruction of provincial life and the death of the pioneering tradition.
Cather entered a period of despair following her prolific success during these years. After she recovered, she managed to write some of her greatest novels, such as The Professor's House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). She maintained an active writing career, publishing novels and short stories for many years until her death on April 24, 1947. At the time of her death, she ordered her letters burned. Willa Cather was buried in New Hampshire.