|2nd edition, 1954|
Historian Everett Dick dips into a substantial collection of documents, listed in his 10-page bibliography, organizing what he's found into 35 chapters. Each is dedicated to a separate topic: the sod house of the title, homesteading, prairie towns, vigilante justice, farmers vs. cattlemen, extremes of weather, Indians, hunting and trapping, the railroad, sports, education, the church, journalism, doctors, lawyers, and entertainment. And that covers only about half of them.
Settlement during this period moved quickly and furiously across the Missouri River, while the federal government was still negotiating the relocation of the native residents. Then it spread across the territories in a surge of speculation and rapid development in a series of booms and busts.
|Sod house, North Dakota, 1898|
Cliches and stereotypes from movies and television quickly fall left, right, and center, as the author revels in a catalog of human endeavors portrayed against a raw, still alien landscape. Law and order were mostly nonexistent, and a recurring theme in the book is the frequency of scams, fraud, graft, and chicanery of all kinds. In such an environment, the carrying of weapons was universal, and differences of opinion were normally settled with bloodshed and no questions asked afterwards.
There is the land rush, featuring claim jumpers and speculators with no interest in tilling the soil or putting down roots but turning a quick buck, usually in total violation of whatever law existed at the time. There are the wildcat banks, printing their own money, all of it eventually worthless to those left holding it. And there are the crooked investment schemes that raised capital for towns that were never built.
|Sod house, Kansas, late 19th century|
Prairie communities lured railroad companies to build lines in their direction with outlays of cash. Elections were rigged, bribes paid, and blood spilled over the location of county seats. Phony local governments elected themselves into office. Then, after borrowing money for public projects, they absconded with the funds and left the area's legitimate settlers under a crushing load of debt. And on and on. It's an account of the frontier as a kind of bonfire of vanities.
The book is also absorbing in its descriptions of daily life. Here we find ordinary folks, who are typically jacks of all trades, short of cash, either hard-working or hard-drinking, often overwhelmed by the isolation of their circumstances. It's finally a relief to read of country pleasures and small-town pastimes, from baseball to dances that went on until sunup.
Despite its length (550 pages), the book rather neglects the lives of women. And while it seems to want to give a balanced view of Indians, it tends to focus its interests elsewhere. Those faults aside, the book is a page-turner, especially for anyone who, as I did, grew up in this part of the world with only a glimmer of an idea of its actual history.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines (1885)