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8 Nov
2016

The Tradition of Thanksgiving

blog by Bev Scott, vintage postcard for thanskgiving

Did you know that Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day?

Today, Thanksgiving is a most American holiday tradition in which we gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude. Many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims story of Thanksgiving. The roots of our Thanksgiving can be traced back to the ancient traditions of celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I also discovered there were earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America before the Plymouth celebration of 1621.

Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress. The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but it was not an official holiday. In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting. President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country. Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

In researching my family history and writing the story of “Sarah’s Secret,” I have often found myself thinking about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compared to my life today. Since I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving, my curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of this favorite of American holiday which combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Turkey on a farm, line drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Without any family stories or traditions, I turned to my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders. Certainly, after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited. Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings, giving thanks and expressing gratitude would have been important to my grandmother. I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day. She may have cooked something special, maybe a wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son. I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her family offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives. Since her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving, I also imagine that she probably ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my comfortable twenty-first century life, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to write about the strong courageous woman who was my grandmother. I will honor her especially since Thanksgiving falls on November 24th this year. I have so much respect for this proud woman who was left a widow and raised her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Thanksgiving Turkey drawing, blog by Bev Scott

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving? What do you imagine your grandparents or great-grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(A previous version of this article was published  in my blog “The Writing Life,” in 2015.)

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9 Aug
2016

Dodge City: The Wickedest Little City in the West (orig. post 5-3-16)

(Dear blog subscribers: Due to a technical glitch, you probably didn’t get a notice when it first was posted. So, I’m re-posting it in case you missed it. And, as always, your comments are welcome. Happy reading! Bev)


A letter in the Washington D.C.’s Evening Star of January 1, 1878, stated,

Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in the later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment” (quoted in Legends in America).

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember listening to Gunsmoke on the radio with my family. Television arrived with one channel when I was in the eighth grade, but my parents didn’t see any use for it.  Since it was one of my favorite programs, I incorporated some phrases into my repertoire like, “…get out of Dodge!” Little did I expect that I would be researching the history of Dodge City and learning many ofGunsmoke Dodge City the true stories on which Gunsmoke was based decades later.

Dodge City was known as “The Wickedest Little City in the West” from its reputation of lawlessness and gunfights. It is associated with such famous gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In my last blog, I talked about the missing information about my grandfather between 1879 and 1891, but I had two clues that he worked cattle, perhaps as a cook, with an outfit from Dodge City. I researched and even visited this historic town as background for my writing.

Early History of Dodge City

The early history of Dodge City begins in 1872, according to William Shillingberg who wrote Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872-1886, with a saloon and a general store established a five miles West of Fort Dodge.   Following the establishment of the first businesses, the railroad arrived in short order.  Soon Dodge City became a wide-open railroad town with stacks of buffalo Street Scene Dodge Cityhides lining the street.  Over one and a half million of them were shipped out.  According to legend, the train masters took their red caboose lanterns with them to visit the prostitutes in town launching the term “red light district.

Dodge City initially had no law enforcement. The dance halls and saloons, as well as the lawless atmosphere, attracted buffalo hunters, railroad men, and soldiers after long stints on the prairie.  Inevitably, fights occurred and many a gunfighter died and was buried with his boots on in Boot Hill.  By 1876, the buffalo had been killed off, and the buffalo hunters were out of business. Longhorn cattle drove business back to Dodge City. In a ten-year period, over 5 million cattle were shipped out of Dodge City. The cowboys who came with the cattle brought, even more, lawlessness, spreading Dodge City’s reputation as far as Washington, D.C.

Controlling the Lawlessness

The wild lawlessness prompted the mayor to request such a well-known gunman as Wyatt Earp for help.  Soon Earp was joined by Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett as assistant deputies.  Marshal Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke episodes was modeled aDodge City Kansas Lawmenfter these lawmen in Dodge City.

The first effort at controlling the lawlessness was an ordinance which established a “Deadline” where the railroad tracks ran through Dodge.  On the North side, in the commercial side of town, no gun toting was allowed.  However, so many were arrested for carrying their weapons, that the jails were filled.  South of the tracks, anything went.  Guns were allowed, and lawlessness and gunfights persisted in the taverns and brothels.  By 1876 the town had grown to 1200 with nineteen businesses licensed to sell liquor.

Doc Holliday, another famous gunslinger, associated with Dodge City, arrived in 1878 with a woman posing as his wife called Big Nose Kate Elder.  Although he occasionally provided professional services to town residents, he mostly drank and gambled at the Long Branch Saloon. Doc Holliday was considered one of the deadliest shooters of the West, but he followed the law while in Dodge City.

Experiencing Dodge City in My Story

The character in my story, Will, arrives in Dodge City with the cattle drive in 1878 excited to be in the famous town and wondering if he’ll meet Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson.  After loading cattle at the railyard, Will, and his two companions, Jake and Tom head to the Long Branch Saloon where Will spots a gunslinger or bounty hunter.  Jake, the boss of the cattle drive, approaches him to find out why he is watching the crew.

