Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862-1912 illustrates through photographs and letters the lives of the Oblinger family, who settled the Great Plains during the latter part of the 19th century. These personal accounts provide information on the joy and sorrows of life on the plains and include love letters and correspondence on financial issues, crop development, religious meetings and the work involved in establishing a home on the Nebraska prairie. Of special interest will be correspondence on the Easter Blizzard of 1873.
These online presentations provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
Related Collections and Exhibits
- California As I Saw It: First Person Narratives, 1849-1900
- Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920
- History of the American West, 1860-1920
- The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920
- Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910
Recommended additional sources of information.
There are currently no other resources for this collection
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters comprises two individual collections housed at the Nebraska Historical Society. The Solomon D. Butcher Photograph Collection has some 3,500 photographs taken between 1886 and 1912. Butcher’s intent was to document the experience of homesteaders on the Great Plains. The second collection, the Uriah W. Oblinger Collection, contains nearly 3,000 pages of a variety of personal papers, but most importantly 318 letters written by Oblinger, his friends, and family between 1862 and 1911. Together, these collections provide important and interesting glimpses into the lives of homesteaders on the North American Great Plains—their homes, their farms, their family life, and their successes and failures. History topics include:
Before venturing into the collections themselves, reading the materials in such features as About The Collection and the special presentation The Oblinger Family and Their Letters is advisable. The latter is especially interesting and important for making sense of the letters sent back and forth among Oblinger family members and friends. A timeline of the major events chronicled in the part of the special presentation entitled About the Letters from the Uriah W. Oblinger Collection, along with a copy of the Oblinger family tree, could be very helpful to students as they work with the letters.
Note that materials in Prairie Settlement can be found in several ways. The letters can be browsed by correspondent and by date. Both the photographs and letters can be found through browsing by subject and keyword searching. Using the collection's two keyword search capabilities will produce different results:
- "Search descriptive information" will retrieve photographs as well as letters.
- "Search full text" will retrieve letters and other transcribed text sources.
Prairie Settlement spans two historical eras of American history—Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877, and Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915. The vast majority of the collection, however, focuses on the 1876-1915 period. Themes or topics related to this period that can be explored using the collection include the homestead act and homesteading; the Great Plains environment; Great Plains shelters; courtship and male-female relationships in the late 19th century; women's lives on the Great Plains; farming the Great Plains; and the 1890s.
The Homestead Act and Homesteading
The U.S. Congress enacted the Homestead Act in 1862. One purpose of this law, which took effect on January 1, 1863, was to encourage settlement of the west. It offered homesteaders free title to a quarter section (160 acres) of public land if they built a home and improved the property for five years. A second purpose was to tie the west to the north politically and economically during the Civil War (note that there were no Southern representatives in Congress when the bill was passed). A copy of the bill that became the Homestead Act can be found in A Century of Lawmaking for the New Nation.
Potential settlers viewed the Homestead Act as a virtual gift, a way to get a fresh start in life. Yet the public lands eligible for homesteading varied considerably as to quality of soil and quantity of yearly rainfall. Some of the land lay in regions that had too little rainfall to ensure successful farming. On the high plains, especially west of the 98th meridian, rainfall was so sparse that effective farming or ranching was extremely difficult on less than a full section of land or even more (that is, four or more times the amount of land available through the Homestead Act). Many settlers who filed a homestead entry actually did not complete the process.
Prairie Settlement contains many documents—photographs and letters—relating to homesteading in Nebraska in the early 1870s through the 1890s. A keyword search using homesteading as your search term will produce 62 hits, which include examples of Oblinger letters and sundry photographs. The subject index includes six subject headings relating to homesteading and homestead laws.
Another way to discover what the process of homesteading was like for ordinary people is to read in order the Oblinger letters from late 1872 to mid-1873. After Uriah Oblinger married Mattie Thomas in 1869, he went to Nebraska with two of his brothers-in-law to establish homesteads. Mattie did not join him until May 1873, so Uriah wrote her almost weekly. The letters between the two provide vivid detail about the process of establishing a homestead.
For example, Uriah wrote Mattie and his two-year-old daughter Ella on November 3-5, 1872. The following short excerpt gives a sense of some of the challenges Uriah was facing.
