Small Wonders

The story goes that a man named John H. MacColl suffered mountain fever after coming west to Nebraska for, of all things, his health. Wasn't just a setback either; inside of a day or two MacColl was unable to move from the waist down.

Somehow, he made it to Fort McPherson, forty miles away, to visit the post surgeon, who, after a long visit and checkup, simply told Mr. MacColl that there was nothing he could do. 

When he was a kid, his father was killed when a rifle somehow discharged. A bloody fight for leadership ensued between him and his brother, and Little Crow was wounded in both wrists, scarring his arms so badly he kept them covered for his entire life. But he became the leader of the band of Dakota into which he was born. 

They were all wooden-shoe clad. I’m told klompen are wonderful insulators and they had to be because that morning the temperature was --22, if you can believe the stories, which is risky.

Snow quilted everything, and there was no road, nothing really but experience to guide those sleighs all from Orange City west to Calliope, 23 miles in insufferable cold. It was January 22, 1872.

Jeanne Reynal

  

A January thaw is what all of us look forward to right now, a breath of warmth that reopens our hope that someday soon April will return. Two cold-of-winter days, maybe three, of forty degrees. No wind.

Heaven comes to Siouxland.

That’s the relief people felt early on January 12, 1888, when most of those who’d put down homesteads had just arrived.

Here’s how David Laskin describes that morning:

James Schaap

The sign out front claims a well-kept church up on a hill north of Flandreau is "The Oldest Continuously Used Church in South Dakota" (all caps because it is, for sure, a title worth coveting). That means it's been "First Presbyterian" for 137 years, "River Bend Church" when it was established along the Big Sioux River long, long ago. The name change came later.

The Last Buffalo

Dec 26, 2016

"Now, boys, is our time for fun." That's what the hoity-toity artist said when he saw a herd of buffalo Comstock, the rancher, had spotted along the Republican River.
 

Albert Bierstadt was on his way back from California when he and the newspaper man traveling with him stopped at the Oak Grove Ranch and decided to try his hand--not at hunting buffalo but painting them. Comstock and his men armed themselves with rifles; Bierstadt packed brushes.

He wanted an angry bull, he said, "so mad that he'll bellow and tear up the ground," Bierstadt told Comstock.

Something happened way back when, a crime long gone from the memories of anyone downtown Hawarden today. Probably never made the Sioux City Journal, but everyone in town, circa 1895, had to know because when the mighty fall the crash is as momentous as it is memorable.

This man was of high standing, among the pastor’s closest friends, a saintly man caught with his hands in the till, grabbing a fortune more than a few buffalo nickels. That good man’s fall affected a precocious little girl for the rest of her life, a child who became a novelist and never forgot.

Clear as a friend's heart, 'twas, and seeming cool--

A crystal bowl whence skyey deeps looked up.

So might a god set down his drinking cup

Charged with a distillation of haut skies.

As famished horses, thrusting to the eyes

Parched muzzles, take a long-south water-hole,

Hugh plunged his head into the brimming bowl

as though to share the joy with every sense. 

And lo, the tang of that wide insolence 

Of sky and plain was acrid in the draught!

How ripplingly the lying water laughed!

Religious visions were everywhere in the years preceding the Civil War. Boom towns out west here may have been hell holes for a time, but they were also peopled by starry-eyed believers who claimed their marching orders came from on high.

Tabor, Iowa, sits on a bluff far above the Missouri, the highest point of Fremont County. The place is not in terrific shape today; but Tabor has an epic past, created when fiery abolitionist Congregationalists set up camp here, just across the river from Nebraska.

In 1875, the year before the Battle at Little Bighorn, a 30-year-old single woman named Mary C. Collins, who’d been living in eastern Iowa, accepted an appointment as a missionary/teacher on the Great Sioux Reservation of the Dakota territories.

The Akimbo Cross

Nov 21, 2016
James Schaap

The day lilies planted around the little frame church are mostly a weed patch. The dried-up front door begs paint, the cross at the peak just above it is bent slightly in fashion that’s sad for a cross, akimbo. An electrical cord from somewhere inside dangles over the peak, suggesting that if you want juice inside you set up a generator on the badly-pitched front step.

A few scrappy, three-foot cuttings, no bigger than buggy whips, are coming up from the front yards of a half-dozen houses thought itself to be a town. That's it--the only trees for miles around. Mr. Taylor, a school board member who lived in the back of his own shop, sends his hired man around to take you to the Talbot's sod house, about a mile out of town. You don’t know the Talbot’s.

It's 1888, and you’d never been on a perfectly endless landscape like the one you’re on. It's hot, very hot, but there's a breeze--feel it?--the only thing keeping you from sweaty suffocation. 

You might have missed a Mormon monument not all that far from here, just down the road from Niobrara, Nebraska. It’s easy to pass by.

In the middle years of the 19th century, the Poncas were here, the Santees were here, even some Pawnees--and occasional Sioux bands never far away. That meant cavalry and agents and suppliers and draymen, not to mention swells of dreamers when anyone out west claimed to find gold in them thar’ hills. Simply said, there were more people coming and going.

Seems downright amazing today, but in the years just following the Civil War, two activist groups determined to get women the right to vote, went toe-to-toe for reasons that, in retrospect, seem as lightweight as their skirmishing. The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) actually opposed the passing of the 15th amendment to the U. S. Constitution (prohibiting states from denying male citizens the right to vote, thus admitting African-American men). The NWSA was not the least bit racist.

What the sad young man saw was a path up the hill. He had no idea where it went. It seemed to go nowhere at all, but he’d been all over the country looking for his love.

A thousand stories and as many legends begin at the foot of a path that has no visible end, but not this story. This story ends with a lonely road that leads to a deadly somewhere. And it’s set here, not that far away, at the foot of a path now long gone, a path from the banks of the Missouri to the top of Blackbird Hill, a path that exists only in some folks’ imagination.

Not Even The Past

Oct 9, 2016

Not everyone believes the Homestead Act of 1862 worth celebrating. If I were Native American, I wouldn’t be thrilled to know the government gave away land they considered vacant.

Lighting candles for the Homestead Act is like making Columbus Day a holiday: isn't it wonderful that Columbus "discovered" the Americas?”—as if nothing was here before the Nina, Pinta, and the Sante Maria beached.

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