Will heard Jake say, “Lookin’ for someone?  That’s my crew you’re watchin’.”  Jake jerked his thumb toward the wranglers at the billiard table.  But Will couldn’t hear the stranger’s reply.

His mouth went dry and his gut clenched worried that this gunslinger was after him.  When Jake rejoined Tom and Will at the other end of the bar, Will had moved into the shadows to be less conspicuous. He wanted to be near the back door so he could make a quick escape.

His heart raced as Jake relayed the conversation.  “He’s looking for a gambler dressed as a hayseed.  Had a gunfight and killed some upstanding citizen in Fort Worth.  Reported to have joined a cattle drive.  This tough cowboy is looking over our crew.  Looking for a ‘Will Martin’.  Wants to take him in for the money.”

As he spoke, Will held his breath but his heart was pounding.  He slowly slunk toward the back door.  Jake looked directly at Will and with a firm voice over the noise in the Tavern said, “I told him we had no Will Martin on our crew.”

Suddenly, Will felt a gun barrel in his ribs.  (From unpublished manuscript, Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story)

Did you listen or watch “Gunsmoke” when you were growing up?  Do you have images of Dodge City as wicked, lawless town?  Did you like cowboy and Western movies?  Have you heard other stories of this famous time in our history?

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My Grandfather, a Cowboy?

Harvey D Scott photoMy paternal grandfather was an absent figure when I was growing up.  He wasn’t just absent; he didn’t exist.  My father didn’t know anything about him; my grandmother just dismissed any questions by changing the subject.  So, I assumed he didn’t exist.

During a trip to Washington DC, I visited the National Archives and uncovered the family secret that had humiliated my grandmother and been hidden from the rest of our family. I have written in previous blogs about the resulting genealogical journey to document H. D. Scott’s life. Unable to find all the details of the story, especially what happened to him between the time he abandoned his first family and married my grandmother, I decided to fictionalize the story.

Creating Sam

I have created the fictional character, Sam, in my story based on two clues about H.D.’s life between 1878 and 1891.  He “worked cattle” with an “outfit from Dodge City, Kansas”.  Sam escapes the Texas Rangers by becoming a cowboy and joining a cattle drive going north to Dodge City.   The years 1878-1879 are the peak of the cattle drives in the midst of the cowboy era.

Developing Sam’s character in some ways was easier because I had no preconception of my grandfather.  I knew he was thirty years older than my grandmother, but I didn’t find out if he was tough, distant and cold or warm, affectionate and funny. But, as a child, I knew my grandmother. What man would she have married?  I wrestled with the contradictions of my image of the man she would marry and the facts I had uncovered. My image of a man who abandoned his pregnant wife and five children didn’t seem like the kind of person she would choose to marry.

Cowboys

Given the era, the location and the clues, I had uncovered, I began to explore and learn about cowboys as a possible Cowboy Silhouettemodel for my grandfather. Today, we identify the cowboy with the West and the time of the cattle drives. However, history tells us that men worked cattle in Massachusetts, Florida, Alabama, Georgia.  But it was the men, one-fourth of whom were black, driving the longhorn cattle from Texas north, who became the folklore heroes we think of as cowboys. They spent long dusty days driving thousands of cattle across empty plains for hundred’s of miles. It was a dangerous life. They faced animals who were easily startled into a stampede, drought, lightning and thunderstorms, rattlesnakes, Indians, and outlaws. They ate grub from the cook wagon, slept on the ground and lived a lonely, spare existence.

Cowboys as folk heroes can be handsome, mysterious, courageous and charismatic. In fact, we have hundreds of stories in novels, movies, radio, and television that have charmed and fascinated us.  Consider Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Lone Ranger or Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon among many other cowboy personalities. The lore and lure of the Western way of life draw many “dudes” today to wear Western wear, reserve weeks at guest ranches in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana and attend rodeo’s, and Wild West shows displaying the skill and fearlessness of the cowboy.

As a person who I grew up in Montana with a family who live today’s Western way of life in Wyoming and Colorado, it was easy for me to imagine my character, Sam as a cowboy…Handsome, charming, independent, mysterious and attractive to my grandmother.

I have been engaged and challenged as I created Sam’s character. I am excited to be nearing the end with the hope of publishing the story this year.

Do you have cowboy heroes or favorite books or programs? What is your image of a cowboy?

Does Western lore bore you or lure you?

 

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3 May
2016

Dodge City: The Wickedest Little City in the West

A letter in the Washington D.C.’s Evening Star of January 1, 1878, stated,

Dodge City is a wicked little town. Indeed, its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude, were the evidence in the later times positive of its possibility, that it was marked for special Providential punishment” (quoted in Legends in America).