Sunday Nov 3rd 1872
8 miles South East of Sutton Clay Co Neb
Dear Wife & Baby
ma this is as pretty a country to look at as any one ever saw but it has it drawbacks as well as other places one objection is the depth to water wells back from the streams vary from 50 to 150 ft in depth…another objection is no timber at all you might say all there is stand along the streams and it is all taken up some of it however stand on rail road land and settlers go for that but is a limited supply at best. If I get either of the pieces selected I will have to haul my wood 10 to 12 miles…
A man can come here with $500.00 and manage properly and in a few years he can have a good comfortable home in a beautiful looking country and the most I see unfavorable is the timber & water…
Ma there is several with me today but I am lonesome without you and baby and I tell you there is a vacant place to me wherever I go and no one can fill fill [sic] it but Ma & baby well good by for the present…
Because Uriah apparently had little money when he went to Nebraska, he had to find work during his first winter there. A letter of December 22, 1872, describes Uriah's finding work hauling ice. Many of the letters over the next several months continue to describe Uriah's work and his attempt to save money so he can send Mattie and Ella railroad fare to Nebraska.
Since Mattie had not been to Nebraska yet, she was curious about the area. In a letter dated January 19, 1873, Uriah answered a question Mattie asked him about Indians:
…you wanted to know about the Indians if they were troublesome where we are going to settle I can tell you they are not for we will not be living on the trail they pass along when they go hunting and they are not troublesome anyway till they get out farther on the frontier than my homestead there was a party of them camped for a few days at Sutton this winter as they were going on a hunt but botherd no one as I can learn.
Based on your reading of the above excerpts and other letters in the period when Uriah was working to establish the homestead, answer the following questions:
- What were the hardships faced by people trying to establish homesteads on the Great Plains?
- Which of these hardships do you think was most likely to cause a homesteader to give up the claim? Explain your answer.
- What can you infer from Uriah's letters about Mattie's concerns during their separation? What kinds of questions from Mattie does he answer in his letters?
- How do Mattie's first impressions of the homestead upon her arrival compare with Uriah's first reports from Nebraska?
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.
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
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.
Courtship and Male-Female Relationships
The Oblinger letters from the period before Uriah and Mattie married are especially interesting for the information they contain about male-female relationships, courtship, and family dynamics. For example, a letter from Mattie to Uriah, dated August 13, 1868, addressed their coming marriage. It also suggested the control her father exerted over her and the lack of fond feelings Mattie had for her father.
Thursday eve, August 13th
My Dear Uriah This pleasant evening I take my pencil in a hasty maner to answer your long looked for letter which I received this evening How my heart leaped for Joy the moment I saw my name on the envelope Uriah I would know your writing if I would see it any place…
I do wish we were together this evening so we could have some sweet enjoyment Dear Uriah as the time draws near for you to return the more I want to see you It does appear to me I can hardly wait until you come Oh if I could have one sweet kiss Nothing would give me more pleasure than a sweet kiss from your own sweet lips to night and just let me take one peep in to your bright blue eyes what pleasure would it give me Oh what is the use of me talking this way for I know it is impossible at present to enjoy any of those sweet enjoyments…
Uriah I wish Father would give his consent [for Uriah and Mattie's marriage] as Mother has He has not give me one cent or bought me one cents worth this summer
Dear Uriah I think it is a little too bad for I have worked all summer like a slave There I knew I would cry for when I think how I have to work and then get nothing it appears to me like my heart will burst and think how often he has misstreated us I thank God we have had suficient strength to endure it all…May Gods richest blessings fall on you is the prayer of your loving
Some time after Mattie's death, Uriah began courting Laura Bacon, and a number of letters from their courtship also exist. While the letters reveal Uriah's sense of humor (he repeatedly made puns on Laura's name), they are also poignant in revealing the importance of finding a wife to help him reunite his family:
You may think me a trifle crazy when I tell you that each visit leaves a deeper seated love and admiration for you, but its true. It seems almost to good to be true that the prospect is so fair that you will soon be all mine.
You are a dear brave woman to be willing to take charge of my little family so that I can have my little "kits" together again, and it shall ever be my highest ambition to make you happy, for in doing so I add to my own happiness.
