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Tagged with " homesteaders"
23 Mar
2018
Posted in: Diversity
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Racism in the “Little House” Books?

Plains Indian, Buffalo Hunt painting John Stanley

Laura Ingalls Wilder is in the book news again.  There are calls to remove her books from children’s libraries!

The American Library Association (ALA) is considering removing her name from their life-time achievement in children’s literature award. The librarians are re-considering the name of the medal based on the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans in the Little House books. Their concern is the conflict of the ALA vision to “respect and honor children’s families’ history” with the values of respect, inclusiveness and integrity with the racism depicted in the books.

Caroline Fraser, author of Wilder’s historical biography, Prairie Fires writes in an article in the March 14 issue of the Washington Post, that “no book, including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.'” Those who have decried the white supremacy which lies at the heart of so many children’s books, have demanded that the books be removed from school libraries. Some have been motivated by a story Fraser reports of an 8-year old Native American girl came home in tears after hearing the story read in school. Others have admonished publishers to address the racial imbalance in children’s literature by publishing more stories about Native Americans or African Americans.

Indeed, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935) has inspired both disapproval and devotion. Many of us grew up enamored by the sentimental description of family values in the Little House stories, but not all of us are white. Fraser tells about an immigrant girl born in Saigon attracted to the story and how Hmong families from Laos living in Walnut Grove were drawn by one girl’s devotion to the television show. The town features a public mural with a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress.

African American family, historic photo c. 1930's, packing car to leave

Publishing more books and stories for children with Native American, Hispanic, African American or other ethnic perspectives is incredibly important to understand today’s diverse world. But, should the name of the medal be changed or the books removed from school libraries because they are racist? Perhaps changing the name of the medal is not wrong. It certainly is not censorship. It might be argued that it is acknowledging the cultural shift that no longer recognizes or rewards books with such blatant racism.

In contrast, removing the books from libraries or refusing to read them to elementary school children is not only censorship but denies all children the opportunity to learn through story the history of homesteading as well as the promotion of white settlement which violently took over Native American lands. I agree with Fraser that the answer to the racism of Wilder’s books is not to ban them but to provide the opportunity to learn that history is interpreted from cultural definitions and perspective. How exciting it would be to have the opportunity to learn about the white cultural perspective current during Wilder’s life. Imagine adding to the conversation, with alternative cultural viewpoints from the Native Americans who were losing their traditional lands or the African Americans who were just freed from slavery.

What is your opinion?

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7 Feb
2018

Laura Ingalls Wilder, American Author

Did you read one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series when you were growing up? Or perhaps you watched the “Little House on the Prairie” television show based on her life which aired between 1974 and 1982.

There was only the enormous empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it, and birds flying up from it and singing with joy because the sun was rising. And on the whole enormous prairie there was no sign that any other human being had ever been there…In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon (From Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Laura Ingalls Wilder circa 1885

Laura Ingalls Wilder, circa 1885 (Wikipedia)

Today, February 7 is Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s birthday. She was born in 1867 near Pepin, Wisconsin. In my research and writing of Sarah’s Secret, I stood on the shoulders of this amazing woman who persisted in revising her writing before she achieved the success for the beloved autobiographical sages of the Great Plains. This connection was especially vivid for me in writing Part Two of Sarah’s Secret, much of which takes place on the prairies of Kansas, the setting for Little House on the Prairie. I called up images in my imagination from her writing as I imagined my character riding across Kansas.

Wilder’s family homesteaded in Dakota Territory. Their life on the prairie as homesteaders was grueling with many similarities to the life of my grandparents who inspired Sarah’s Secret. Like my grandparents, who also homesteaded on the Great Plains, the Ingalls family faced severe hardships of blizzards, near starvation and poverty, the challenges that became stories of triumph in the Little House series.

Wilder was also a teacher like my grandmother a few years later. In 1882 Laura Ingalls passed the test to obtain her teaching certificate. At 15 years old she taught in a one-room schoolhouse about 12 miles from her parent’s home. The family friend, Almanzo Wilder, who was sent to bring her home for weekend visits became her husband in 1885. She quit teaching to raise children and work the farm with Almanzo. Her daughter, Rose, was born in 1889. They, too, faced relentless challenges of illness, death and poverty before they ultimately settled and farmed in the Ozarks near Mansfield, Missouri in 1894.

But it was not until the 1920’s with encouragement from her daughter, Rose, did Wilder attempt to write her first autobiography which was rejected by publishers. Wilder was determined to succeed and like authors today, she reworked her writing over and over. In 1932, she published the first book Little House in the Big Woods. She completed the eighth one of the series in 1943 when she was seventy-three. She died in 1957 on the farm she and Almanzo had settled sixty years earlier.

Today, on her 151st birthday, I honor this American woman author writing stories of the challenges and triumphs of homesteading on the Great Plains. Laura Ingalls Wilder is an inspiration and role model whose persistence won her hard-fought success in a male-dominated profession.

I just purchased Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline  Fraser, a historical biography. The description says that the true saga of Wilder’s life has never been told and that this book fills in the gaps in Wilder’s biography. Needless to say, I am anxious to read it. Look for a review in the near future.

What are your memories of the Little House book series or the television program “Little House on the Prairie?”

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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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22 Aug
2016

My Final Book Title

A final title! I am excited! Thank you to all of your who contributed ideas, re-wording, themes and ideas.

Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness

Sarah's Secret, final book title

The book title is so important. It must compete with all the other options available to readers…other books as well as other activities. The title must engage potential readers and interest them in reading this book. It needs to show up in search engines and be enticing on the bookstore shelves.

Beyond all this competition, I want a title that reflects the story being told. A story from the West and homesteading days, a secret never revealed and Sarah’s emotional journey. I remember reading a book a few years ago with a title that was very misleading given the content of the book. Perhaps it was chosen for search engine optimization but the inconsistency left me puzzled. Consequently I wanted to hue closer to the actual story, even if it doesn’t have all the key words for search engine optimization.

Thank you for helping me choose a title that comes as close as I think possible to these criteria:

Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness.

Now on to the cover design.

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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

GRT-JA10-family-homestead

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

Wagon_train 3

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.

tornado

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.

DASHING_THROUGH_THE_SNOW

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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