Martha Cordelia Van Orsdol was born in Iowa in 1867. Her mother died when she was a very young child, and her father soon remarried. When she was five years old, the Van Orsdols moved to a farm north of Winfield, Kansas. By the time Martha was 16, her unhappy relationship with her stepmother had deteriorated further, and Martha left home. At first she boarded with a neighboring family, and then in 1887 moved to Topeka, where she lived for the rest of her life.
In 1889, she married her first husband, Johnny Shaw, an alcoholic who died of consumption in 1893; their only child also died. Martha remarried about seven months later to Fred Farnsworth, a postal worker, with whom she apparently enjoyed a happy marriage. The couple were childless and fostered a few children, including her niece. Martha became active in social reform movements, including women's suffrage and temperance. She had strong religious convictions, taught Sunday School for many years, and her diary entries include frequent mentions of God's will. She died at age 57. The publication of her diaries has provided historians with a rich source of information on the everyday lives of Victorian women in the American West.