January 24, 2017

"My Little Old Sod Shanty on the Plains"

The Chrisman Sisters, 1886: Lizzie Chrisman filed the first of the sisters' homestead claims in 1887. Lutie Chrisman filed the following year and the other two sisters, Jennie Ruth and Hattie, had to wait until 1892, when they came of age, to file.

One of the most striking features of these photos is the pride the homesteaders show.

Many of those photographed were the first landowners in their family. Homesteaders often lined up their most prized possessions in the photos to show the scope of their ownership.


One woman, reportedly embarrassed by her sod house,

requested that the family be photographed with her pump organ instead. They dragged the organ out into the yard — farm animals and wagons can be seen in the background — then dragged it back into the house after the photo was taken.

Ned Dunlap, known as Kearney, Nebraska's only real cowboy, 1902.

The Shores family, near Westerville, Custer County, Nebraska, 1887. Jerry Shores was one of a number of former slaves to settle in Custer County. He took a claim adjacent his brothers’, Moses Speese and Henry Webb (each had taken the name of his former owner).

Sylvester Rawding brought his family to Nebraska in the 1880s. In 1886, they brought their lunch outside on a muddy day so that photographer Solomon Butcher could capture the family on film. Sylvester was a Union Army Civil War veteran, wounded during a skirmish near Mobile, Alabama.

More images at The Week - America’s pivotal move West

"Oh the hinges are of leather
And the windows have no glass
While the board roof
Lets the howling blizzards in
And I hear the hungry coyote
As he slinks up through the grass
Round the little old sod shanty
On my claim"

Posted by gerardvanderleun at January 24, 2017 9:05 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

They didn't raise any weak people either. I've known a few of their grand kids.

Posted by: james wilson at January 16, 2015 10:10 AM

I have photos of my grandparents in front of their homestead in central Arizona in 1915. They lived in a tent until my grandpa could build the house. He farmed out there, with no a/c, no amenities. My grandma had 8 children, the last, my mother was born in town, after the well dried up in 1934. Fabulous photos.

Posted by: Leslie at January 16, 2015 10:23 AM

And if anyone needs to buy a pump organ like the one in the photo, let me know.

Posted by: CaptDMO at January 16, 2015 10:54 AM

Many photos taken then were used to help "prove up" the various claims. There was a lot of homestead fraud involved, often in the form of absenteeism and Land Office bribes, and use of front men in the employ of timber and grazing interests to cop large acreages.

The organ was nice evidence of the sincerity of the claimant family, and probably made the rounds through the territory.

Posted by: John at January 16, 2015 11:46 AM

Those were Americans I would be proud to call my fellow citizens. There was no Black - White, Irish - Italian - Greek - whatever "old country".
They were the future of our growing country and they all would have said "Uh? I am an American" and many fought to the death in the various wars to preserve the freedoms and way of life.

Today? I bet many immigrant children can't even spell "American". And I am not proud of "We the People" anymore.

Posted by: chasmatic at January 16, 2015 12:41 PM

And always, the dogs. Smiling away, just happy to be part of the family. Walk all the way from Pennsylvania you say?, why sure, can I sleep in the barn too? Dogs, the fabric of the republic.

Posted by: Will at January 16, 2015 3:54 PM

I recall reading at one time or another about the value to these folk of canaries and other caged songbirds. There being no trees on the plains, apparently songbirds were a very rare thing and were purchased at enormous cost just to help manage the terrible silence (apart from the incessant wind) in the home while the other members of the household were away. Settler families would spend a comparative fortune to have a caged bird's song in their home.
The article came about because the writer had noticed how many of these early photos had the family's birds proudly displayed somewhere in them.

Posted by: Mal at January 16, 2015 4:43 PM

Dignity, nobility, simplicity, and cooperation with
neighbors. Will we see such a world again?

Posted by: Howard Nelson at January 16, 2015 5:03 PM

Something about that montage breaks my heart.

Posted by: Dan Patterson at January 16, 2015 5:22 PM

We had a slight 40MPH breeze here in Kansas today. Got up to 60F which is nice for January. Out here on the high plains, we have fantastic weather..... two weeks of it in the spring and two in the fall. Otherwise it is either ungodly hot or unmercifully cold. No traffic, low cost of living, gun friendly, great deer and pheasant hunting, and God fearing.

