Mary Hallock Foote was born on a farm in Milton, New York, to a family of English Quaker ancestry. She attended the Female Collegiate Seminary in Poughkeepsie, then studied art at the new Cooper Union Institute School of Design in New York City. By her early twenties, she had become an established artist-illustrator for publishers. In 1876, she married Arthur De Wint Foote, a mining engineer, and left the genteel life of the East to accompany him across country to the New Almaden mine near San Jose, California. The couple had three children. She soon immersed herself in the study of the frontier West and its people, writing short sketches, essays, and stories, many of them illustrated with her woodcut engravings or drawings. She contributed to The Century and the Atlantic Monthly magazines. The first of her several novels was The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp, published 1883. She also accompanied her husband to places like Leadville, Colorado; Deadwood, South Dakota; Boise, Idaho; Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico; and finally to Grass Valley, California, where Arthur retired.
She became one of the USA's best-known women writers and illustrators, and her observations of life in the West and in the early mining towns continue to be valuable to historians today. She also illustrated stories and novels by other writers for various publishers. Her letters were collected and published in 1972 as a memoir, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West. In 1932, Mary and her husband moved back East to live with their daughter.