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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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