Laura's letters were less overtly emotional than Mattie's, but they, too, are revealing. In this excerpt, she talked about being perceived as "fast" for answering a letter too quickly and reflected on a friend's unhappy marriage:
You may think me a very fast girl to answer your letter so soon after it was recieved, but I thought it best so you could depend on where I would be next sunday I will say right here I will be at home…
O! how I should feel if I thought I had to follow the footsteps of my dear friend Sarah. I would rather die. but I cannot think you such a person as her husband for I know better. she is certainly leading the most miserable of lives with a jealous hearted husband. it makes my heart ache to the very core to see her so foully used, for to me she is as dear as an own sister.
Browsing the subject index for love letters will identify numerous letters between Mattie and Uriah and Laura and Uriah. After you have read several letters, answer the following questions:
- Which writer was most direct in expressing affection for the person to whom the letters were written?
- The courtship between Mattie and Uriah was lengthy, while his courtship with Laura was much shorter. What information from the letters helps you account for the difference?
- What evidence do the letters provide about family problems in the 19th century?
- Based on the letters, write a paragraph comparing courtship in the 19th century with courtship today.
Women's Lives on the Great Plains
Men often struck out for the Great Plains on their own, leaving their wives and children (or wives-to-be) behind. Once women came west, however, they were certainly their husbands' partners in terms of taking on the work involved in making a home on the Plains. Both Mattie and Laura wrote to family members about their work, work that included cleaning, washing, child care, gardening, cooking, sewing, and more. A letter from Estella Stilgebouer (one of Uriah and Mattie's daughters) describes how hard women's work was, even as late at 1911:
…I had a big washing and ironing to do house to straighten out bread to bake etc. and when Sat night came about 5 P.M. I had to lay down was just about give out. and my feet hurt me so I could scarcly stand. the balls of them even swelled. Mon & Tues this week we have worked in the garden, as the weeds and grown pretty bad. Then we washed this morning. I have been so tired since we got back. seems like I cant get rested, but has been to much push work I guess.
My garden is pretty good. have had radises onions, lettuce peas & beets. we started 200 strawberry plants this spring they are doing fine.
Find and read several letters that describe work done by women on the Great Plains. The following letters will get you started. You can also browse the subject index for topics related to children, cookery, gardening, and sewing.
- Letter from Mattie V. Oblinger to Thomas Family, April 25, 1874
- Letter from Mattie V. Oblinger to Thomas Family, November 24, 1874
- Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger and Laura I. Oblinger to Thomas Family, October 1, 1884
- Letter from Laura I. Oblinger to Uriah W. Oblinger, January 22, 1894
- Letter from Estella Stilgebouer to Laura I. Oblinger, Sadie Oblinger, Nettie Oblinger, Lillie Oblinger, Maggie Oblinger, February 14, 1894
Make a list of the kinds of work that the Oblinger women reported doing. What qualities and skills would a woman have needed to succeed on the Great Plains? Using your list of tasks, qualities, and skills, write a job description for a "Successful Great Plains Farm Wife."
The picture on the right shows a county fair exhibit. County fairs offered the homesteaders a chance to display the fruits of their labor. Does this exhibit represent everything the homesteading women did? What might you add to the exhibit to show the full extent of their work?
With the workload the women faced, good health would certainly have been a plus; in fact, health problems plagued the settlers. One of the most moving letters in the collection was written by Giles Thomas to his family, telling them his sister Mattie Oblinger had died in childbirth.
Feb. 27" 1880
My Dear, dear Parents
With Sad thoughts I take my pen you a few lines—The Lord called for sister Matt this evening at 4.15 Oclok She inded was taken away unexpected to us but her master said come and she now is resting with the angels in heaven.
She was confined1 Tuesday evening about 4 Oclock and a bout 8 Oclock She took a fit very suden and never Spoke after the first one—the spasems come on about every hour and lasted until about 18 hours before her death. The doctors were compelled to perform a Surgical operation by relieveing her of the child the child is also dead and will be buried with her some time Sunday. There has been nothing left undone that could be done in her case the doctors worked with great skill but to no good. I cant write more at this time but will write again. Uriah Said he could not stand it to write now. dont know what he will do yet. its left his three little girls in a sad condition--with out a Mother.
