Skip to main content

Dakota Country

July 2024
19min read

It’s the invisible something in a picture which makes it a good one. The feeling yon have when you think of those mysterious people … ,” Harvey Dunn liked to tell his painting classes back in the 1930’s. By that time he had been a successful illustrator for many years, but the special quality he tried to achieve is less apparent in his commercial, polished works than in his paintings of old Dakota Territory, where his parents were ox-team land-seekers and where he was born in a homesteader’s shack.

Dunn’s Dakota paintings are frankly literary; they tell a story and evoke something of the mystery he saw in his people. One of the most fondly and evocatively painted is his In Search of the Land of Milk and Honey , a picture of a worn covered wagon with a woman and a baby in the seat, a trail-gaunted man walking beside the oxen. These home-seekers are plainly better equipped than many, not only in material possessions—a bald-faced saddle horse tied beside the wagon, and in the back a sod-buster, a store-bought walking plow—but also in their readiness for the new country. This is suggested tangibly by the water barrel and intangibly by the entire bearing and being within the picture. The man’s face is up, his eyes squinting into the distant horizon, although the grass is already dense and deep, excellent for livestock and for prairie fires in the western winds. But he plods firmly on, knowing what he wants, a true man, going out to make a place for himself and his family.

Somewhere, some evening, he will drop the wagon tongue with finality and water and hobble his stock while his wife bends over a fire of buffalo chips, cooking the supper. Afterward they will lean against a wagon wheel, the baby at the woman’s breast, and look out over the prairie gilded by a sky blazing beyond anything they ever saw in the country behind them, in any country. The man may test the grass with his teeth, consider last year’s sunflower stalks to gauge the earth’s fertility, the height he can expect his corn lo grow. Perhaps he will drag the spade from the wagon, strike it deep into the earth, try a ball of the soil in his hand, and perhaps nod to himself.

If the decision is against the location, they will head westward again in the morning, usually traveling the higher ground, looking for corner stakes if the land has been surveyed, for other settlers, for water perhaps, and a little timber, but mainly for a likely plot of farmland. The region of this and the other pictures reproduced here resembles that of Harvey Dunn’s native Kingsbury County, which lies principally on the divide between the Big Sioux and the James, or Jim, rivers, a ragged line of glacial moraines or coteaux that mark the fringes of the latest glacier. The home-seeker’s wagon rides the ridges like the gray wolf traveling them, hunting both ways and ready to dodge out of sight in either direction. There might be Indians, as in the war of 1864 along the overland trails and for generations down on the southern Plains, the country of the Comanches and their neighbors, well-schooled by the early Spaniards in raiding and the taking of captives for ransom. Generally the danger was slight, nothing compared to the scare stories in the newspapers that pulled up every canard to promote circulation or to further the business of the army contractors fattening on Indian alarms.

But no scare really stopped the boomer, the home-seeker. It was reported that eight million acres of the public domain were “entered” in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the year before Harvey Dunn was born, even though the papers were full of rumors of Sitting Bull’s surly restlessness on the reservation located practically in the middle of the Territory. Most of the settlers had found no greater menace than the boundless sea of unmarked prairie, at least not until the blizzard hazes began to whiten the horizon. To be sure, there was always the problem of food, illustrated by Something for Supper . Sensibly, Dunn has the boomer’s outfit stopped back on a rise, so as not to scare the game. The man in the foreground has a wild fowl in his hand, a bird large enough to be a wild turkey or a sage hen. His old muzzle-loader is up, ready for anything that might flush from the deep grass all around.

When the Dunns came to Dakota in 1881, the buffalo was gone from that region. Settlers in northwest Dakota and in Montana might find remnants of the great northern herd if they could beat the hide men to them, or be lucky enough to come upon the carcasses freshly killed, with only the skins gone and the meat left to rot on the prairie. The early settlers learned the Indian way of preserving the meat, cutting it in Hakes no thicker than the edge of a woman’s hand, to dry quickly in the constant wind. Well dried, the meat kept for months and was good boiled with a touch of prairie onion or garlic; with vegetables it made an excellent boiled dinner or a meat pie. Sometimes it was chopped into corn meal mush for scrapple, until there was pork. Lambs-quarter, wild everywhere, or turnip and radish greens cooked in the meat broth made a good spring dish, sometimes served with homemade vinegar from wild currant, plum, or grape juice and the vinegar mother carried west in a bottle. For years some early settlers had no fat except buffalo tallow, using it for frycakes and doughnuts, dipped candles, waterproofing cowhide boots and shoes, and greasing paper or flour-sacking tacked over the window hole until glass could be managed.

