The Great Plains
History and geography are inextricably linked, and both the Oblinger family letters and the Solomon Butcher photographs provide rich information about the geography of the Great Plains—the landscape, climate, and even the insects. In a letter dated February 9, 1873, Uriah describes the Nebraska landscape. Notice that Uriah mentions the idea of the "great American desert," an idea that had had some currency in describing the plains since the early 19th century:
…Within the memory of men now living, all this vast extent of land from the missouri river to the foot of the Rocky Mountains was covered with nothing but what is called buffalo grass & inhabited by nothing but wild beasts and wilder men. but now for nearly 200 miles west of the Missouri River the occasional spot of buffalo grass is pointed out by the pioneer as the waymark of [a] vegetation that but a few years ago flourished luxuriantly but now is being replaced by that more useful prairie grass called bluejoint which is the pioneers hay & fodder. & the wild animals & wild men that but a few years ago reigned supreme all over this beautiful extent of country are fast passing away before the approaching civilization of the 'pale face' (as the red man is wont to call him) and in a few years will be numbered among the things that were. and what was once known as the great 'American desert' will blossom as the rose. surely the hand of Providence must be in this, as it seems this desert as it has been termed so long has been specially reserved for the poor of our land to find a place to dwell in and where they can find a home for themselves & families and where they can enjoy the companionship of their loved ones undisturbed by those that have hertofore held them under their almost exclusive control.
- How does Uriah describe what the plains looked like before settlement by the "pale face"?
- What does Uriah predict about the fate of the "wild animals & wild men" who populated the plains? Were his predictions accurate?
- In the 1840s, leaders began using the phrase "manifest destiny" to describe the idea that the United States had a God-given right to expand to the Pacific. What ideas in Uriah's letter suggest that he subscribed to the idea of manifest destiny?
Many other letters in the Oblinger collection deal implicitly or explicitly with the landscape. In addition, numerous Butcher photos provide glimpses of that landscape.
- What do you notice about the terrain of the area? What advantages or disadvantages might the terrain offer for farming?
- What building materials appear to have been available to the homesteaders?
- In what proportion of the photographs do you see water (a lake, a stream, etc.)? What is the importance of that observation?
The challenges of the landscape were not lessened by the climate. In contrast to the relative scarcity of water and timber, homesteaders on the Great Plains discovered an abundance of wind. A letter from Uriah to Mattie and Ella, dated April 13-18, 1873, described the wind in Nebraska, as well as a late blizzard that hit Nebraska after homesteaders believed winter weather was behind them:
…I can tell you of one of the most terrible storms I ever witinessed 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 increaseing all the time monday morning it turned to snow (very fine article) & snow & wind increasing all the time all though 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 ones strength to do anything or get anything.
Read the complete letter of April 13-18, 1873, and consider the following:
- How many different weather problems did Uriah discuss in the letter? Which do you think would be most likely to pose problems for the homesteaders? Why?
- How did the homesteaders' unfamiliarity with the weather on the plains make the problems caused by the blizzard worse?
- Describe Uriah's trek to the neighbor's house on Wednesday. What does this incident tell you about Uriah's character?
Of course, the challenges of the weather did not abate with the passage of time. Well into the 1890s, family members continued to write about their efforts to cope with bad weather as they struggled to succeed as farmers in various locations around the upper Midwest (see, for example, Uriah's descriptions of the effects of hailstorms in 1883 and drought in 1896).
Insects were another problematic aspect of the Great Plains environment. A letter from Mattie to her family, dated September 10, 1876, talked about being "grasshoppered" again:
…I suppose you would like to know if we have been Grasshoppered again They were here several days pretty thick and injured the corn considerable Some fields they striped the blades all off and other pieces striped partly They nibbled the ends of most all the ears and eat of all the silks so it will not fill out and be as good Neb would have had a splendid corn crop if the hoppers had stayed away awhile It looked rather gloomy when they begin to light on the corn They were not so large nor did not eat near so fast as they did two years [a]go They eat nearly all of my cabbage…
Perhaps the following excerpt from a letter Uriah wrote in 1887 (Uriah was by that time in Kansas), sums up the trials of those trying to farm the plains; if they had enough rain, then insects infested the crop and lightning killed stock and humans alike:
Chinch bugs are pretty bad here at present millet is not so good as it was last year on acct of them. We have had rain enough in most localities here this summer to have made large crops of nearly everything if we had the buffalo grass killed out and large grass in its place to hold the moisture; we have had no hot winds to speak of yet. Hamm had a cow Killed a short time ago by ligtning, the lightning has flew around pretty loosely here this summer, killed several head of stock and has Killed one man and his team in the S.W. part of the county. a woman was struck near jerome some four weeks ago, but recoverd sufficiently to be sent back to her friends.