Sunday, October 15, we went to church. The wind was then blowing wildly, but this became worse further along in the day. When we got out of church, we saw smoke in the distance, because the prairie was on fire.
It is November, 1871, and Harmen Jan te Selle, a homesteader from Lancaster County, Nebraska, is writing home to the old country from a sod house amid grasslands he his family back home could never have imagined, an immense, roiling sea of grass.
All that grass, he tells them, "is still unoccupied." He might have well have said "untamed." He's among those who are trying to tame the frontier, which is part of the reason te Selle's letter home begins with a record of their harvest: "It is this year quite good," he writes, and then recites particulars: "Corn is very good; of this we should, I believe, have 800 or 900 bushels.” Things go well in America.
Not until the end does he tell his family about the prairie fire. When the grass is high and dry, he says, "it can stir up a big blaze." The old country relatives have no idea. "It can burn for miles away," unimaginable miles all around and Nebraska is unimaginably huge.
He's probably sitting in a sod house, a lamp beside him as he tries to determine how to relate the horror. "So I wanted to say," he says, almost as if he's lost track of the story. He hasn't. It’s just plain difficult.
"So, what I wanted to say, that when we got out of church, we saw the fire." The story must be told.
Another man from church saw the fire was not far from his soddie. He had been in church with his wife and two children, but three were home; a girl of 11 or 12 years, one of 8 and the other of 5 or 6.
That man ran as quickly as he could, but his house was entirely in ashes.
Nothing could have prepared Harmen te Selle for what happened to a neighbor that Sabbath morning in a prairie fire he and the rest of the immigrant homesteaders discovered to be a holocaust.
"High standing grain and 4 pigs were all burned, but not the worst," he writes, still hedging, still trying to determine how tell his loved ones in the old country just what they'd all witnessed after church in the endless grasslands.
His neighbor saw something white on the ground, thought it was a calf. But when he got closer he saw it was his oldest girl lying burned on the ground, and upon investigation, the other two were in the house, entirely burned. Thus a tragic situation for that man.
And then this: "Beloved, the paper is too small to write more." Besides, here or anywhere, what more can be said?
It's difficult to imagine Harmen teSelle didn't sit there for a moment and read through the letter he’d just written, this time picturing his "Mother, Brothers with wives and children" sitting and standing all around in a house he knew so thoroughly he could have painted it--everything, even the wall hangings he knew. That last time he went through the letter, in his imagination he watched them read the story he'd just told, saw their eyes glaze and read their awe and silence.
Then I'm guessing he put that letter down, took a breath or two, prayers really, and went out to the lean-to to milk and do chores. Still shaken and humbled in that vast sea of grass and the scorched fields all around him, he returned to what he knew had to be done, as somehow all of us do.
“Beloved,” he’d said. You can read the letter yourself. “Beloved, the paper is too small to write more.”
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