As a young girl growing up in Montana, I remember listening to Gunsmoke on the radio with my family. Television arrived with one channel when I was in the eighth grade, but my parents didn’t see any use for it.  Since it was one of my favorite programs, I incorporated some phrases into my repertoire like, “…get out of Dodge!” Little did I expect that I would be researching the history of Dodge City and learning many ofGunsmoke Dodge City the true stories on which Gunsmoke was based decades later.

Dodge City was known as “The Wickedest Little City in the West” from its reputation of lawlessness and gunfights. It is associated with such famous gunslingers as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson. In my last blog, I talked about the missing information about my grandfather between 1879 and 1891, but I had two clues that he worked cattle, perhaps as a cook, with an outfit from Dodge City. I researched and even visited this historic town as background for my writing.

Early History of Dodge City

The early history of Dodge City begins in 1872, according to William Shillingberg who wrote Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872-1886, with a saloon and a general store established a five miles West of Fort Dodge.   Following the establishment of the first businesses, the railroad arrived in short order.  Soon Dodge City became a wide-open railroad town with stacks of buffalo Street Scene Dodge Cityhides lining the street.  Over one and a half million of them were shipped out.  According to legend, the train masters took their red caboose lanterns with them to visit the prostitutes in town launching the term “red light district.

Dodge City initially had no law enforcement. The dance halls and saloons, as well as the lawless atmosphere, attracted buffalo hunters, railroad men, and soldiers after long stints on the prairie.  Inevitably, fights occurred and many a gunfighter died and was buried with his boots on in Boot Hill.  By 1876, the buffalo had been killed off, and the buffalo hunters were out of business. Longhorn cattle drove business back to Dodge City. In a ten-year period, over 5 million cattle were shipped out of Dodge City. The cowboys who came with the cattle brought, even more, lawlessness, spreading Dodge City’s reputation as far as Washington, D.C.

Controlling the Lawlessness

The wild lawlessness prompted the mayor to request such a well-known gunman as Wyatt Earp for help.  Soon Earp was joined by Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Charlie Bassett as assistant deputies.  Marshal Matt Dillon in the Gunsmoke episodes was modeled aDodge City Kansas Lawmenfter these lawmen in Dodge City.

The first effort at controlling the lawlessness was an ordinance which established a “Deadline” where the railroad tracks ran through Dodge.  On the North side, in the commercial side of town, no gun toting was allowed.  However, so many were arrested for carrying their weapons, that the jails were filled.  South of the tracks, anything went.  Guns were allowed, and lawlessness and gunfights persisted in the taverns and brothels.  By 1876 the town had grown to 1200 with nineteen businesses licensed to sell liquor.

Doc Holliday, another famous gunslinger, associated with Dodge City, arrived in 1878 with a woman posing as his wife called Big Nose Kate Elder.  Although he occasionally provided professional services to town residents, he mostly drank and gambled at the Long Branch Saloon. Doc Holliday was considered one of the deadliest shooters of the West, but he followed the law while in Dodge City.

Experiencing Dodge City in My Story

The character in my story, Will, arrives in Dodge City with the cattle drive in 1878 excited to be in the famous town and wondering if he’ll meet Wyatt Earp or Bat Masterson.  After loading cattle at the railyard, Will, and his two companions, Jake and Tom head to the Long Branch Saloon where Will spots a gunslinger or bounty hunter.  Jake, the boss of the cattle drive, approaches him to find out why he is watching the crew.

Will heard Jake say, “Lookin’ for someone?  That’s my crew you’re watchin’.”  Jake jerked his thumb toward the wranglers at the billiard table.  But Will couldn’t hear the stranger’s reply.

His mouth went dry and his gut clenched worried that this gunslinger was after him.  When Jake rejoined Tom and Will at the other end of the bar, Will had moved into the shadows to be less conspicuous. He wanted to be near the back door so he could make a quick escape.

His heart raced as Jake relayed the conversation.  “He’s looking for a gambler dressed as a hayseed.  Had a gunfight and killed some upstanding citizen in Fort Worth.  Reported to have joined a cattle drive.  This tough cowboy is looking over our crew.  Looking for a ‘Will Martin’.  Wants to take him in for the money.”

As he spoke, Will held his breath but his heart was pounding.  He slowly slunk toward the back door.  Jake looked directly at Will and with a firm voice over the noise in the Tavern said, “I told him we had no Will Martin on our crew.”

Suddenly, Will felt a gun barrel in his ribs.  (From unpublished manuscript, Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story)

Did you listen or watch “Gunsmoke” when you were growing up?  Do you have images of Dodge City as wicked, lawless town?  Did you like cowboy and Western movies?  Have you heard other stories of this famous time in our history?

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18 Apr
2016

How to Avoid Being Crushed in a Stampede

This post is the first in a series about the era of the cattle drive from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas. 