Uriah's second wife Laura suffered a variety of health problems. An improperly healed broken arm sent her back to Minnesota for treatment and rest in 1887. The letters she wrote to Uriah in those months chronicled her health complaints, as in this excerpt:
…I feel real bad this morning. I dont seem to have blood enough I am so cold all the time I have such a sore mouth & throat all the time. Mama & a good many more think I wont stand long but I dont feel worried I know I wont go before my time to go any way & so that is the least of my troubles. I guess what makes her uneasy is because Mike Snodgrass wife died she had such a sore mouth before she was confined & they did not do any thing & as soon as she was sick it got worse & she lingered on & at last died & the Dr said that she was run entirely down by having children, (she has had 3 since they were married 4 years ago) & that she died for want of blood to support her.
Read several of Laura's letters from 1887, paying special attention to her comments on her health:
- What ailments or symptoms does Laura report to Uriah? What health problems do other members of the family have during this time period?
- Note Laura's comments about doctors. How would you characterize her view of the medical profession?
- What evidence can you find in Laura's letters that gossip about health problems caused her even greater worry about her health? Have the effects of such talk among people who are not medical professionals been eliminated today by improvements in medical science? Why or why not?
Mothers (and fathers) in the late 1800s had many of the same concerns about their children that parents today have—they fretted about their health, their education, and their behavior. But the hardships of the time also created more unusual concerns. About nine months after Mattie died in childbirth, Uriah wrote a letter to his in-laws about problems on the farm, which were forcing him to consider sending his children to live with friends and relatives (a not uncommon practice).
…Crops & prices are so poor that it is making times pretty close here. and my misfortunes during the past year has put me back badly. I hardly know how to manage, I feel that it is not possible or right for me to go through another season as I have this one, for I cannot do justice to myself or family this way & I feel as though it will be hard to separate my children or separate from [them], but if I have to do so I would like for you to [take] part of them at least. If I have to put each one out separate I would like for you to take one, & Nettie one, & Uncle John Cooks one. I can find places for them here & good ones too, but our school advantages are not as good as yours & I fear their education will be neglected.
Uriah's daughter Maggie (one of Mattie's children) began attending a normal school (for training teachers) in Missouri. In a letter from Laura to Uriah, dated July 21, 1894, Laura expressed her concerns about Maggie:
I am awful afraid Maggie will fail on examination she is so wild & fond of Company, & goes somewhere every night. I told her yesterday that she must give up some of her pleasure & settle down to hard work, for if she failed it ment harder work. it will just greive me if she does fail for I have been to so much expence to keep her in school, besides doing without her company which was the worst of all, besides the money paid out for tuition.
The subject index contains a great many entries related to childhood. Select several letters and photographs about children. Using information from these sources, consider the following questions:
- What leisure or play activities did children take part in?
- Were children expected to help with the family’s work? If so, what chores or jobs did they do?
- What, if anything, did the sources tell you about schools on the Great Plains in the late 1800s?
- What concerns or worries did parents have about their children?
- In what ways was parenting on the Great Plains in the late 1800s similar to and different from parenting today?
The Economy and Politics in the 1890s
The 1890s were a momentous time for the United States. Probably the most significant event of the decade was the Depression of 1893. This economic downturn made a difficult economic situation—for farmers, workers, and anyone already in debt—even more trying. Farmers in particular were hard hit by the general deflation in the value of money (made worse by the depression). Deflation—the opposite of inflation—meant that people who borrowed money paid those debts back in more valuable money. Farmers—through the grange movement and eventually the Populist Party—agitated for policies that would promote inflation. Even so, the policies of the federal government—such as ending the use of silver as a money medium—continued to be deflationary. The continuing fall in crop prices made farmers' lives even more difficult.
A letter from Uriah to Laura and their children written October 18, 1893, contains interesting information about his working and the costs of various items. At this point, Uriah was in Kansas looking for another place to establish a farm.
I had some (1/2 loaf) of your graham bread left, and I bough a 5 ¢ loaf of white bread (I could not [get] graham) and 10 ¢ worth of nice boiling beef and it made me two soups, and four messes beside. I have bought no butter or any other kind of spread for my bread; I thought if you at home could do without it I could, besides I will have to be very saving with my money…
… Tuesday 17" I shoveled corn 2 1/2 hrs in the forenoon and finished the job, so you see I have earned 50 ¢.
In the winter of 1894, Laura was living in Minnesota without Uriah. A letter from Laura to Uriah, February 25, 1894, dealt with the full range of Laura's financial and work responsibilities, which were made more challenging by the fact that she was quite ill at the time.
