Sweethearts on the Prairie

May 1, 2017

In the barest of outlines, their getting together seems a marriage of convenience. If you stop at the Homestead Monument, you might just think the gravestone up on the hill marks something cold. Pioneers like Daniel Freeman were incapable of expressing their feelings, if they have feelings at all. Isn’t that right?

Besides, old Daniel had to be flat out lonely. The Civil War was finally over and he’s got a place of his own, a homestead, first one anywhere. What he needs is woman.

He knows Agnes Suiter, an Iowa schoolteacher. She’d been engaged to his brother James, who was killed in the war. Daniel writes her. She calls him "Brother Dan," but soon that changes to “Dear Friend Daniel." 

Daniel was a divorcee, Agnes a widow. Their coupling may seem pure convenience when you consider photographs of homesteaders, scorched cheeks, gnarled hands, stiff-with-dust work clothes in front of a sod house. Why would a young lady like Agnes go for an old vet, a homesteader seventeen years her elder?

Daniel Freeman wrote Agnes Suiter first sometime in 1863. You really ought to read the letters.

It may surprise you to hear it's Daniel who brings up the his grief: “. . .the caus of my writing to you on the 4th I was thinking of James no one can tell my feelings unless they hav lost an only Brother,” he tells her in his own bungled style; and then, “Before his death I never was lonsom or homesick no difernce where I was But now I am lonsom wheather in company or alone in a city or on the Planes.”

His scrambled spellings are dear.

He says. “I always got leters from him and that was the caus of my writing to you thinking you might write a friendly leter in return— “

That may be a ruse, but something in it struck home. Agnes opens up the next letter with a confession from as close to her soul as her heart can be. "Tis Sad to loose [sic] an only brother. I lost my only sister last Spring. She was young—had not attained to the age to share my joys and sorrows—and I know I feel lost without her.” 

She’s answering him, edging into a dialogue of hurt and loss of those we love. "But when James died it was more than a friend,” she tells his brother. “It is strange how we learn to love some one person more than a brother or sister.”

What a great line, promise and truth and double meaning.

"But Natures laws are such," she says, "and we can not avoid it.. . . I need not tell you I loved James—your brother—more than any other person living or dead. He was indeed my first love and I often think that no one other can take his place in my affections. . .”

There it is. She told him.

But then, this: —“at least that is the way I feel now.”

She's both definite and open-ended, a darling line because there can be no mistaking the way it allows for more correspondence.

And then, “Excuse me for telling you this if you did not wish to hear it,” she tells him.

The woman's got will.

A half dozen letters pass, and a little more than a year later Daniel and Agnes marry. Without the letters, it would not be hard to imagine their union as loveless. Their seven children, suggest their relationship could not have been bereft of passion, although on the frontier, a passel of kids need not evidence romance or even intimacy.

The names of Daniel and Agnes Freeman are carved in stone up on the Homestead monument hill. Both of them, I’m sure, were made of granite—had to be out there. And all those kids. 

But what the letters suggest is not rock of their characters but the tenderness of their love.

America’s very first homesteaders. 

Lovers, I’d like to think.