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[Detail] The David Hilton family near Weissert, Nebraska. 1887.

Great Plains Shelters

Building a shelter was one of the first priorities for new homesteaders. The collection contains many photographs of the homes of Nebraska settlers. Even though the photos were taken after 1886, they illustrate the range of shelters that early settlers on the Great Plains called home.

When settlers reached the Great Plains, some of them used tents for a while—some for a long time. Notice that the family in the photo to the left is still living in a tent even though other improvements have been made to the homestead (e.g., the windmill and the sod animal shelter (to the left rear).

A step up (actually, literally down) in housing was the dugout. Below are several examples of dugout homes on the Great Plains of Nebraska. When the landscape permitted, it was common to build dugouts into the sides of hills. The dugout on the right was a bit nicer than most, as it has a front wall made of wood. Note the cow grazing at the top of the dugout.

Dugouts were often replaced with sod houses. Several of the Oblinger letters described their sod houses. For example, when Mattie arrived in Nebraska, she wrote back to her family members about the sod house, describing its advantages over a temporary frame house:

…Some come here and put up temporary frame houses thought they could not live in a sod house This fall they are going to build sod houses so they can live live [sic] comfortable this winter a temporary frame house here is a poor thing a house that is not plastered the wind and dust goes right through and they are very cold A sod house can be built so they are real nice and comfortable build nice walls and then plaster and lay a floor above and below and then they are nice Uriah is going to build one after that style this fall The one we are in at present is 14 by 16 and a dirt floor Uriah intends takeing it for a stable this winter I will be a nice comfortable stable

Letter from Mattie V. Oblinger to George W. Thomas, Grizzie B. Thomas, and Wheeler Thomas Family, June 16, 1873

Examine these examples of sod houses (or "soddies" as their inhabitants often called them).

Notice that in the photo at right, part of the building appears to be a "dugout." The family may have lived in the dugout before they built the sod house above ground.

People who saw the house pictured below right probably thought this "soddie" was "high toned" because it had a second story made of wood.

Examine these and other photographs of the homes built on the Great Plains in the latter half of the 19th century (you can identify such photographs using keyword searches):

  • What were the advantages and disadvantages of tents, dugouts, and sod houses?
  • What accounts for the progression of families moving from tents to dugouts to sod houses?
  • Choose one of the types of shelters and examine as many pictures of that kind of shelter as you can find. Imagine that you were a homesteader in 1873 living in that type of shelter. Write a letter to your family back east explaining what your new home is like.