Dakota Dreaming

I read the review of Brenda Marshall’s “Dakota, or What’s A Heaven For” in the Star Tribune on Sunday. As usual it was a fine article and it inspired me to purchase her book. (I really enjoy books that contain recollections from other North Dakotans.

As a former North Dakotan, I wasn’t surprised that the author who “knows and loves the prairies” had chosen to leave and now live in Michigan. That is the true story of our home state. It is a breeding ground for talented individuals, who when push comes to shove, are compelled to move on to greater opportunities. The beauty of the prairie, memories of family, and the generous strangers (that willingly drag you out of a snowdrift at two in the morning) are no match for the long hours and desolate conditions that lead, all too often, many of those weaker individuals that stay into a collision course with alcoholism and depression.

Over the course of two decades I have traced my kith and kin on journeys that began in Europe and moved from one place to another in the United States in search of dreams that were probably unrealistic at best. Along the way, they were the fodder that our nation grew from. Many arrived from the long sea voyage too trusting and were victimized by hucksters, rail barons, mine operators, real estate agents and bankers who understood that the true value of land was its’ ability to be sold over and over and over again to the next tenant farmer.

My personal genealogy covers many individuals. All of them have stories worth telling or at the very least remembering. They include stories of woman whose men folk were killed and were left penniless, then were forced to search for another desperate immigrant male, whose unfortunate spouse had also recently died (probably in a prairie child birth). The stories cry out from these women and children who were dragged from place to place and still struggled to maintain a sense of home where ever they went. Some of these women appeared to be a little less willing to go on. In one case a woman who when she arrived on a train in Barnes County in 1881, saw from the train door a flat treeless land. She screamed that it looked like a “horrible hell” and refused to disembark. She was later dragged off the train and was escorted to a homestead just east of Valley City.

Actually the early immigrants were the lucky ones, those arriving late in the homesteading land rush had to console themselves with what has been described in some books, as the “homesteader’s booby prize” – northeastern Montana and southern Saskatchewan.

We, the displaced North Dakotan’s, inherited our “wanderlust” honestly from the blood and sweat of generations that could see across the vast empty prairie to the next piece of land, where the rain would fall as needed and the crops would rise from fertile soil in the early warm spring.

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