“Ride! Ride like the devil! Ride for your life, man!  Stick spur in your pony’s flank, and press hard and press long; lean low over your saddle bow—speak quick, sharp words of encouragement and command to your beast, and ride for your life! For behind you, like the waves of a mad sea, are ten thousand frightened steers, and you are scarce the length of your horse ahead of them!  If your pony stumbles….if anything happens by which his speed is checked…the hoofs that are thundering at your heels shall tramp every semblance of humanity out of your body before you can utter a prayer or curse!” (quoted in “The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail 1874-1886 by Kraisinger and Kraisinger)

Grandfather disappeared

My grandfather not only disappeared from his family in Weatherford, Texas after he took a load of corn to town in 1879, he also disappeared from the official records.  I could find no information in the 1880 census nor any other official record until he shows up filing a homestead claim in Glendo. Wyoming in 1891.  What was he doing in those missing years?

I never imagined my grandfather, H.D. Scott, involved in the famous longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas.  But, I found two clues in the National Archive documents:  H.D., himself, claimed he worked cattle during that time and one of the government agents reported that he served as “a cook on an overland expedition” for an outfit from Dodge City.

Texas Cattle Drives

albuminLOCcowboysathchuckwagon3a18543rAs a result of these clues I began to explore the Texas cattle drives that began in the late 1860’s on the famous Chisholm Trail.  At the time it was the only trail through Indian Territory to Kansas.  Later, between 1874 and 1886, cattle were driven up the much longer Western Trail not only to Kansas but also up to Ogallala, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana according to The Western: The Greatest Cattle Trail, 1874-1886 by Gary and Margaret Kraisinger.  The cattle shipped from the Western Trail on rail cars headed east are reported to be over five million cattle!

TV, movies and novels have glorified the Texas cattle drive and the Cowboys that served as drovers.  Life on the trail was not very glamorous. Cowboys slept on the ground and ate monotonous food.   They coped with blistering sun, thunderstorms, floods and Indians.  It was lonely, and at the time very dangerous.

Wild Longhorn Cattle

The Longhorn was a defensive and skittish animal descended through natural selection on the range from Spanish and Anglo-American cattle.  These animals were wild, with long powerful legs and hard hoofs, capable of surviving long drives with minimal grazing feed.  The Kraisingers report that they could do “a several-hundred-mile trek and …still gain weight.”  But any sudden noise such as thunder and lightning, or strange event, lighting a match or the sound of a tin cup, could cause a frantic stampede such as described above.  The consequences could be gruesome:

“We went back to look for him, and we found him among the prairie dog holes, beside his horse.  The horse’s ribs were scraped bare of hide and all the rest of horse and man was mashed into the ground as flat as a pancake.  The only thing you could recognize was the handle of his six-shooter.  We tried to think the lightning hit him, and that was what we wrote his folks…But we couldn’t really believe it ourselves…I’m afraid his horse stepped into one of them holes and they both went down before the stampede.”  (quoted in Kraisinger and Kraisinger)

The drover’s job was to get the terrified animals under control by riding his mount abreast of the lead steer to turn them to run in a circle.  The circle could be miles wide but gradually as the cattle were exhausted they would mill in a circle and quiet down.  Rivers had to be crossed even in at flood stage.  There was a right way to negotiate a river that took the time of day, and outside influences into account.  Cattle, horses, and men could lose their lives in a fast-moving river.

The wave of homesteaders moving into former Indian Territories and the advent of barbed wire brought the era of Longhorn cattle drives to a close by 1886.  But during a short period of time, savvy organizers and contractors could make a fortune.  Some report over $100,000 according to Harry Drago! However, there was always a risk of losing upwards of 1500 head of cattle in a herd of 3000.  The drovers didn’t get rich.  They might receive $30.00 a month with $100 for the trail boss.  Some of them, though, did parlay their opportunity into becoming land owners with a herd of cattle.

Creating the Story

Once I determined that I would write my family story as fiction, the clues in the Archive documents lead me to explore this history and the stories of the cattle drives.  I have found both challenge and enjoyment in creating the story of my character’s experience as a cook on a Texas cattle drive.  Here’s a short excerpt from his second day on the drive:

He enjoyed the camaraderie on this crew.  It reminded him of his time in the Union Army–sleeping on the ground, boring food, dirty, no women or home comforts.  A hard life. But it was eased by the easy-going company of men joking with each other, telling stories or singing around the campfire.  Being here was like putting on old boots that have molded to your feet. He didn’t need to worry about these men learning his secret. Cowboys minded their own business.  He was sure their pasts weren’t pure and no one asked any questions, including Jake  (From Trust, Betrayal, and Forgiveness:  A Family Story).

 

     

 

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23 Feb
2016

A Town Built on Opportunity and The Pioneering Spirit of Former Slaves

In recognition of Black History Month, I wanted to share this background from my research for my novel inspired by the lives of my grandparents. 

 “No, my parents homesteaded here after the Emancipation.  They came up here from Mississippi. It was a long and hard journey but they made it and settled on this land.” Alida responded proudly…

…your husband?”