Long after the buffalo was gone an occasional elk remained in the breaks; deer were common in the canyons and buckbrush stretches, and the elegant-throated antelope on the prairie. Even when the wild turkey disappeared, there were grouse, prairie chickens, quail, and cottontail rabbits. Ducks nested around the prairie lakes and marshes, and the fall sky was clouded with migratory flocks—several varieties of geese among the curious, winding flights of the sandhill cranes and the veering ducks. With a gun, powder, and shot, or a shot mold, a man could provide his family with meats a king would envy. And if the powder became too scarce in the hard times that sent the home-seekers west, a clever man or boy could snare or trap grouse and prairie chickens, and catch rabbits in deadfalls or—before barbed wire was invented—twist them out of their holes with a doubled length of wire armed with a few hooks.

Good hunters close to a railroad might ship frozen ducks and grouse by the barrel to jobbers in Kansas City, Chicago, or St. Paul. Winters they could take wolf, coyote, skunk, badger, ermine (winter weasel), and perhaps fox. There were a few otter, some beaver, and a quantity of mink along the streams, and muskrats by the thousands in the lakes and marshes. Indians paid what they could for an occasional golden eagle to get the “breath feathers,” the delicate white-fluffed ones under the tail, for the finest headdresses.

The three immediate needs of the newcomer were food, shelter, and water, the last usually the most urgent, with perhaps barely a drying buffalo wallow in the township. Many settlers hauled their water ten or twelve miles while they hurriedly sank a well, perhaps one like that in Dunn’s painting, Woman at the Pump , which recalls a remark once common over the Plains: “Nothing’s prettier than a girl pumping water in the wind.”

The pump, the lead trough, and the two tubs (a barrel sawed in hall) are all homemade. The pile of worn, rounded stones from some glacial deposit suggests that the well was difficult to dig, and probably deep. Many were too deep for any girl to pump. While the Plains had excellent water tables, there were spots, from Montana and the bonanza wheat country of the Red River down into Oklahoma and Texas, where good water sand was three to five hundred feet down.

Bad well regions attracted water witches, dowsers who grasped their peach-tree or willow forks by the two thin ends and plodded impressively over the ground until the stem end dipped down. Some early settlers in the West made great reputations with their water witching until it was discovered that they were working in regions where a spade sunk into the ground anywhere would strike a good water table.

With so many novices digging wells, accidents were inevitable,∗ particularly when the greenhorns deserted the land and left the wells open. One of these was in Custer County, Nebraska. While driving across an empty and unfamiliar prairie in the night, F. W. Carlin found a deserted sod shack. As he turned his team around it, one of the horses lost footing for an instant. Carlin got out of the wagon to investigate and stepped off into space, into an old well, deep but fortunately with mud and water in the bottom. Stunned, he managed to stand up, in water to his armpits, inside a curbing about three feet across. One small star shone down from far, far away.

∗ The writer’s father was crippled for life in a well-digging accident.

Chilled, in pain from a sprained ankle and a broken rib, the man managed to work a board out of the rotting, slimy old curbing. He pushed it into the cracks across a corner and crouched upon it, waiting for dawn. If his wife and baby were ever to hear from him again he must work himself out with his pocketknife. There was no one to answer his shouts.

The first light of day showed that he was perhaps 150 feet down a smooth well; his swollen ankle was unable to bear any weight. All day he cut pieces out of the curbing with his jackknife and pushed them across the corners for steps until his hands were torn and bleeding. But he made fifty feet and built a perch of crosspieces safe enough to hold him provided he could stay awake. The next day he worked himself up to the end of the curbing and hacked steps into the crumbling clay walls, bracing himself across the three-foot hole as he eased himself from one toehold to the next. Near the top he reached a four-foot piece of round curbing; it was half loose, and small enough to slip down the hole if he put any weight upon it. Somehow he dug around behind it and pulled himself up over the caving edge of the well and out. Exhausted and thankful, he clutched the weeds and sod with his bloody hands and finally let himself sleep.

