Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Silent Prairie: Solitude, Isolation, Insanity

E.V. Smalley, a well-known agricultural writer, had much to say in the 1890's about the lonesome lives of the pioneers who settled on individual farmsteads. He pointed out that European farmers usually lived in villages and enjoyed a full social life in the village compound. The women had a chance to talk to each other in the village and to visit each others homes frequently. Children had playmates close at hand; the school and the church were convenient places to get together. The old men sat outside in front of their houses and spoke with all those who went by. The mailman and the peddler made their daily rounds. The homes of these European farmers might have been small and meagerly furnished, but they were well built and for centuries they had offered good protection against the weather. Such a pleasant social setting helped to offset the many hardships and the monotony of a peasant's life.

This picture of the old country was a decided contrast to the life of the American farmer on the western frontier. Here he lived in isolation, often in order to satisfy the requirement of the Homestead Act. The long, cold winters of Red River land were ideal for "the natural gregarious instinct of mankind to assert itself," and to gather around each others hearth fires. But the American farmers' houses, set in the middle of the farms, were too far apart for much visiting. Besides, the pioneer could not afford a solid, weatherproof house like his European counterpart, so he often existed miserably in "a flimsy wooden frame house and if it were not for tar paper and sod he would find himself covered with snow or dirt after each storm." They had left "pleasant little homes in neat farm villages of Europe [or New England] to settle in sod or tar paper houses on the bleak prairie of America." Because of his poverty, the pioneer's home was frequently a "cramped one room house with one window" and from that window all he could see was the wide open prairie, his own straw stack, and occasionally smoke arising from his neighbor's house, anywhere from one-half to five miles away. O.A. Olson explained his father's first impression of the Dakota Prairie:
Go West, young man, said Greeley:
Go West, where land is free.
I went, I saw, I settled
On a prairie without a tree.
From the first storm in November to the last in April, there was little social life for the early settlers except a bi-monthly trip to the general store in the nearest village. This trip was made by all the members of the family if the weather was good and the village was not too far away. At the store the men liked to sit around the stove and talk to find out what had happened in the world since they had last been to town. If the trip was too long or the weather too severe, the men of the family went to town alone to get the provisions. Many times conditions permitted travel only by foot. Social calls on the neighbors "were not what they should be because everyone lived too far apart and the weather and roads too contrary."

The frontier lacked homogeneity not only because of the distance between the homes, but also because the settlers had come from so many diverse areas that they lacked even a common language and a common background. This great disadvantage kept them apart even though they strongly felt the need for social intercourse "which next to food, clothing, and shelter, is an essential to life." One contemporary writer asked, "Is it any wonder that there is a great amount of insanity among the settlers?"

From The Challenge of the Prairie, by Hiram M. Drache