Elia Wilkinson Peattie was born and reared in southwestern Michigan in near poverty, discovered books and her future husband, Robert Burns Peattie, about the same time, and then worked as the first "girl reporter" on the Chicago Tribune. This activity sent her roaming about on a variety of news assignments, including a visit to Omaha, Nebraska, which she found intriguing. When her husband came to Omaha as managing editor of the Omaha Daily Herald, Mrs. Peattie accompanied him and became a reporter for the Herald during his editorship -- the first "girl reporter" in Omaha. During the eight years Mrs. Peattie lived in Omaha, she travelled the region on news stories as well, some of the people and incidents she encountered finding their way into her short stories. As an Omaha citizen, though, she worked for prohibition and women's suffrage, was a founding member of the Omaha Woman's Club, was active in the Press Club, and with the Rev. W. J. Harsha, began the practice of collecting and delivering Christmas donations to the homes of poor families. However, she also wrote numerous poems, short stories, essays, and books, ranging from the romance of the frontier and its unique characters to stories of old New England and even ghost stories for children, as even a partial bibliography reveals. While writing these stories and occasional poems, she continued to write daily columns for the Omaha World Herald as well as reviewing books for the Chicago Tribune.
Her work appeared in such prestigious journals as Atlantic, Century, and Harper's, as well as in journals such as the Woman's Home Companion, and some of her stories were collected and published also in anthologies such as The Mountain Woman and Other Stories and The Edge of Things and Other Stories. Many others also appeared in newspapers and in unindexed journals such as The Youth's Companion. When Mrs. Peattie went with an ailing son to South Carolina for his health, the result was a series of children's books starring Azalea and more poems. She also produced a history of America, and edited a couple of poetry collections. In addition she wrote one of the first accolades to the quality of Nebraska author Willa Cather's writing. In an essay on "Newspaper Women of Nebraska" written for the Nebraska Editor in 1895, Mrs. Peattie referred to Cather as "a young woman with a genius for literary expression," calling her "criticisms, both literary and dramatic" "clever, original and generally just." Referring to Cather's style as "elegant," Peattie predicts that "If there is a woman in Nebraska newspaper work who is destined to win a reputation for herself, that woman is Willa Cather."
Because Mrs. Peattie's husband was often ill, she wrote commissioned works or rapidly produced stories in order to maintain the family income. At one point she wrote one hundred short short stories for the Chicago Tribune in as many days to finance home remodeling. Her work became uneven in quality, though prolific, and she felt that her reviews, constantly reading someone else's creative work, also diminished her creativity. In addition, the Peatties had four children, Roderick, Donald Culross, Barbara, and Edward, and their care became another burden on Mrs. Peattie, causing her guilt and anxiety if she left them in the care of a servant while she pursued her career, alternatively causing her guilt and anxiety if she cared for the children personally while neglecting her career. Her daughter Barbara died in childhood, but her eldest son Roderick became a professor of geology, Donald Culross Peattie became a world-renowned naturalist, and Edward a successful New York businessman.
After she and her husband left Omaha, they travelled briefly, spent some time in New York, then returned to Chicago, where Mrs. Peattie served as the literary critic on the Chicago Tribune until 1917, served actively in the Woman's Club, the Little Room literary club, and wrote and acted in plays performed at the settlement houses.
Mrs. Peattie died of heart failure in 1935 at the home of the eldest of her three sons, Roderick, at Wallingford, Vermont.