Mary Hunter Austin was born on September 9, 1868 in Carlinville, Illinois (the fourth of six children) to George and Susannah (Graham) Hunter. She graduated from Blackburn College in 1888. For 17 years she made a special study of Indian life in the Mojave Desert, and her publications set forth the intimate knowledge she thus acquired. She was a prolific novelist, poet, critic, and playwright, as well as an early feminist and defender of Native American and Spanish-American rights. She is best known for her tribute to the deserts of the American Southwest, The Land of Little Rain.
Her family moved to California in 1888 and established a homestead in the San Joaquin Valley. She married Stafford Wallace Austin on May 18, 1891 in Bakersfield, California. He was from Hawaii and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Their home in Independence, California, now a historical landmark, was designed and built by the couple.
She and her husband were involved in the local water dispute, where the water of Owens Valley was eventually drained to supply Los Angeles. When their battle was lost, he moved to Death Valley, California, and she moved to Carmel, California. There, she was part of a social circle that included Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and George Sterling and was one of the founders of the Forest Theater.
A 1950 edition of The Land of Little Rain, and a 1977 edition of her later work Taos Pueblo, both had photographs by Ansel Adams.
Austin died August 13, 1934 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.