  “Oh, George is in town, in Nicodemus .  He runs the General Store.  His father helped establish the town.  George’ll be home for supper. And if your baby don’t get better, George’ll get the doctor in town.”  (Excerpt from: “Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness:  A Family Story”  a novel in process)

I discovered the town of Nicodemus doing my research about Kansas.  Nicodemus is the only remaining western town established by African Americans during Reconstruction after the Civil War.  To many freed slaves, Kansas was a symbol of opportunity and freedom associated with the “underground railroad” and the abolitionist John Brown.  Nicodemus survives as a symbol of opportunity and the pioneering spirit of former slaves.

A Town Built on Opportunity - 1

In 1877, six former slaves from Kentucky followed the leadership of one of their own, Reverend H. W. Smith and a white man, W. R. Hill, an experienced land speculator.  They believed the stories Hill recounted of a “Promised Land” with abundant game and rich soil   available through the Homestead Act.  They came with the goal of establishing the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains

Several stories are told about why they named the town Nicodemus.  One claims that the town was named after the biblical figure “Nicodemus”.  Another tells about an African prince taken into slavery and later bought his freedom.  And, yet a third story suggests it was named after an escaped slave.

A Town Built on Opportunity - 2

This is the Williams Family. Most people living in Nicodemus are descendants or related to this original settler’s family. The caption is left to right. Charles, Henry (first baby born in Nicodemus), Clara, bottom row Charles Sr., Emma, Neal. (Click picture to read more)

 

They recruited through posters distributed all over the South and by word of mouth.  In the late summer of 1877, 308 railroad tickets were reportedly sold to desperate families wanting land and freedom.  Early settlers were very poor and often arrived without tools, horses or provisions.  As I wrote in my last post, the shortage of timber forced these settlers to build their homes out of sod or in dugouts like many other pioneers. One story is recounted by a woman who arrived very sick.  Looking around after hearing the cry, “There is Nicodemus,” she could only see smoke coming out of the ground.    Although the location of the town was chosen along the bank of the Solomon River, and considered an area suitable for farming, many found life there to be too challenging.  This barren land was hardly the paradise these former slaves had been promised.  Many families returned to the green hills in Kentucky.  Additional groups of settlers arrived with more resources and the population grew.  Those that settled and stayed showed resourcefulness and hard work.

Nicodemus remained a small thriving African American community through World War I.  In 1910 the population is recorded at 600.  As with many farming communities, the Depression and the Dustbowl were devastating. The population reached a low point of only 16 people.  Several other black settlements sprung up in Kansas after the Civil War, but Nicodemus was the only one to survive.  Revitalized in the 1970’s, Nicodemus was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1996.

The story I am currently writing, is inspired by the lives of my grandparents, Sarah, a widow with five children, traveling by wagon through Kansas in 1911.  She is desperate to return to the homestead of her parents in Nebraska to have the comfort of family nearby.   Before they can reach Nebraska, her baby daughter becomes seriously ill.  She needs help.  She rides one of the wagon horses down a rutted path, leaving her other children with the wagon.  She worries if she is safe, if she can find aid and support or if she will be turned away.  She knocks on the door of a small house with smoke curling from the chimney.

The door opened a crack and a Negro face with black searching eyes peered out.  “Yes, ma’am?”

“My baby daughter’s very sick.  We’re traveling by wagon to Nebraska.  I need some help.”

The door opened wider to reveal a tidy room with handmade wood furniture.   A small woman, with dark brown skin and a kerchief tied around her head motioned me inside.”

In the story, this family, descended from former slaves who settled in Nicodemus, welcomes Sarah and her children to stay until the baby is well.

Do you know other stories of settlements by African Americans (or other ethnic groups) who homesteaded in other states?

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8 Feb
2016

True Life on the Prairie Was Living in a Hole in the Ground

My maternal great-grandparents homestead, Custer County, Nebraska in a photo taken by Samuel Butcher.

This is the third and final in a series about poverty and homesteading on the Midwestern prairie…background from my research for the novel I am writing inspired by the lives of my grandparents.

“They most likely lived in a dugout like everyone else who settled here. Most couldn’t afford to buy materials to build a house.”

A dugout! Really! I could imagine what a dugout was…a hole in the ground. This was totally new information.

I was visiting Tucumcari, New Mexico as part of my genealogy research to learn more about my grandfather who died there in 1911. He moved his pregnant wife and four boys from Oklahoma to Tucumcari in hopes of finding a better climate for his health. When I asked the Tucumcari Museum staff about finding where they had lived in the area, she not only told me they probably lived in a dugout, but that it would be hard to find since very few dugouts if any of them survived except in old photographs.

I knew about sod houses on the Midwestern prairie, especially Nebraska. Initially when covered wagons headed west, pioneers were not interested in the empty Nebraska prairie. They were more interested in the West. They just rolled across the flat plains of waving grass following the wagon tracks of others who had ventured out before them. Their canvas covered wagons carried all their precious household belongings, food and tools. Family members walked beside the wagons and they drove valuable livestock needed to help them survive when they arrived at their distant destinations.