In the late 1870’s windmills came into use on the Plains, first the homemade ones that almost anyone could afford, later the manufactured product. But there were still pretty girls pumping water.

Unmarried women were scarce in the early West, and certainly the one in Dunn’s Bringing Home the Bride seems a stranger to the land around her as she sits desolately alone on the wagon seat while her man walks beside his oxen with whipstock up, a dark and foreboding sky over them both. Perhaps the young woman is from the Old Country—Ireland, Scotland, Germany, or Sweden—one of those who promised to wait while her man went to find a home, singing jubilantly as he departed for America:

The clover there grows nine feet tall, There’s buttered bread and cheese for all.

But many girls never waited. The bride in the old wagon may have been a compromise, a young woman ignored in the home community, but now, out where there were no others, she would do. Taking advantage of an unexpected bargaining position, some brides demanded their grooms’ allegiance to the new reform movements, such as the W.C.T.U., and to the woman suffrage that was to make their aims realities. Many men, even if they had avoided taking on the “vile wilderness habits,” as some called them, had to promise that after marriage they would never drink, chew, smoke, play cards, or swear. Where towns, even saloons, were far away and money scarce, strong drink was easily avoided. To quit chewing tobacco was harder, for the mouth dried in the dusty fields. The desperate man might chew grass or bitter willow and cottonwood leaves or even coffee to stave oft the craving, send away for some advertised sure cure for tobacco, or just sneak an occasional plug of Battle Axe and face the anger and tears of the betrayed.

“We married anything that got off the railroad,” old-timers used to say, and so the bride in the wagon with the wobbly front wheel might be a mail-order woman obtained through one of the heart-and-hand papers. In the settlement days most patrons of such papers actually sought marriage partners, stretching the truth a little about age, appearance, and wealth, naturally, but few had any intention, as many seem to have nowadays, of luring the lonely out of their pitiful little savings, perhaps their lives. Sometimes the mail-order woman did sell the railroad ticket sent to her and did not come, but if the U.S. mails were involved there might be trouble. Most of the women came, and many of these unions, bound by mutual need and dependence, founded excellent families.

Of course there was nothing to compel the mail-order wife to stay except the long distances to the stagecoach or railroad. There are stories of extreme measures being used, such as rope or locked leg hobbles, but the more common and efficacious expedient was early pregnancy.

It is not surprising that the bride from settled regions, often the product of Victorian sheltering, was shocked by her new home, at best a frame or log shack with cracks that let in the blizzard winds. More often it was a soddy or a dugout in a hillside, with a dirt floor and the possibility of wandering stock falling through the roof. Yet many fine Americans were born in dugouts: senators, oil magnates, doctors, writers, stockmen, and preachers—all kinds of people.

Whether the bride came by mail order, by compromise, or as a childhood sweetheart, she might leave, with or without her husband. Usually only one in four settlers remained to patent the land; in more difficult regions and times, only one in ten or even fifteen. Among those who normally drifted to the frontier were the maladjusted, the misfits—economic, social, or emotional—both men and women. Many of these, unsettled by hardship and isolation, ended in institutions or in suicide if they did not move on or flee back to relatives or in-laws. If the young bride stayed, she was faced by drought, grasshoppers, and ten-cent corn, sometimes followed by the banker’s topbuggy come to attach the mortgaged oxen, the horses, the children’s milk cow. The woman might turn to politics, to the Populists as did Mary Elizabeth Lease, who told Kansas farmers to “raise less corn and more hell,” or follow the suffragettes stumping the West, encouraged by Wyoming, which gave women the vote in 1869. Almost certainly she would work for school, church, lyceums, or Chautauqua, and for better roads to town. In the end the woman might be weather-beaten as an old boot top but standing firm with her husband and children, grown strong together while overcoming the calamities that dog the vulnerable. In the end the man in Dunn’s painting might receive the final accolade for a good husband: “He never laid a hand on his wife.”

