Homesteading in Nebraska and Kansas

Like the immigrants who came from Europe in the early 17th and 18th centuries, whom you read about in History 121, the pioneers who set out across the prairies were hardy folk.  Leaving behind lives that were often intolerable, and they were searching for something better, and they endured conditions that we can hardly imagine.  Nevertheless they persevered—building homes, raising families, creating small settlements that grew into villages and towns. The most overwhelming feature of the Plains states for the new settlers was size; they could see for miles and miles, and families were so isolated that they might go days or longer without encountering another person outside their own households. The northern Great Plains are still sparsely settled; in Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Nebraska, there are only a few cities with populations over 50,000.

The personal testimonies below give you an indication of how tough that life could be. The documents have been edited and corrected for brevity and clarity.

[15 May 1870, Lake Sibley, Nebraska] What shall I say? Why has the Lord brought us here? Oh, I felt so oppressed, so unhappy! Two whole days it took us to get here and they were not the least trying part of our travels. We sat on boards in the work-wagon packed in so tightly that we could not move a foot, and we drove across endless, endless prairies, on narrow roads, no, not roads, tracks like those in the fields at home when we harvested grain. No forest, but only a few trees which grow along the rivers and creeks. And then here and there you see a homestead and pass a little settlement. The Indians are not so far away from here, I can understand, and all the men you see coming by, riding or driving wagons, are armed with revolvers and long carbines, and look like highways robbers.

[July 1870] Claus and his wife lost their youngest child at Lake Sibley and it was very sad in many ways. There was no real cemetery but out on the prairie stood a large, solitary tree, and around it they bury their dead, without tolling of bells, without a pastor, and sometimes without any coffin. A coffin was made here for their child, it was not painted black, but we lined it with flowers and one of the men read the funeral service, and then there was a hymn, and that was all.

[Manhattan, Kansas, 25 August 1874] Beloved Mamma, It has been a long time since I have written, hasn't it? ... When one never has anything fun to write about, it is no fun to write.... We, have not had rain since the beginning of June, and then with this heat and often strong winds as well, you can imagine how everything has dried out. There has also been a general lamentation and fear for the coming year. We are glad we have the oats (for many don't have any and must feed wheat to the stock) and had hoped to have the corn leaves to add to the fodder. But then one fine day there came millions, trillions of grasshoppers in great clouds, hiding the sun, and coming down onto the fields, eating up everything that was still there, the leaves on the trees, peaches, grapes, cucumbers, onions, cabbage, everything, everything. Only the peach stones still hung on the trees, showing what had once been there.

A Prairie Childhood, Myrtle Lobdell Fogelburg

When I was only a baby we came to Butler County among the earliest settlers. And it is there that my memory of pioneer days and ways centers. My memories must be childish memories for I grew up with that country and before I had reached maturity the country was hearing the fruits of pioneer sowing.

Children were particularly valued in the frontier family, isolated as it was from distant relatives and past friends. With their easy laughter, the children brought humor to difficult times; with their energy, they brought lively companionship; with their developing strength, they brought helping hands to the family's labor. Altogether, they provided a comforting source of family continuity and security. "I recall when the last three babies were born," wrote one mother, "each time I thought, 'This is the nicest baby of all,' and from the way they were received into the family circle everyone else would have said the same."

For children of all ages, the daily work load was both physically demanding and time-consuming. For the younger ones, there were the daily chores of carrying water buckets, gathering buffalo chips and picking wild fruits. In later years they joined in the heavier work of plowing and planting, building fences and cabins, trapping small animals and helping about the house.

For the most part, child labor was divided according to the traditional roles of the sexes. While girls assisted their mothers with the regular household tasks, their brothers farmed the fields with their fathers. These working roles remained flexible, however. When the need arose, the girls, like their mothers, pitched in with the heavy farm work. Furthermore, during hard times sons and daughters alike often sought employment on neighboring homesteads or in nearby towns in order to provide the family with extra income.

Mary Alice Zimmerman:  “I can well remember of the early-day struggles. The soil was virgin. It had to be broken, turned, stirred and taught to produce. With the simple means of the time, the process was slow, but the women bore their half of the load.