…the training school begins the 5' of March & I want to be able then to let her [Maggie] start in & not miss a day. it will rub us awful close to pay her tuition, but she is trying so hard that I think it is best to make the sacrafice for her…
I thought 10 loads [of firewood] would run me till next fall then the wood question would be settled but it has been such terrible bad weather & since I have been sick we have had to have so much night fire that I dont think it will run me till fall…
I will pay Mr Jacks, for I promised to & I will make my word good I have made a bill at the mill for feed for the hogs of a little over $2.00 & I promised to pay it as soon as you sent me the money & so I will. I shall have to get Nettie & Lillie both a pair of shoes, as they are almost barefooted; and I am out of feed for the hogs. So I guess I better pay what I promised & then lay out the rest in wheat for the hogs & trust in Providence for our groceries
With a partner, read through the letters from 1893-1896 (you may divide the letters), looking for information about the effects of the depression and Uriah's political views on the Populist Party, which was popular among many farmers of the time.
- What financial problems did Uriah and Laura suffer during this period?
- What were some of the political issues of the time? What were Uriah's views on these issues?
- What did Uriah think of the Populist Party? (Hint: Look for references to "pops.")
- Find out more about the election of 1896. Based on his comments, to which party did Uriah belong?
In the picture on the right, note that the man on the right is holding a newspaper, the Alliance Independant, a populist paper published in Lincoln, Nebraska. Do you think Uriah subscribed to this paper? Why or why not?
Chronological Thinking: Continuity and Change
The primary chronological organizer for this collection is the organization of the Oblinger letters themselves. The collection contains an index of letters by date, allowing the user to access and read the letters in order.
The daily lives and changes experienced by ordinary people such as the Oblingers have a different rhythm and tempo than the events of political or diplomatic history. It is not that the life experiences for people like the Oblingers do not change over time. Rather, those changes often occur almost imperceptibly and usually over a greater span of time compared to other historical events with which historians are concerned. Thus, the lives of ordinary people provide an excellent opportunity for examining both continuity and change over time.
Make a T-chart titled "Continuity and Change in the Oblinger Family." Label one column Continuity and the other Change. Select any year represented in the correspondence and read the family letters for that year (you may want to work with a partner so that you can divide the letters between the two of you). As you read, note changes in the family's life. For example, a new child, a marriage, a death, or a move would represent changes. When you have finished reading the letters for the year selected, note things that stayed the same in the continuity column. For example, continuing to farm, staying in touch with family members in Indiana and Minnesota, or living in the Midwest/Great Plains might be things noted in the continuity column. When you have completed the T-chart, write a paragraph summarizing continuity and change in the Oblinger family for the year selected.
Chronological Thinking: Pioneers and the Seasonal Cycle
The lives of pioneers on the Great Plains were greatly affected by the seasonal cycle. Activities in spring, summer, winter, and fall were largely dictated by the weather and the growing season.
Create a poster that shows the four seasons and their effects on Nebraska pioneers. Your poster should show two photographs for each season, as well as two letter excerpts describing seasonal activities. You can include work-related activities, as well as leisure activities, such as ice skating. Using such words as winter, summer, spring, harvest, plow, and school in a keyword search of descriptive information will help you locate photographs that show seasonal activities. You can browse the index of letters by date to locate letters written in each season.
Consider the evidence on your poster as you answer the following questions:
- Which season seemed to offer the greatest challenge to Nebraska pioneers? Why?
- Which season was most important to pioneers? Why?
- Did you find any evidence of how the seasonal changes affected children differently than adults?
- Do you think people living in the Great Plains today are still affected by seasonal changes? In what ways might they be less affected by seasonal changes than the settlers in the late 19th century?
Historical Comprehension: Supplementing the History Text with Personal Perspectives
The letters and photographs of the Prairie Settlement collection are inherently interesting because they tell the stories of ordinary people with whom students can easily empathize. The Oblingers were plain folk trying to make the best of the situations in which they found themselves. By reading this family's letters, the reader comes to respect and truly like them and thereby gain a greater understanding of what life was like on the Great Plains over a century ago.
Failing to bring real people to life is one of the shortcomings of most history textbooks. Imagine that the publisher of your history textbook has asked you to help create a six-page supplement to the text. The supplement will include primary sources to help students understand the experiences of people who homesteaded on the Great Plains in the late 1800s. First, read your textbook coverage of homesteading. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative in the textbook? Next, based on your familiarity with the sources in Prairie Settlement, decide what you want the primary sources in the supplement to convey. Find sources that will help students understand the experiences of everyday people and use them to create a mock-up of the supplement.