“I Am the Resurrection and the Life ” shows a settler’s graveyard, typically located in a wasted fence corner and on a rise, so the man could look out over the country he picked to die in, as some used to say.

With no nurses or doctors, serious accidents and illnesses like typhoid or diphtheria brought out the more courageous to nurse the patient, finally to lay him out if he died. While someone hammered a coffin together, others dug the grave. In winter they might wait until the weather moderated and got up around zero before they started the fire of buffalo chips to thaw out the gravesite.

Women brought their best: a kettle of beans, a venison roast with a wild salad, chicken, frycakes, light bread, dried apple pie and preserves, or a pail of butter to be kept firm in the well hole. They brought enough cooked food so the mourning wife or mother would have nothing familiar to occupy her hands but must hold them in her lap clutching a handkerchief, very white against her black dress—at least at black as a fast boil in the dye kettle could make it.

The men gathered outside, some red-eyed from sitting up with the body. Finally six of them, the number eked out with women if necessary, moved to the house, awkwardly, dressed as decently as could be, in neck-banded old white shirts, suit coats, and overalls or old army pants, their plow shoes blackened with soot from stove lids. They brought the coffin out on their shoulders and set it into a wagon or on a boxless chassis. The slow cortege started oft across the open prairie or through the snow and along the windswept ridges. At the open grave a preacher stepped forward. Failing a preacher, someone knowledgeable, perhaps a woman, read from a wind-whipped pocket Bible or prayer book, or improvised a few words, the little knot of people standing with sunburnt faces down.

In warm seasons the rounded grave might be covered by drooping wreaths of the wild flowers that were such a glory on the virgin prairies: wild plum and chokecherry of incomparable white sweetness; the daisies; wild roses; golden banner and purple sweet-peas; the old maids’ faces and black-eyed Susans; pentstemon; mariposa lilies; locoweed; goldenrod and asters or the great pale waxy spikes of yucca bloom. In winter there might be wreaths of cedar or pine or yucca, sometimes decorated with paper flowers, particularly from the Catholics. They liked to make flowers for their little churches—built of sod, maybe, but it was God’s earth—and for the little altars in their homes, if only a spray of paper roses and a flame of tallow in an upturned buffalo horn before a holy picture.

Young Harvey was four when the Dunns moved down a buffalo trail, the house drawn on four wagons by a long string of oxen leaning into their yokes. He saw a field laid out over the trail as in Buffalo Bones Are Plowed Under , although most of the bones must have been gone long before then. As droughts and hard times settled in, the homesteaders became bone-pickers, scouring the prairie and selling the bones by the wagonload at the railroad. There the ricks sometimes lengthened into half a mile or more, gleaming white as a great snowbank from a distance until empty freights came along. The bones were used in the manufacture of such items as phosphorus, fertilizer, and the bone china that women like those in Dunn’s paintings must have hoped to own some day.

Corn and potatoes were dropped where the bones once lay, sometimes right behind the plow. More often corn was planted with a spade later by a man or woman with an apron or bag tied on for the seed. At every other short step the spade was thrust down into the sod, worked sideways to widen the slit, two kernels of corn dropped in, the spade swung out, and the foot brought down on the cut to seal it. All day long the field was crossed in the rhythmic swing of step and thrust. Millions of acres were planted this way, sometimes with beans and pumpkin seeds mixed with the corn for a stretch. Some tried seeding flax just before a rain and were rewarded at blooming time by an expanse as blue as fallen sky.

Next year the sod was backset, good for small grain, particularly the newer varieties of wheat broadcast on the plowing from a bag slung under one arm, much like the figure of The Sower on the tower of the Nebraska state capital. The seed was covered by a harrow or drag. Lacking a harrow, a heavily branched tree, a hackberry perhaps, could be dragged over the ground by patient oxen.

Most of the Plains region needed the moisture of deep snow to make a good crop, but the storms could be very dangerous. In Dunn’s After the Blizzard a man is shoveling a path shoulder-deep from his doorway through iron-hard drifts. A woman is standing on top of one, looking over the unbroken glare of whiteness. The storm seems a moderate one for Dakota, not up to those of 1880, 1887, or 1888—the one that the four-year-old Harvey must have heard called the school children’s blizzard because so many pupils, some little older than he, died in it.

