“Work out alright”: Immigrants and the Environment of the Great Plains

When I was in Nebraska in May for a site visit to Scotts Bluff National Monument, I noticed many businesses named after their owners, who had surnames of distinct German and Czech origin. As I have begun research for my essay on Mobility, Settlement, and Tourism, I am exploring patterns of migration and mobility in Nebraska and the Scottsbluff vicinity in particular from early settlement through the present. One of the major eras of migration occurred in the 1870s through the early 1900s, as thousands of homesteaders poured into the Great Plains to take advantage of 160-acre parcels from the U.S. government under the Homestead Act. While many of these homesteaders were native-born Americans, thousands more were immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Scandinavia, and Russia (ethnic Germans from the Volga River and Black Sea regions of Russia). These immigrants infused the Great Plains with their rich culture in ways that can still be seen today, such as in the plethora of foreign-sounding business names in western Nebraska. I found the many informative essays in Ethnicity on the Great Plains by Frederick C. Luebke to be just the tip of the iceberg in revealing the rich ethnic makeup of the region.

Why did these immigrants flock to the Great Plains? Many people have noted the harsh environment of the region, from the constant wind, the lack of trees, and the scarcity of water to the threat of tornadoes, prairie fires, drought, grasshopper plagues, and blizzards. The Great Plains is a land of extremes, and western Nebraska is no exception. Boosters and promoters claimed that “rain follows the plow” in a glowing effort to demonstrate that the Great Plains was not really the Great American Desert, and only needed the hard work of homesteaders cultivating the sod to make the region into a lush paradise. In hindsight, we know that the plow did not bring rain. Part of the problem was a failure on the part of promoters and homesteaders to fully recognize and appreciate the beautiful but fragile ecosystem of the Great Plains. They needed to develop ways to use the land in accordance with its fragility and not in the same way that farmers had been using lands in the more temperate Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. It is a lesson we are still learning today: despite our hardest efforts, we cannot tame the land. We can only work with it.

This is perhaps what some homesteaders learned if they managed to persevere on the Plains and not abandon their land after the first few hard years. Steven Kinsella, in his book 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier, has combed archives across the Great Plains to present just a sampling of the many letters and diaries from Great Plains homesteaders. As I read the words of these determined men and women, I felt their love for the land, despite every challenge it threw at them. Perhaps most profound was a letter written by Lars A. Stavig, a Norwegian immigrant who settled with his family in Dakota Territory. He wrote a letter to his brother, Knudt Stavig, back in Norway, encouraging him to immigrate to America. Stavig did not write about the Plains in glowing words as a land flowing with milk and honey. He honestly admitted that life there required hard work and brought many challenges. Yet Stavig was content. He firmly believed that struggling in America was far better than struggling in Norway. He wrote:

“I lived in Norway for 32 years and I have now lived in America for 12 years and I can see the difference. I think you would be doing the right thing by coming to America…. I am not living in the most convenient place in America, but you must decide where you want to go. Don’t decide not to come because you don’t like where I live and feel that you have to come here. America also has problems just as Norway does, but there is a difference in their problems. You can be poor in America as well as Norway. In the beginning it is the worst, before you are situated and have made some money. … Dear brother, if you come everything would work out alright for you just as for the million others who come to America every year.”  ⃰

People like Lars Stavig were the men and women who built the Great Plains. It was their determination and perseverance that enabled them to live contented, if not prosperous, lives. For those who learned to love and appreciate the land, and whose families still live on the land today, they did indeed discover that it would “work out alright.”  ⃰

⃰ Lars A. Stavig to Knudt Stavig, from Nutley, Dakota Territory, August 5, 1888. L. M. Stavig and Harold Torness Collection, 1881-1949, p. 106-25, Center for Western Studies, Augustana College. Quoted in Kinsella, Steven R. 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006), 174, 176.
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