You may want to search other collections in American Memory to determine whether the Oblingers' experiences were typical of the homesteading experiences of other ordinary folks. For example, a search of the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 (using the keyword homestead) will result in 177 hits. Some of these stories also deal with the experiences of Nebraska homesteaders, but there are also many that tell the stories of homesteaders in other places and at other times (New Mexico, Missouri, and Florida, among others). Pioneering the Upper Midwest is another collection that can expand your comprehension of this phenomenon. If you use the keyword homestead to search this collection, you will get 404 hits. How similar and different to the Oblingers' experiences were the stories told by other homesteaders? How do you account for the differences? Should you include sources from other collections in the supplement to provide balance, or do your selections from Prairie Settlement achieve your purpose?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Turner's Frontier Thesis and the "New Western" History
The story of moving to, settling, and trying to eke out a living on the Great Plains has been a story central to the American experience. At least that has been so since the appearance of Frederick Jackson Turner's famous essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in 1893.
In 1890, the commissioner of the Bureau of the Census stated that a frontier line of settlement (defined as having fewer than 2 persons per square mile) could no longer be found and would henceforth not be used in Census reports. "This brief official statement," Turner argued, "marks the closing of a great historic movement." Turner continued:
Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development… American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.
Turner saw the story of the United States as the story of people moving from west to east, peopling an empty continent. The need to be practical and inventive in each successive frontier created a unique American culture and way of thinking. For over a half century, Turner's interpretation of the West especially and of American history generally held sway in historical scholarship. In the past two or three decades, however, Turner's frontier thesis has undergone thoroughgoing challenge and revision by such historians as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Donald Wooster, and Richard White. These "New Western" historians see the west as a "crossroads of culture" where people from Latin America, Asia, Native America, and the eastern states of the United States. These groups struggled over land, economic success, and cultural dominance.
Being introduced to these interpretive frameworks will not only help students understand that history is constructed but also may provide an interesting point of departure for helping students grapple with the "stuff" of history (the primary sources of daily life on the Great Plains).
Many resources on Turner and the frontier thesis are available online; two good starting points for students include a collection of his essays and a brief biography written to accompany a PBS series on the west. The Association of American Historians provides a readable introduction to the "New Western" history. After becoming familiar with the core ideas of both interpretations of western history, consider the documents you have read from Prairie Settlement.
- What evidence from the letters seems to support the Turner thesis?
- What evidence seems to support the new interpretations of western history?
- What are the limitations of the collection in terms of drawing a conclusion about these two interpretations of western history? What are kinds of evidence would you need to decide which interpretation you think best explains the history of the American west?
Historical Research Capabilities: Writing a Biography
Writing a biography involves a particular kind of historical research—learning as much as possible about an individual and then placing him or her in a historical context. A good biography not only tells an interesting story of a person's life but demonstrates how that life represents the collective experience of a larger group, a historical trend, or a powerful idea.
Choose one of the members of the Oblinger or Thomas family. You may also want to select a particular span of years on which to focus. Read letters written by the subject of your biography, as well as comments about the person in other people's letters (for example, many of Giles Thomas' letters include information about Uriah Oblinger; sometimes, as in the months following Mattie's death, these comments provide insights into Uriah's actions that are not available in his own letters). Sketch out a list of events in your subject's life in the period you are covering. You may also want to check the special presentation, The Oblinger Family and Their Letters for more information. Consider such questions as the following as you decide what to write in your biography:
- What makes this person interesting?
- How did others describe this person? What do the subject's letters tell you about his/her personality and character? What words would you use to describe the person?
- What events shaped this person's life?
- What were the person's goals?
- What important decisions did this person make during the period you are examining? What influenced his/her decisions? How would you evaluate those decisions?
- How did this person's life represent the collective experience of a larger group, a historical trend, or a powerful idea?
In answering the last question, you might consider whether the person's life represents something about the history of women, family, work, homesteading, the impact of the environment on people, or male-female relationships and the nature of 19th-century rural courtship. You may want to do some searching in other American Memory collections to learn more about the historical context in which your subject lived. Some useful collections include American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, Pioneering the Upper Midwest, and The Northern Great Plains collections.