New settlers were usually not prepared to believe the reports of Dakota winters, meaning those of all the upper Plains. They didn’t understand the unusualness of arctic owls suddenly appearing like silver ghosts during the warm fall weather. In January, 1887, after such a fall, the mercury dropped to forty below and disappeared into the thermometer bulb. The drifts covered many of the settlers’ homes. Wells had to be dug out, although most of the homesteaders melted snow, even for their few head of stock, perhaps taking the more valuable horse or cow into the soddy or dugout and then watching the nights through to keep the stove from being knocked over.

The storm lasted two weeks, the sun coming through now and then, cold and bleak as a poker chip of ice until the wind lifted the snow again in a ground blizzard that cut the face and drove the starving cattle on into the deepening drifts. A train tried to buck the snow with nine engines and failed, drifting over. When the newspapers came out again, they reported sixty people found dead and no telling how many more the circling buzzards would find when the thaw came. Suddenly one night a chinook arrived, the wind warm to the cheek, the snow making the soft little sounds of melting. Now the eaves were running, after everything had been frozen. One woman did save her rose geranium by wrapping it in a tablecloth with her bread starter and taking them both to bed with her.

But ’87 was only a foretaste of 1888. The warm, hushed hours of January 12 suddenly turned to a roaring icy blast out of the North. The storm seems to have reached most of the upper Plains about the same time, around three or four o’clock in the afternoon, when the school children were starting home, many afoot, over miles of open prairie. Accounts of the lost ones came in from everywhere. A pathetic story from Dodge County, Nebraska, told of two sisters, thirteen and eight, who died on their way home. The older girl had taken off her wraps to put around her sister. (The writer used to know a song written about the two girls, with the refrain: “Dying in the night and tempest; dying in the cru-el snow.”)

Where the blizzard started earlier, some teachers kept the children at school, some tied them together and managed to reach a nearby house, but these were the fortunate ones. Others died with their pupils. Young Harvey must have heard many stories, particularly the one of a school in Jerauld County, not over fifty miles from the Dunn home. The schoolhouse was about 140 yards from a settler’s place, with a stack of flax straw about go yards beyond that. When the fuel was gone, the teacher lined the pupils up with an older boy in the lead and headed toward the settler’s house, invisible in the driving storm. They lost what had been a path, missed a footbridge, and plunged into the soft, bottomless drifts of the deep ravine. At last they all got out, choked, exhausted, so cold that the younger ones were trying to drop into the sleep of freezing. The teacher and the boy kept them moving until they struck the straw pile and dug in, knowing that they had missed the house by perhaps not more than eight or ten feet but too worn to struggle back even if they had known the direction. Hurriedly they clawed into the stack as deep as possible, with the boy at the entrance, calling out and listening for a reply. Huddled close together, the rest kept awake by talking, singing, even laughing between the tears. Before dawn the storm thinned enough for a glimpse of the house through the flying snow. The boy stumbled out and brought help. All were frostbitten, the boy’s feet so badly that the flesh fell off in places. One small girl lost both of her feet, amputated to save her life.

The most appalling story came from Running Water, Dakota Territory, where, it seems, the teacher left the schoolhouse with nine pupils. Their bodies were found scattered over the prairie some time after the storm cleared.

When the sun came out over the Plains it brought one of the prairie marvels, a winter mirage. Here a house, there a hill or a clump of trees, actually far below the horizon, suddenly stood tall and shimmering in the clear morning air that danced over the mountainous drifts. Gradually it was discovered from the Omaha, Denver, and Chicago papers that over two hundred people had lost their lives in that short, swift storm. It seemed that the local newspapers spoke mainly of the blizzard’s brevity, not of the dead. Perhaps they were afraid of alarming next spring’s emigrants and cutting down on the boom.

Before the snowbanks were gone from the gullies, the spring winds brought such scenes as Dunn’s Dust . It was an old story. In 1835 Henry Dodge and his Dragoons churned mud from the Missouri River most of the way up the Platte. In the 1840’s the overlanders on the same route couldn’t see the sun for days through the dust, could scarcely breathe. The dust was stirred up, old-timers said, by ground winds in the Southwest, meaning winds that struck the earth at a downward angle and boiled up great moving walls of it from the bare stretches.