Posted by: Snakepit Kansas at January 17, 2015 3:30 PM

I lived 3 years in soddies on my grandpa's place as a kid. One was all sod the other just the two back rooms.
On a sad note my oldest uncle perished from a fire. The roof would drop dust so they put up an oil cloth. Pack rats built a nest on it. Somehow it caught fire and he died as an infant from smoke inhalation.

Posted by: Leon at January 18, 2015 5:22 AM

Not on the plains, but in the coastal rainforests my grandparents homesteaded after the turn of the century. My dad and his twelve (!) siblings grew up on pioneer terms. They are all buried, save my one aunt, on the pioneer ground, now, and none others are allowed interred there going forward. It's an exclusive club.
Uncle Sam should do this again. We're holding onto land that ought to go to people, and meanwhile it's costing us to protect it. Put it to work.
I noticed that coyote slinking in, BTW.

Posted by: Casey Klahn at January 24, 2017 11:58 AM

And those dogs worked just as hard as the farmers. Guardians of man and beast, rat killers, the companions of children with little else. God love them, every one.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky at January 24, 2017 1:00 PM

My grandmother grew up in a sod home in Texas, later homesteaded in Oklahoma. Met my grandfather there, he was playing an organ on the back of a wagon, also played fiddle and harmonica. He gave up the practice after conversion but two of his daughters went on to sing gospel professionally. That prarie civilization, such as it was, has mostly passed away.

Posted by: chuck at January 24, 2017 1:51 PM

Reminds me of an interview with a Russian expat about 40 years ago. When he was a kid, the Party showed folks the movie "The Grapes of Wrath," the idea being it'd demonstrate what a fraud America was. He said, "What we noticed was that these were very poor people, yet they owned an automobile. For the average Russian, this was as preposterous as having your own dirigible. And they went where they wanted when they wanted, answering to nobody. So the takeaway was America was place where even the poorest folks could freely wander a continent in their own dirigibles."

Posted by: Christian LeBlanc at January 24, 2017 2:32 PM

I'm a huge fan of American Western History from the period immediately after the Civil War up to and through the subjugation of the wild tribes and at one time I had an extensive library on that period.

Settlers who built those soddies on the treeless plains of Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska were some tough folks and women, in particular, endured years of incessant heat, cold, constant wind and privation that few could manage without becoming mentally ill from the experience.

The high cost of life on the prairie isn't covered much in popular literature but the constant wind and isolation alone precipitated suicide among women and if you have never wandered across the prairies of Oklahoma or Kansas you simply have not experienced wind.

Try it if you ever have the opportunity. Go out on an exceptionally hot or freezing day, find an old road off of the beaten trail, get out of your car and sit quietly. Experience the climate, listen to the wind and try to hear something....anything....beyond or behind it, and try to imagine what it would do to you to live there for months or years at a time.

My definition of Hell on Earth.

Posted by: Jack at January 25, 2017 8:30 AM

To: Jack, who called life on the prairie, "Hell on Earth": I was born and raised in the last large remnant of Tall Grass Prairie, in Osage County, Oklahoma. To me, it is Heaven. I am not articulate enough to be able to describe the play of light on the grass, as the Sun rises and sets. It can only be witnessed and experienced, awed by the rising of some primal understanding of truth and beauty and our place in the world.
And the wind... let me tell you, one can stand alone in the wind and lean into it with eyes closed and being mindful of all that happens, feel it moving through you, invisibly threading through you and know that it is blowing away the accumulated dross of existence like opening the window of a smoke filled room.
Yes, life can be tough out there, but where is it not and shouldn't it be, after all?

Posted by: Alan Robertson at January 26, 2017 6:55 AM

To 'Jack': We feel sorry for you and your types that seemingly take no notice of the miracle on the prairie and its' splendor.
On the other hand, we smile that we have it all to ourselves. And yes, in the early spring until June, it is so noisy with our feathered friends that it's hard not to just sit, bask in it and laugh for joy. Soapweed

Posted by: soapweed at January 27, 2017 8:51 PM