When you have completed your research, write a brief biography of your subject. Exchange biographies with a classmate and give each other feedback on the work.
Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making: The Individual as Historical Decision-Maker
While many of the issues and decisions studied in history classes involve decisions made by national leaders (e.g., passage of the Homestead Act), understanding that individuals and families also faced issues and decisions is an important element of historical understanding. In fact, young history students often see the "everyday" people of the past as pawns in the flow of historical events. Reading the Oblinger letters, with their evidence of the strong influence of natural forces, might reinforce such a misconception. Thus, examining key decisions made by the family is a useful exercise.
In 1890, Uriah Oblinger applied for a military pension. As part of this process, he provided a list of all the places he had lived since leaving the military in 1864. Create a two-column chart that shows each of the moves represented in the list in one column and reasons for the move in the other column. Use the index of letters by date to identify family letters written around the date of each move (you may work with classmates to divide the work); read these letters for information on the reasons for each move. Compare Uriah's moves with Giles Thomas’s history. How can you track Giles’s moves in the same time period? How does what you learn illustrate the idea that individuals make decisions that shape their own and our collective history?
Arts & Humanities
Themes in Literature
The Prairie Settlement collection and the literature of the Midwest can be linked in innumerable ways. The Midwest has quite arbitrary boundaries, and literary scholars debate who, truly, should be considered a Midwestern writer. Literary historian George Day, for example, argues that literature concerning Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin is undoubtedly Midwestern. Further, he adds:
Though there is topographical variety within them, these states share the most prominent feature of the inland empire: the broad, rolling plains, which before the coming of the white man were a vast, almost treeless grassland two million square miles in extent. This remarkable physical feature, "the most eloquent symbol of space and unity in America," has had a profound effect on those who originally lived in it and their descendants and those who later came to it. (George Day. A Literary History of the American West, J. Golden Taylor, ed., Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 636-37).
Several themes emerge repeatedly from Midwestern literature: the land and the climate, rapid change, and settlement and farm life. The latter theme is clearly illustrated in Prairie Settlement. The evidence about settlement and farm life from the Oblinger family letters can be compared with the themes developed in such works as the following:
- Hamlin Garland, Main-Travelled Roads (1891), a novel that provides a realistic and vivid view of Midwestern farm life during the homesteading years.
- Ole Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth (1927), described by some as the greatest farm novel, at least up to 1965.
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers (1913) and My Antonia (1918), novels whose view of the pioneer experience is more positive than most and whose protagonists are strong pioneer women who help settle the Nebraska prairies.
- Mari Sandoz, Old Jules (1935), in which the author describes the life of her Swiss immigrant father as he settled in Nebraska in the late 19th century.
- William Cullen Bryant, in his poem “The Prairies,” tells of the broad, open landscape and reflects nostalgically on the colorful past of the region.
- John Greenleaf Whittier used the prairie as the setting for several poems, including “The Kansas Immigrants.”
- James Russell Lowell, in “The Pioneer,” treats the plains as the ideal home of those who would wish to be free.
- Walt Whitman admired the pioneer inhabits of the Midwest, as can be seen in his poems “Pioneers, O Pioneers!” and “The Prairie States.”
Use the following questions to guide comparison of the selected literary work(s) and the Oblinger letters:
- How does the literary work depict settlers' lives on the farms of the Midwest, particularly the Great Plains?
- Does the literary work portray the lives of men, women, and children equally well? Give examples from the text that support your position.
- How are the land and climate described in the literary work? List some of the most evocative words that the author uses to describe these natural elements of the story.
- What is the theme of the literary work? Does the author have a point of view about life on the plains that he or she is trying to convey?
- What, if any, evidence from the Oblinger family letters supports the literary work's depiction of settlers' lives? How do the letters support the author's theme?
- What, if any, evidence from the Oblinger family letters contradicts this depiction? How do the letters contradict the author's theme?
Editing the Oblinger Letters
The Oblinger letters employed the vernacular of the day and place in which they were written. While the letter-writers were essentially literate, they were not necessarily well schooled in writing. In order to make sense of each letter, the reader must supply a good deal of punctuation and interpret the spelling of common and not-so-common words (the editors provide useful information and definitions of some of the language used in the letters). This situation provides an opportunity to focus explicitly on punctuation and spelling (not to mention penmanship) as tools for communicating effectively.
