Mobility vs. Persistence: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

In my research, I have gotten the feeling that Nebraskans view themselves from the context of late nineteenth century homesteaders. These homesteaders are portrayed as determined and brave conquerors of a wild land, who put down roots and whose generational experiences on the land have given Nebraska its rich culture of persistence. This view is evident in the literary works of Nebraskans such as Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. At the same time that they value the pioneer tradition, Nebraskans have always tried to expand the state’s industry and economic diversification. Despite some achievements in this regard, Nebraska remains a primarily agricultural state that struggles with out-migration due to limited opportunities.

These views are not just the perspectives of Nebraskans in 1900, 1930, or 1945. They are still held, as evidenced by the concluding lines in the 1997 third edition of History of Nebraska, a definitive study by James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle. The authors write,

“Nearly a quarter-century since their centennial celebration, Nebraskans continue to struggle with many of the same issues. Their society is still heavily dependent on agriculture yet is seeking a broader economic diversity through the expansion of industry. The out-migration of Nebraskans remains a concern…. As Nebraskans look to the new century, there is much in their past to celebrate. Both creative and pragmatic solutions have resolved challenges of the past and will likely do so in the future. The land and the pioneer spirit of its people remain Nebraska’s most valuable resources for meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.”¹

It may indeed be that the land and the pioneer spirit has made Nebraska what it is and will continue to give its people direction, but this view can neglect the role that mobility has played in the lives of Nebraskans since before it was a state. People have constantly moved in and out of the state for land, jobs, and leisure. Much of the mobility within the state has taken place within the minority population, including American Indians, Mexicans and Hispanics, Japanese Americans, and African Americans. These are many of the key players in Nebraska’s history that historians Olson and Naugle devote little, if any, space.

However, other historians have argued that the Great Plains and Nebraska have a more complex, multi-faceted story, one that takes into account the persistence but also the mobility, the white Euro-American homesteader as well as the American Indians, Mexicans, and African Americans who transformed the land. R. Douglas Hurt, the preeminent scholar of the Great Plains, has shown that the ideas of mobility and persistence are not at odds with each other; they are mutually compatible, normal processes of life. He calls Plains residents the “next year people in a next year country,” and appropriate phrase that sums up their attachment to the land and to the idea that the future is full of possibilities. Hurt concludes his book The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century by saying,

“The depopulation or changing population of rural areas was not necessarily bad, because it indicated the traditional, historical process of adjustment of plains men and women to their environment, something they had done since they first came to the plains. During the twentieth century, some chose to stay while others chose to leave, but for those who stayed by choice and even for many who could not, the Great Plains became their sense of place, the land where they belonged.”²

I think Hurt’s conclusion is an excellent beginning for exploring mobility in Nebraska.

¹ James C. Olson and Ronald C. Naugle, History of Nebraska, 3rd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 398-399.

² R. Douglas Hurt, The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011), 260.

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