Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Everett Dick, The Sod-House Frontier, 1854-1890

2nd edition, 1954
First published in 1937, this classic social history of the first decades of settlement in Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas is informative, entertaining, and sometimes poignant. It’s also one heck of a read. For anyone whose knowledge of this period is as limited as mine, it's also full of surprises – lots of them.

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.

1979 edition
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.

The Sod-House Frontier is currently available at amazon, and AbeBooks.
Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon's Mines (1885)


  1. If you're interested in this era, and want to hear it from a woman's point of view, I strongly recommend Mari Sandoz's Old Jules. It is an incredible social history (consistent with Sod-House Frontier) but also a gripping personal story.

  2. Cheyenne, it's definitely not LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

    Vernoica, you are right about Mari Sandoz. And her work needs a wider audience.

  3. Read this years ago and had it on the shelf, but need a new copy. Books like this or Rolf's HAPPY AS A BIG SUNFLOWER can't be beat --real history from real people. Which naturally means they come complete with the biases, lies, truths and revelations of us all. Hard to package, hard to brand, but wonderfully authentic.

  4. I definitely don't know much about that period, and probably should since it was a period that helped shape my parents pretty strongly.

  5. I read so many books when I was researching my historical mystery, KANSAS DREAMER: Fury in Sumner County, I don't know how I missed this one. Will have to check it. I spent hours in small-town, So. Kansas libraries and museums. Fascinating period in American history, and for the women's side: Yea Sandoz!

  6. I thing the Wilder family lived in a sod house. I'll steal this one.

  7. The wife's from Kansas, so will have to have it, not for her, for me.

  8. Really amazing, at least from a 21st century perspective, the sacrifices people were willing to accept in order to have that piece of land and the supposed freedom and security it provided.

  9. I always feel smarter after reading one of your reviews.

  10. Richard, nicely put.

    Charles, a lot of it finds its way into DEADWOOD, especially the prevalence of scams, graft, and fraud.

    Kae, I applaud your efforts to redress the imbalance.

    Patti, my daughter would know the answer to that; she read all the Little House books.

    Oscar, you may find your wife's folks in it...

    Richard R., free land must have had immense drawing power, felt all the way to Europe.

    Evan, what can I say? I've been a teacher most of my life, even when I wasn't.