In 1863 during the Civil War President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. It offered free land to those who could “prove up” their claims by living on the land for five years and building a dwelling.  Thousands of settlers, most of them poor returning veterans, immigrants and others without land of their own, loaded their possessions into a wagon and headed west. These settlers discovered that the empty land on the Great Plains was now available for settling but only spindly cotton woods or wild plum bushes grew there. There was not enough wood to build the familiar log cabin or other wooden shelters.

“Soddies”

The resourcefulness of the frontier settler is admirable. He, or occasionally she, could use a tool brought in the wagon, the iron plow, and the team of oxen or horses that had pulled the wagon. The plow could turn up strips of virgin prairie sod about six inches thick. The settler had almost perfect building blocks when these strips were cut into approximately two-foot sections. Walls were built to seven or eight feet high with holes left for windows and doors to be purchased in town or at a railroad siding. The roof might be made with a few poles from available trees such as cottonwoods and covered with a thick layer of grass and then two layers of sod blocks. Despite the layer of grass intended to keep out the dirt and moisture, many settlers were plagued with dirt, mud when it rained, and small rodents seeking shelter and food coming down through the roof. How unpleasant! Others who built their home solidly found their “soddie”, as they were called, could last a few years.

Both my maternal and paternal great grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska in the 1870’s and built sod houses that they lived in for several years. Sod houses were amazingly comfortable. The thick sod walls provided excellent insulation; they stayed warm and cozy in the freezing Nebraska blizzards and cool under the hot summer sun.

Nebraska Dugout

 

Dugouts

As I explored the information on the dugout, I learned it had some of the same insulation advantages since it was usually dug out of a hillside. However, it usually had no windows. It was just a hole in the ground and it was dark, cramped and difficult to keep clean. If the roof was made of sod, roaming livestock might fall through the roof. Imagine that surprise arriving for dinner! The floors in both the “soddie” and the dugout were often treated as the Native Americans might treat the floors in their tipis: sprinkled with water and swept daily until the surface was hard and smooth. Carpets or wooden planks might eventually be laid if the family could afford it. Walls might be coated with a plaster made from sand and limestone if available or covered with tacked up newspapers to keep the dirt from drifting into the house.

Russell Homestead

My paternal great -grandparents in front of their homestead, Thomas County, Nebraska.

In Nebraska, the rich soil produced bumper crops. Farmers were success after a few years. Within about ten years, many families eventually moved out of their soddies and into a real home. Both sets of my great grandparents did so. Real homes indicated the success and status of their owners, but they were much colder in the winter and unbearably hotter in the summer than the soddie or the dugout.

However, in New Mexico in 1910, when my grandparents arrived, much of the land for cattle ranching had been claimed either by Spain, Mexico, or the earlier U.S. homesteaders. Looking for a warmer climate and tantalized by the railroad flyers describing a farming paradise near Tucumcari, my grandparents arrived during a dry spell in an area with little access to water in normal times. Given their circumstances of poverty, a large family and my grandfather’s ill health, I think it was a good guess that they lived in a dugout. They probably had no other choice.

You may have seen or heard of rammed earth homes. These are among the many “sustainable” style homes that are growing in popularity in the United States and around the world. Consider them an upscale and sustainable version of the utilitarian prairie-style dugout.

Do you have ancestors who lived in “soddies” or dugouts? Do you know anything about their lives? I would love to hear your stories.

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18 Jan
2016

The Opportunity of Homesteading

“ Poverty in America Month:” The second in a series exploring the history of poverty

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My grandfather homesteaded in Wyoming in 1890, married my grandmother in 1892 and moved to Nebraska to homestead again.  When my grandmother traveled back to Nebraska from New Mexico as a widow, she homesteaded with her children in 1912.  Records in the National Archives which I found from my genealogical search (see The Journey to Fiction series for the full documentation), provide a brief description by the government agent who came to inform her she was not going to receive widow’s benefits.  He filed a sensitive descriptive report of his meeting with her south of Thedford, Nebraska where she had filed her land claim.

“She hopes to establish a home for herself and children; but it looks like a most hazardous undertaking as she is practically an invalid because of rheumatism (sic), and her children are undersized puny looking little fellows, and they are more than a mile from the nearest water….In their present desolate surroundings their condition is pitiable in the extreme.”

The “pitiable” conditions the government agent described, could be the current conditions of poverty as well as throughout our history.  Despite the negative images we see or hear about those living in poverty, America has a long history of offering opportunity to the economically disadvantaged through such government programs as The Homestead Act, the New Deal, Social Security and the War on Poverty.  Even in the beginning, the early colonists and settlers not only looked for religious freedom.  They also wanted the opportunity to own property and achieve some material comfort and perhaps even success from their own industriousness and hard work.  Land ownership in the early years of our country was based on the assumption that the land was free.  Our ancestors offered no acknowledgement of the rights of the Native people to that land.  Initially, methods for allocating unsettled land was arbitrary and chaotic.  Boundaries were established by stepping off plots from geographical landmarks.  Overlapping claims and border disputes were common.