The strong winds drove not only dust but prairie fires, particularly in long grass country. The worst were in the fall, set by carelessness or malice, by late lightning, or by sparks from the railroad. Sometimes the nights were reddened almost around the horizon. In the fall of 1885 there was scarcely a day before the snow came to Dakota that there wasn’t the pearling smoke of a prairie fire in the sky. Much stock was destroyed, hay burned by the hundreds of tons, and range areas larger than the New England states went up in smoke. That year Sitting Bull warned some white children they could not run away from a fire. “Go on bare ground, sand, gravel, plowing. Or set a backfire. Go on a place with no grass and do not run.”

But perhaps the worst case of running from a prairie fire did not occur in Sitting Bull’s country at all. Back in October, 1873, in the settled region of Saline County, Nebraska, the wind swept the smoke of a great fire toward a schoolhouse. One mother hurried over and against the teacher’s most earnest objections, took her children and those related to her away. They tried to run before the fire and fell, one alter the other, the mother too in her efforts to save them. All ten children and the mother died several days later. The teacher and the pupils who remained with her were safe on a nearby plowed field. Ironically, the schoolhouse was untouched by the fire.

Some of these things could be in the mind of Dunn’s Pioneer Woman , but there is lightness and humor in the authentic presentation of the combination dugout and soil house in the background. The leaning stovepipe is wired to stand up against the Dakota winds, white chickens spill down the slope, the garden plot has a wheelbarrow beside it, the bed is made from an old salt barrel. There is alertness in the lace of the handsome young woman with her fingers on the hoc handle, her eyes far-away but confident, unafraid. Perhaps she knows that an Indian suddenly looking in at her window would he no reason for stuffing her small child under the bed and sending boiling water or a charge of buckshot into his face. Probably she realizes that to the Plains Indian good manners demand that he look in on newcomers to see how it is with them.

Or maybe the young woman is thinking of a little diversion, a pie social, square dance, play or literary party, or a shivaree, and even a feather stripping for the young couple to be shivareed, if it turns out they have only a cornhusk or cottonwood-leaf tick for a mattress. White chicken feathers stripped of the quills would be much softer. The young people would gather around a table or on the floor, each with an inverted plate or pie pan. A good handful of the feathers would be slipped out of the sack and tinder each plate. With a knife or piece of edged flint the fluffy part of one leather after another would be stripped off and stuffed into a covered bucket in the center of the group. Tricksters might blow into the bucket and send the light, downy fronds flying over the room, to be gathered up with laughter, cries, and pell-mell scurrying.

Perhaps the young prairie wife yearned, now and then, for the lights of Fargo, Omaha, or St. Paul, or the wicked Deadwood, but apparently she stayed, for she reminds one of the woman in Old Settlers . There is much of Harvey Dunn’s own story in this painting, his story and that of his parents, in an interview with Ernest W. Watson in the American Artist , June, 1942, he describes his lather’s claim shack as seven by nine feet; it became the lean-to when a twelve by sixteen foot building with a not oversized attic was added. Cottonwood and box ciders were planted north of the house. In the painting the trees are gnarled and dying, the house shabby but still solid, as the two who lived so much of their lives here are solid. The woman is gray but still ready to put on her best, with white collar and jabot and the white apron of the Sunday hostess. The man’s profile seems an aged version of Harvey Dunn’s lather as he looks fondly toward the woman. Perhaps he remembers the day in 1884 when lie went to town with his yoke of steers to buy the customary gift for a wife having a child—a sewing machine. The next day young Harvey was born.

The two old settlers are vigorous and alive, wiry and windburned, and although they did not think of themselves as pioneers back in the 1880’s, now they epitomize the homesteaders who tamed the wilderness. As is inevitable, they have been marked a little by the conquered. Something of the strong, untamed land lives in them and in their children and holds them, as it held Harvey Dunn, although he traveled over all the world. In a letter to H. Dean Stallings, Librarian, Memorial Library, South Dakota State College, he wrote: “I find that I prefer painting pictures of early South Dakota life to any oilier kind, which would seem to point to the lad that my search of other horizons has led me around to my first.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.