11 Apr
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Book Review: “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline


Reviewed by Bev Scott

Two young girls both long for family and acceptance.  Yet their young experiences are separated by almost eighty years.  Vivian, a young abandoned Irish immigrant is sent on the train to the uncertainty of the rural mid-west in hopes of finding a loving home.  Much later in her life, while living on the Maine coast in a quiet peaceful existence, Molly comes to help Vivian sort through her possessions and keepsakes.  Molly is seventeen and living in foster homes.  An outsider as a Penobscot Indian, she reluctantly agrees to help Vivian in order to stay out of juvenile hall.  Molly discovers that she and Vivian have more in common than she imagined.

The story is told by the author moving back and forth between present-day Maine and the depression years in Minnesota.  The engaging story describes a seldom acknowledged treatment in U.S. history of abandoned and orphaned children.

Author website:


5 Apr

Do You Have the Courage to Write Fiction?

courage, risk, balance, adventure, writing fictionReading Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic, caused me to reflect on my internal journey to be willing to write the fictionalized story of my grandparents.

“Do you have the courage?  Do you have the courage to bring forth this work?  The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”

Quoted by Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Have you pretended that you weren’t afraid or used excuses to avoid being brave?  It took many years for me to find the courage to begin even the research required to write the story about my grandparents.  I would share some details and the family rumors about their lives with others, which would encourage me to write about it.  But I brushed the idea away.  I told myself that I had a career and other goals to pursue.  But as I read this quote in Gilbert’s book, I realized that I didn’t have the courage to take the risk of writing about this story. I was afraid to put it out in public.  It was safer to work with clients or to write about my consulting experience both of which denoted years, even decades of successful practice in the field of organization development.

Finally, I was ready to slow down my consulting practice and create the time to conduct the research to uncover all the details about my grandfather’s life.  So I set out as I have written in other blogs to confirm the whispered family secrets and to learn about his life before he met my grandmother.  Gilbert mentions that it is common among women to want to be one hundred percent prepared for taking on a new project or position.  I was no different.  I sought to have all the details and be thoroughly knowledgeable about the dates of birth, marriage, death, Civil War service, explanations about moves to far away states and many more details.   I figured when I had all this information; I could write about my grandparents’ lives as an expert.  Having all “your ducks in a row” does not require courage or bravery.   The facts and detailed information provide a clear cover.

Missing Information

Alas!  I could not find all the information to explain why my grandfather left a wife pregnant with their sixth child, why he is missing from all the public records for almost fourteen years or why he moved from Nebraska to Oklahoma and then to New Mexico.  I now wanted to share the story, but there was so much missing information from the account that I wasn’t sure what would complete the tale.

I could write the story as fiction based on the true story as I knew it.  Write fiction!  I had never done that; I had only written non-fiction–professional papers and books.  I would need to learn how to be creative.  I didn’t think of myself as creative. Gilbert argues that if we are alive, we are creative.  It was scary for me to think about writing fiction when I knew nothing about this genre.  But Gilbert suggests that courage and bravery mean doing something scary.  Did I have the courage to bring this story forth in fiction?

Courage to Write Fictionreview smartphone android

I began going to workshops, reading, signing up for blogs and going to a writer’s conference and meeting with other authors.  I joined a writers group.  I learned about the publishing industry and writing fiction.  I was excited about everything I learned.  As I networked and met new colleagues, I needed a new identity.  Gilbert declares that defining yourself as a creative person begins by identifying yourself.  I started to say “I am a writer.”  As I called myself a writer, I found the courage to bring forth the fictionalized story of my grandparents which I hope to publish this year.

Have you avoided bringing forth your work?  How did you overcome your fear?  Have you thought of yourself as creative?  Courageous?

22 Mar

Finding Family Secrets

March 12 was Genealogy Day begun by Christ Church in Ireland in Ireland in 2013.  In celebration of the day, I offer a brief story of the sources I used in my own roots journey.  Not all genealogy sources are on-line.  Going on location, seeing actual gravesites and including others in your search such as museum and library staff or members of historical societies, can also lead to special assistance, new leads and the encouragement from those who love history and genealogy.  I hope that this story might inspire you to begin a search or look at alternative sources to help you put the pieces of your family puzzle together. 

Finding Family - 2

In the early years of my adult life balancing my roles as mother, spouse and professional, I didn’t have time to think about my ancestors or my family heritage.  I was too busy coping with carpool, making dinner or meeting the demands of my boss.  However, as I attended family gatherings and funerals when my parents or their siblings died, I began to hear interesting family myths and stories that intrigued me.   Others around me began pursuing their own family roots.  One of my aunts encouraged me to find information about her father, my grandfather, Harvey Depew Scott.  And my genealogical journey began.

Finding Family - 3It began at the National Archives in Washington, DC where I found thick files of correspondence, government forms and personal letters about my grandfather.  The National Archives is a treasure trove of fascinating information about veterans who have served in our armed forces as well as immigrants who arrived at the US borders from countries around the world seeking a better life. It is an excellent place to begin your own genealogy search.   I knew the surprising fact that my grandfather fought in the Civil War and my aunt had given me the data about his enlistment in the Union Army under a different name, John Howard Scott.  This enabled me to request the files and to be able to read through each valuable piece of information.