The sale of public lands became a means to generate revenue for the Government, not an opportunity to acquire property by the poor.  By the mid 1800’s pressure was building to change the land distribution policies.  People in the West and poor people everywhere supported the demand for free homesteads.  Finally, with eleven states seceding from the Union the slavery issue was removed from the opposition. The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed and signed by President Lincoln.  It has been called the most important welfare act ever passed in the United States.

Homestead Act

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Men or women or the head of a family over 21 could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of Government land, land frequently brutally taken from Indian tribes on the frontier.  Homesteaders were required to live on the land, build a dwelling and grow crops for five years before they could claim a deed to the land.  Three generations of my family, including my grandmother, took advantage of this opportunity.  Despite being an invalid, she completed her homestead claim, went back to teaching school and became what is reputed to be the first woman school superintendent in her part of Nebraska.

Homesteading provided an opportunity for the poor in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  My family benefited many times from the welfare of the Homestead Act.  Two of my grandmother’s sons homesteaded in Wyoming in 1918 after irrigation was established and opened arid land to farming.  The land was free but it required hard work, sacrifice and surviving the harsh conditions of the American plains.

As the frontier moved west, some changes in the laws increased the land claim to 640 acres and reduced the homestead requirement from five to three years.    By the end of the nineteenth century ninety million acres of public land had been distributed.  Very little of the 570 million acres that still remained open to settlement was usable for agriculture.  By 1934 over 1.6 million homestead applications were processed and more than 270 million acres or 10% of all US land had passed into individuals hands

Strong communities with a commitment to social values, education and personal responsibility were spawned through the territories covered by the Homestead Act.  The economic, agricultural and social stability generated by the Homestead Act was utterly inconceivable in other times and place.  It was a huge contribution to the American prosperity of the twentieth century.   I, for one, am very grateful for the opportunity it gave to my ancestors.  I am also very proud of their stamina, grit, perseverance and hard work to overcome the challenges they faced.

Next time we will explore life in dugouts and sod houses, common homesteader shelter on the prairie.

Did your ancestors homestead?  Do you have family stories?  What was their life like?

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4 Jan
2016

Life Was Hard on the Frontier

A look at poverty in the late nineteenth century during “Poverty in America Month”

“Grandad’s milk cow was in an open-front shed built of driftwood gathered from the river.  Grandma realized the snow would swirl around it and cover it completely in a very short time.  To keep the cow from smothering in the snow, Grandma decided to go out to free her from her stall.  She tied a rope to the doorknob so that she would find her way back to the dugout.  She said later that she would not have made it back to dugout without the rope to guide her.  In the night a herd of horses belonging to a neighbor six miles away, ran right over the top of the dugout.  Grandma could just see those horses breaking through the roof and coming in on top of her family, but that didn’t happen.” (From “Tales of a Sod House Baby: Stories of the Kansas Frontier as told by my mother” by Helen McCauley Merkle.

wagon trainThis is a typical story of life on the frontier in the late nineteenth century.  After passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, people from all walks of life came in search of land on the frontier.  Most were poor…farmers from the East without land of their own, newly arrived immigrants, single women and former slaves.   The opportunity was enticing for many who were tempted by railroad flyers or the exaggerated claims of hucksters.

However, many families were unable to survive for five years to make their claim.  My grandmother was one of them, leaving New Mexico to return to her family home in Nebraska as a widow with five children.  But like many pioneers, she was determined and filed another homestead claim in an arid area of the Nebraska sand hills, a mile from the nearest water.

The physical conditions on the Great Plains were challenging. High winds, tornadoes, drought and plagues of insects also confronted the subsistence life of homesteaders.  Destroyed crops or livestock herds meant that farmers went into debt mortgaging their land to buy additional seed, supplies or replacement livestock.   Blizzards, like the one described in the story above, and bitter cold temperatures were common.

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Family Story

A family story passed down to me describes a howling blizzard with white-out conditions.  My grandmother, crippled from rheumatoid arthritis, and her two youngest children, one of whom was my dad, were living miles from any neighbors.  Dried corn cobs used for fuel for the stove to warm their modest one-room house were gone.  The wind howled and showed no signs of letting up.  She could not, as an invalid, manage herself to go the barn for more corn cobs.  She refused to allow my father, still a young boy, to go out in the blinding white-out blizzard for fear that he would get lost and freeze to death.  So, they burned my grandmother’s books to keep warm.  It must have been a very painful sacrifice for her to make, since she was a school teacher who placed a high value on education.  She had collected her treasured books over a life-time.

Since I am writing a fictionalized story about my grandmother who struggled in poverty raising her five children, I have been curious to learn how poverty at the turn of the nineteenth century compares to poverty today.  In 1900, as reported by Digital History, the average family annual income in today’s dollars was $3000.  Half of all American children lived in poverty and about 60% of the population lived on farms or in rural areas.  Exact comparisons are hard to find but today more than half of our population lives in the suburbs; about 21% of US children live in poverty and the average household income is over $72,641.  Life was hard in 1900 where life expectancy of white Americans was 48 and African Americans was 33.  One in four children had a 50% chance of dying before the age of 5 and half of all young people lost a parent before they reached 21.