"I helped my father on the farm and learned to do the work pretty well, as I was strong for a girl. I soon preferred to have a team to myself when possible. I have always loved the great open out-of-doors, and I think that it was as much from choice as from necessity that I was much of the time out on the farm at work with father, as the younger girls could help mother. But I loved to work with mother and loved her way of making a home.

"Father sent me out one spring day to plant castor beans along the hedge to keep the moles away. He gave me about one gallon of seeds and a sharpened stick. As I look back now, I think it was to have been an all-day job; but, thanks to my ignorance, I found that I could press the stick quite deep into the wet soil, thus could put a lot of seeds in one hole, so was soon through. I never will forget the queer smile on his face when I returned with the empty bag."

Bessie: "One summer when my father had a bunch of twenty-five or thirty shoats and no corn to feed them, my brother and I herded them around over the farm wherever there was anything to be found that a hog could eat. After wheat harvest we herded them in the stubble field. How tired we were sometimes and how sore the stubble made our feet! We had several of the hogs names, and I used to make my brother believe that they were talking when they grunted, and I being able to understand their hog latin would interpret to him. When these hogs were marketed, we were rewarded for our labors by each being presented with a saddle father had ordered for us from Montgomery Ward & Co."

Margaret Mitchell Womer: "There were nine children in our family, six girls and three boys, and as the girls were older and my father not strong, the hard toil of the pioneer life fell to the lot of the girls. We used to set traps on the banks of the Republican and caught wolves, badgers, bobcats and skunks. Wild turkeys were very plentiful then and we sometimes used traps to catch them.

"We had some very interesting and thrilling experiences with some of the animals we caught. One day an older sister and I were out looking at our traps and noticed that a big bobcat that was caught had climbed a tree with the chain hanging to him. I sat and watched him while my sister went for a gun and shot him. Another time we killed a mother wolf and later caught her four little cubs that had fallen into a shallow well while trying to find her. One of my sisters was coming from an errand across the river, when she saw five big wolves chasing a wounded buffalo. They sat on one side of the path and watched her pass, but made no effort to harm her. We saw many large herds of buffalo as they came to the river to drink, and occasionally were able to shoot one.

"Our house was made of logs, and the girls all helped with the construction of it. The cave we made ourselves, and were justly proud of the work, for no one in our neighborhood had a better one.

"We made vinegar out of melon juice and tapped box-elder trees for sap to make syrup and it really was very good. We also kept a supply of skunk grease on hand in case of croup among the younger children. There were lots of fish in the river and my sister and I became quite expert in catching them.

Annie Gilkeson: “Our house stood near a little town called Easton, close beside the road which was the main highway leading to the far West, twelve miles from Leavenworth, then the largest town in the territory. The house was a good one, considering the time and place. It was really two log houses joined together by boards. One house was two stories high, and the other was only one story. The distance between the two was sufficient to make a large room, which was used for an entrance. A small cabin was attached to the rear for a kitchen. ...

"Very early in the spring, people began to travel westward to locate new homes. As our place happened to be a convenient stopping point for the first day's drive out from Leavenworth, and there was no hotel in Easton, they just settled down on us like the hordes of hungry grasshoppers which came later. So now commenced the martyrdom of my dear mother, which ended in the tragedy of her early death. She worked day and night to care for and feed these hungry people. I, then a child of eleven years, was her only assistance, as no other help could be obtained for love or money.

"One day, my mother went to town, leaving mein charge of the place. She expected to be away only during the noonday meal and thought I could put off anyone who might chance to come. All was quiet at the house. So, with my two smll sisters, I went out nearby to gather wild strawberries, which grew in profusion. I was busy with the berries when I heard someone speak to me. Looking up, I saw a man. He said that he wanted something to eat; also, that at the house there were a number of others in the same condition. I told him my mother was away and that I could not serve them. He insisted that I could find something for them.

"So, I gathered up all I could find to eat in the house, and set it before them. I made for them, I remember, my first coffee. With much misgiving, in regard to its quality, I served it to them. But they all praised it, said it was fine. Never in all my life after did I get up a meal which received more praise and I felt more pride in. . . .