What I learned from those files, confirmed the whispered family secrets about John Howard Scott who changed his name to Harvey Depew Scott.  I learned where and when he was born, lived and died.  I now had enough information to search for more information about him and his ancestry.    Over the next several years, I traveled to many states in search of answers to my questions about his family of origin.  In Indiana where he was born, I visited the county courthouse and the local public library.  I learned about his father’s death when he was four and that his mother died in a poor house.  I found remote rural cemeteries where his uncle was buried; in the library, I discovered his uncle was a riverboat captain on the Mississippi River.  But I found nothing about how or when John Howard’s parents came to Indiana, nor could I find any information about his grandparents.

Now I was hooked.  Doing the research in family history is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.  As I found one piece of data, it would suggest other connections and often raise more questions.  I was on the search to find more pieces toFinding Family - 4 fit into the puzzle.  I combed through the US Census Data, traveled to other states where John Howard and later Harvey Depew lived.  I visited historical museums and requested help from local historical societies.  I even made copies of the whole file at the National Archives so I could review every detail.

I joined to see if anyone else might be researching the same family, hoping to find new information.  There were some other potential connections to John Howard Scott’s family but without documentation.  I have learned to beware of the validity of postings of family relationships based on family stories but without documentation.  So alas, I was not able to find documentation, confirmation or information to answer my questions.

My genealogical journey has been fascinating.  I wrote a detailed series of blogs about what I found called “Journey to Fiction”.  As that title suggests, I decided that I could best write the story as fiction, with the opportunity to be creative with the missing information.  I hope to publish the book, “Trust, Betrayal and Forgiveness: A Family Story” later this year. Have you searched for family history in your family?  What have you found?  What has been your experience doing genealogy?

Who Are Your Family Role Models and Inspiration?

In recognition of International Women’s Day, I honor my grandmothers and my aunts who have inspired me  and served as significant role models.

Schoolhouse, Old West, Plains


Years ago, one of my favorite aunts came for a visit when I was in my mid-thirties experiencing a low point in my life. She gave a life-long gift by reminding me of the role models I had in the strong women in my family. It was from them, I could always find inspiration and direction.

Both of my grandmothers had been school teachers. My paternal grandmother, Ellen, also became a school superintendent. Ellen was a great cheerleader and encouraged me to succeed in school, get good grades and go to college. My maternal grandmother, Grace, was disappointed that she had to give up teaching school to become a farmer’s wife. But she continued to read the Atlantic Monthly and other books and periodicals. She wrote letters about what she read and shared her opinions about the news and politics in letters to her daughters.

My aunt pointed out that both Ellen and Grace had significant challenges in their lives: Grace, reluctantly left school teaching which she loved to manage her husband’s family farm which she resented. She worked hard to survive the depression and the dust bowl. Ellen was left a widow when her youngest of five children was a few months old.

Ellen Scott, grandmother,

Ellen Scott, my grandmother, a teacher, and a strong role model.

Ellen, in particular has been an inspiration to me. I am currently writing a fictionalized story of her life. As a widow without a means of support, Ellen applied for widows benefits. The Government Agent who came in April of 1912 to interview her in person, filed a sensitive descriptive report (which I recovered from the National Archives). She was living in a tent south of Thedford, Nebraska where she had filed a land claim. He reports that

“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.”

This was the occasion when she learned that her husband had a former wife and family. The agent describes,

“until I informed her of the fact, claimant declares she had no knowledge of the existence of a former wife. Her grief and tears were convincing of the truth. She begged me not to tell anyone in her home neighborhood.”

This helps explain why no one in the family knew about a prior family. Ellen shared no information about him with her children. Despite her crippling rheumatoid arthritis, she pulled herself together; returned to teaching school; became a school superintendent; and raised her family. See my blog series, “A Journey to Fiction” on my genealogical journey to learn about my paternal grandparents.

Both Grace and Ellen were also models of strength, resilience and accomplishment for their daughters. All five of my aunts completed college educations at a time when the lack of financial resources and societies’ cultural norms were major deterrents. Yet, they were persistent and resourceful. They found work to pay their way. Between the first wave of feminism and the second, during my young adulthood, all these women had successful careers and raised a family. They worked hard and overcame many obstacles. To me they were pillars of strength and fortitude. They were role models of how to meet challenges and find a satisfying life.

These seven women have been my inspiration and my role models. I honor and pay tribute to them on International Women’s Day.

Who are the women role models in your family? How have they influenced and inspired you? Are there other strong women who have served as role models and inspired you?

7 Mar
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Book Review: “Online Marketing for Busy Authors” by Fauzia Burke

Reviewed by Bev Scott

Book Review - Online Marketing


This small book is packed with tips, advice, suggestions and literal steps to plan and implement a marketing plan for authors who know little or even hate marketing.  Fauzia Burke takes your hand and guides you step by step.  She begins with your dreams, helps you establish your priorities, tells you how to implement and closes with the importance of on-going sales monitoring of your published book.  She gives helpful tips and advice to implement an online marketing plan including a website, mailing list, blog and social media.  Her recommendations hold for first-time self-published authors as well as the experienced or traditionally published.

Ms. Burke has devoted her career to marketing authors and supports her advice by including stories of her coaching and support for authors.  She writes with a clear direct style that encourages me to sit down and follow her advice step by step.

I recommend this book for all of us who are authors resisting and reluctant to market ourselves and our books.  Burke provides an easy to guide to help us overcome our foot-dragging.  I am motivated get started creating the marketing plan for my book.

Author Website:

Reviewed by:  Bev Scott, March 7, 2016


23 Feb

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?

8 Feb

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.


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



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.

18 Jan

The Opportunity of Homesteading

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


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?

4 Jan

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.


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?

21 Dec

Imagining a Pioneering Christmas on the Prairie


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.


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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