As noted in the discussion of Editorial Procedures for Transcription of Letters, Samuel Oblinger (Uriah's father) used almost no punctuation in his letters. Thus, attempting to edit his letters for a modern reader would be an interesting challenge. As a class, select one of Samuel's letters. Work with a partner to analyze the letter, using the following questions as a guide:
- What problems does the lack of punctuation cause in reading the letter?
- What other clues might you use to tell where sentences begin and end? Are these clues present in Samuel's letter?
- Add punctuation to the letter as if you were creating a version of it for use by fifth-grade history students. Try reading the letter aloud as you work. Does this help you decide where to place punctuation?
- As you work on the letter, what other problems do you encounter in trying to understand its meaning? Add footnotes to the letter to make it easier for the fifth-grade history student to understand.
- Compare your punctuated and footnoted version of the letter with that of another pair of students. What similarities do you notice? What differences? What are the reasons for the differences? Which version do you prefer?
- Has this exercise changed the way you think about punctuation? Why or why not? Has it helped you understand the challenges historians face in interpreting documents written in the style of other times and places?
Virtually every letter in the Prairie Settlement collection is an interesting source for understanding ordinary people and their everyday lives. Read an exchange of letters among members of the Oblinger family (for example, the letters written in September 1887 would work well). Use the following questions to analyze the letters:
- What issues seemed to be concerning the family?
- What activities were family members busy with?
- Where were the various members of the family at the time the letters were written?
- What attitudes or emotions can you detect in the letters? Were family members happy? worried? excited about something?
- Choose one family member to study more closely. Can you identify phrases this person used often or typical sentence structures in his/her writing? Was this person usually serious? Did he/she express humor? Did he/she seem to have a positive or negative view of life?
- In the voice of the person you have chosen, write a letter that might follow those you have read. Write about the issues and activities concerning the family. Try to reflect the attitude and writing style of the person whose role you have taken.
The Horizon in Photographs of the Great Plains
The horizon—the horizontal line forming the boundary between earth and sky—is often a critical element of artistic compositions, whether drawn, painted, or photographed. In images of the Great Plains, the horizon is often particularly important because the land is generally flat and the horizon therefore uninterrupted, suggesting great space.
A rule of composition commonly taught to young artists and photographers today is called the Rule of Thirds. Using the Rule of Thirds, an image is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally, creating a tic-tac-toe grid on the image. According to the Rule of Thirds, important objects should be placed at the intersections of the grid; also according to this rule, the horizon should be either at either the one-third or two-thirds line on the grid (rather than in the center).
Locate ten of Solomon Butcher's photographs of the Great Plains. Keywords that will produce a large number of photographs without many of the Oblinger family letters mixed in are Custer County, post office, and sod house. Examine closely the ten photographs you have selected, answering the questions below in your analysis.
- In how many of the photographs is the horizon visible?
- What impact does showing the horizon have on the viewer of the photograph?
- In how many of the photographs is the horizon placed according to the Rule of Thirds? Do you find those photographs more aesthetically pleasing? Why or why not?
- Try cropping parts of the photographs by placing a white piece of paper over the top, bottom, or sides of the photographs. Does cropping change the attractiveness of the photographs? The content or meaning of the photographs?
- Do you think Solomon Butcher was more concerned about the artistic quality of his photographs or the information they conveyed? Explain your answer.
- To extend this activity, examine the depiction of the horizon in paintings and photographs by searching the Internet for works by such painters as Grant Wood, Robert Sudlow, and Keith Jacobshagen or by examining the photographs of the Great Plains in America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945.
A collage is an artwork that is created by pasting materials—paper, newspaper clippings, photographs, or virtually anything of the artist's choosing—on a surface. Often a collage has a unifying theme, color, or line. In his book Sod Houses, or the Development of the Great American Plains, Solomon Butcher included the collage to the right. Look carefully at the images he selected:
- What unifying theme or line do you see in this collage?
- Why do you think Butcher selected these images?
- What idea or message, if any, does the collage convey?
Create a collage of pictures and quotations from the Prairie Settlement collection that conveys what it was like to homestead the Great Plains in the 1860s and 1870s. Imagine that you are creating the collage to appear on page 3 of a book you are writing about homesteading. What would you title the book? Does the collage convey the same idea as the title?