"We had only tallow candles for light, and one of my duties was to make them each week. The mold held one dozen and that was sufficient for the time. Another one of my easy duties, for mother would never allow me to do anything hard if she could help it, was to parch the green coffee. No ready-to-use coffee, done up in packages, was known in those days. Later, when I was older, I learned to milk cows and make butter. Father had a novel way of making it, gleaned from the 'Scientific American,' of course. He had made four heavy wire rings to cover the top of the kitchen stove. The pans of fresh milk were set on these and scalded. When it had cooled, this milk was then put in the ice box for the cream to rise. Then it was churned while perfectly sweet. So, the butter was sweet and good. But, oh, the bother and work for it!

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Letters from Mattie V. and Uriah W. Oblinger to Family Members, 1873
Nebraska State Historical Society, Oblinger Family Collection

Minor spelling and punctuation errors have been corrected for ease of reading.

May 19th 1873

Dear friends,

We have considerable of rain since I came here. Saturday night it rained very hard. It is too wet to plant corn—some are ready but have to wait a day or so for the ground to dry off.

The plants and shrubbery that I brought I put on Giles place I was looking at them last evening they look very promising. We went to Mr. Campbell’s yesterday to church and Sabbath school. They live seven miles south of here. The minister failed to come so there was a society meeting. We moved in to our house last Wednesday.  I suppose you would like to see us in our sod house It is not quite so convenient as a nice frame but I would as soon live in it as the cabins I have lived in, and then we are at home which makes it more comfortable I ripped our wagon sheet in two have it around two sides and have several papers up so the boys think it looks real well. The only objection I have we have no floor yet; will be better this fall. I got one tea cup & saucer and the corner of the glass on the little hero picture broken. Pretty good luck. I think my goods got here two days before I did.

Uriah was plowing sod this forenoon, talks of planting some this afternoon. He has twenty acres surrounded have ten of it broke. Doc & Billie & Uriah C stayed with us. I know you would have laughed to see us fixing their bed—we set boxes to the side of the Lounge and enlarged Uriah’s bed for all of them We enjoyed the fun and they enjoyed their bed as much as if they had been in a nice parlor bedroom. U. C. & Doc sung while I got supper. They call Doc Sam out here—sounds very odd to me. Wish you could see his whiskers shaved all off, but what is on his chin and lip I told him I wanted some to send you but he could not see it. The boys went to Sutton Saturday afternoon I went along to see the town and country; on our way we seen three Antelopes. U C shot at them for fun, Charlie, if you was here, you would never get done looking, for you can see ever so far. Coming from Sutton we could see the Co seat which was eleven miles from us. There is some here looks as though they would like if some girls would come around. I saw J Arnuot; he told me that Two of the Swigart boys and their wives started to Oregon the same morning I started, so Rose Thomas has gone farther west than I have.

I am washing today. This afternoon is little cloudy with the sun shining occasionally. Ella is as hearty as she can be and has an appetite like a little horse. I never cooked for such appetites as I have since I been here. Sometimes I think I will cook enough of some things for two meals but the boys clean them every time.

We are all well I must close for this time I am as ever your sister & daughter. Our love to all. M V O

Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Mattie V. Oblinger and Ella Oblinger, 1873

The weather still continues dry here. Yesterday evening it threatened rain but we did not get it and this evening again I hope it will come for we need it bad enough the wheat that was sowed a month ago is just barely up while some that was put in two weeks ago is hardly sprouted I sent to town yesterday for a 1/2 bush of early rose potatoes to plant I told Giles if he would furnish the ground & raise them I would furnish the potatoes as he has ground that was broke last year and mine is all prairie unbroken yet & they would not do well on it. Ma you must make up your mind to stand a good deal of wind for Neb' does a heap of blowing and since it is so dry there is lots of dust flying. yesterday and today have been terrible windy it nearly blew me off the walls of my house yesterday when I would be carrying a sod on the wall a gust of wind would come and blow my hat over my eyes and nearly capsize me. My sods for my wall were pretty heavy they were from 2 1/2 to 4 ft long 4 in thick and from 10 to 12 in wide now you may think a sod of that size would not hold together but if I could have handled them I could have 10 ft without breaking. The whole furrow as long as I plowed it all hung together unbroken so you see we have some pretty tough sod here, but when once entirely subdued it is like a pile of ashes. Oh yes I have quite a wood pile up; I have more wood here than I had at Jake Murray's—there is one consolation here you won’t have to burn old rotten fence rails.