Today we hear from the media, politicians and pundits about “income inequality”.    In the San Francisco Bay Area the news, editorials and casual conversation focus on the housing crises and homelessness.  All these terms denote poverty, a condition that none of us like to talk about.  The Center for Law and Economic Justice reports record high numbers of people in the United States live in poverty today…approximately 46.5 million or one out of 7 of us.    The US Census Bureau reports that the poverty rates have remained about the same for the last four years.  Two out of three Americans will live in poverty for at least a year in their lives according to The Brookings Institute.

But numbers are cold, abstract and don’t carry much emotional meaning.  I am concerned that the poverty and homelessness today disproportionately impacts women and children, as it did my grandmother.   The majority of poor children have a single mom struggling to make ends meet with a low-paying job or the reviled welfare check. Those children need health care, nutrition, housing, education and more attention than that single mom may have time to give.

We have no consensus today on a safety net or a government effort to offer opportunities to those women and children.  Our current trend is to leave such support to a patch work of non-profit and under-funded government agencies.  Most of us ignore the homeless, have no contact with the low-income single mom and carry negative images of those who depend on “the government dole”.  Are we willing to acknowledge the poverty in our midst during this month of Poverty in America?  These children are our future.  Will we provide them the support they need to grow up to contribute to that future?

Next time we will look at the history of opportunity for the poor in this country with a focus on the Homestead Act of 1862.

Did your ancestors live on the mid-western prairie?  Were they farmers?  Did they homestead?

What do you think about our current attitude toward poverty in America?

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21 Dec
2015

Imagining a Pioneering Christmas on the Prairie

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This is the third in a series of explorations of the holiday traditions at the time of my grandparents, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Last time we looked at the Christmas traditions that emerged and become popular in the nineteenth century. 

The holiday season is upon us. Like many others, I feel the hustle and bustle to decorate, send greetings to friends and family and find the ideal gifts for my grandsons and other significant members of my family. In the midst this full and active time, I wondered how my grandmother would be preparing for Christmas on the prairie over 100 years ago. I am curious about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the setting of my novel based on the lives of my grandparents. I know nothing personally about how they celebrated Christmas nor is there much written about what homesteading families on the American plains did to recognize the popular holiday season. In my last post, I described the practices and activities that became popular by the end of the nineteenth century.

I am guessing that many of those practices were more common in Eastern and more urban areas of the United States. It is hard to imagine an evergreen tree decorated with popcorn, dried fruit and burning candles inside an earthen dugout. Depending on where and when they homesteaded, dugouts served as the home of many homesteaders in the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. I envision similar decorations on a bough or a sprig from a tree or bush that grew in the area instead. Perhaps there was a lone candle lit near a religious picture of Mary and Joseph and baby, Jesus. Because resources were so limited and many homesteading families struggled to survive, I doubt if gifts from Santa Claus were a major tradition. Perhaps stockings were hung in “hopes that St Nicholas” might leave a special treat of fruit or cookies.

Old-Fashioned-Christmas-Pictures-3Generosity and Sharing

Understanding the values of generosity and sharing that were common among homesteading families, including my grandparents, I am sure giving to those most needy and delivering meals and homemade dishes to neighbors would have been a frequent practice. Homesteaders often lived miles from their nearest neighbors, yet Christmas was a time to gather in community. I imagine my grandparents may have dressed in their “Sunday best” and traveled by horse and wagon or by sleigh to visit with neighbors. They may have gathered at the small community church to meet for religious services, share potluck meals and perhaps sing Christmas carols around a piano or accompanied by a guitar or banjo.

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Homesteaders had often traveled long distances from family to find the free land available to claim, then occupy for five years and to make it their own. I am sure that purchasing and sending Christmas cards was rare at the end of the nineteenth century among homesteaders on the American plains. Yet maintaining ties with family left behind, telling stories of life on the frontier and hearing the news of loved ones back home was priceless. Receiving letters was anticipated with growing excitement, especially at holiday time. I know that my grandmother, a former schoolteacher, wrote many letters from Oklahoma and New Mexico to her cherished family in Nebraska. I also imagine that she probably offered to read precious letters received by her grateful neighbors who could not read.

I have focused on those Christian and secular holiday traditions that might have been practiced by homesteaders like my grandparents. Communities with other ethnic or religious identities contributed their own practices and holiday traditions. Although the commercial and urban traditions of Christmas may not have been as common among homesteaders on the prairie, the belief in hope, community and sharing, shaped the holiday celebrations that many of us practice today.

What holiday traditions were practiced in your family when you were growing up? Do you observed different practices or traditions today? Do you know what your grandmother or great-grandmother did to prepare for Christmas?

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