I thought my letter finished Sunday evening. I spoke about looking for rain in that & raining a little, but now I can tell you of one of the most terrible storms I ever witnessed. Language fails to describe so that one may know just how it seemed to one in the storm. It struck us at sunset Sunday evening with wind & rain & rained nearly all night the wind increasing all the time. Monday morning it turned to snow (very fine article) & snow & wind increasing all the time. although it seemed as though the wind was doing it best. The storm lasted from sunset Sunday evening till near midnight Wednesday night, making near 80 hours storm. When we would go out to try to do anything for the stock we could not see other more than from 5 to 10 ft & to be heard we had to shout at the top of the voice on account of the wind blowing such a gale. One could hardly keep his feet at all we had to dig snow about 1/2 hr whenever we undertook to feed anything in order to get to the stable door. The snow streamed through every crevice I say streamed through for it just almost blinded one to get to the corn pile. We had to shovel, in short it was shovel to utmost of one’s strength to do anything or get anything.

Mr. Elliott’s stove smoked them out on account of the stove pipe being defective and we had to bring them all up here, 2 women 4 children & 5 men all here. Mr. DeWolf's being gone to his wife's sisters 18 miles southeast of here, & left all of his things for us to tend, 2 cows 5 calves hogs & yoke of oxen and chickens. By hard work we saved everything for him but 4 pigs 1 chicken & 2 calves the third calf probably will die. The calves were in a small stable very open where for us to have tried any more than we would have perished us. One of his cows had a young calf right in the midst of the storm in the stable half full of snow where there were 2 yoke of oxen and another cow & I gathered it up & carried that in the cellar and saved it. Mr. Elliott’s fed their horses & Mr. Wards Monday morn and the storm was so fearful that we could not venture down to his stable to see after them till Tuesday evening although not more than 80 rd. Tuesday evening we concluded to venture and when we got there we found the entrance to the house door banked full to the top and his stable door being in the north and considerably open.

We found 2 calves 1 cow & six head of horses all snowed in as the storm came from a little west of North. The stable full from one end to the other entirely to the roof except right at the door where there was just room for 2 horses to stand by being literally crammed together the rest all down; well the next thing was to get them out. Two of the men Mr. Ward & Elliott commenced digging to get the house door open while the rest of us went to getting horses out I took an open knife and went in to 2 of the horses and cut the halters. Came near getting under as they were nearly crazy to get out. We got them in the house carpet & all on the floor, then commenced digging to get the rest out. We saved all but one of Mr. Wards & she died in 1/2 hour after we got her out we dug through the roof and found her packed in snow laying on her side with the snow so tight around her she could only move her head a little. We dug the side of the stable down about half way and dragged the mare over the side as there was 20 feet of snow between her & the door.

The next morning we dug Mr. Elliott’s cow out; she will probably live but is not able to get up yet, but 2 calves that were in the stable perished making 4 calves 1 5 year old mare & 4 pigs that perished right here with us. The loss of stock has been fearful & I am afraid human life, as there were numbers of emigrants on the road, though I have heard of none yet. There was a woman about a mile from here with 4 children whose husband was away from home and I knew she had but little wood if any so Wednesday afternoon I concluded to make the effort to reach her and see how they were getting along & I had to go right against the storm. Just as I was starting Sam hollered at me to come back that I would get lost and perish, but I did not come back nor perish either. I succeeded in reaching the house & she was mighty glad to see me as they were out of wood and the ax buried under the snow. They had been in bed for 2 days only as she would break up something in the house to burn & cook something for the children to eat. The oldest was only 7 years old. I dug the ax from under the snow hunted my way to a pig pen got a couple of poles and cut wood enough to do till next day, then started home again but the storm had commenced abating so that I could by spells see nearly 1/2 mile. On the way back I got a prairie chicken; his feathers were so icy he could not go very fast & threw the shovel after him (I had taken one with me) and knocked it over. yesterday was beautiful & today also the snow by night will be all gone except in the ravines and the snow banks. over 1/2 the prairie is bare already and good walking. Sam seems some little discouraged since witnessing the storm, but there is no use of that for it is the most terrible storm ever witnessed here and may never occur again.

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