Inheriting the Earth

Jan 23, 2018

 


Alongside the fireplace in our study is the Big Bison Chair. I bought it at a swanky furniture store on the east side of Fort Worth. The gal who sold it to me, when she told me how much it cost, I said, Wow, how many miles does it get to the gallon? But, she threw in free shipping to North Dakota, so I bit. It was money well spent.

The hours of blissful immersion in great books I have spent in this leather recliner, I cannot put a price on them.

Lately I have been absorbed in an unlikely choice of reading: Volume I of the Collections of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1905. I didn’t intend to check it out; it was shelved next to another book I needed from the library; but it just looked like a book I would like to hold for a while.

I would not read this on an electronic device. That would be silly. Reading, done right, is an experience both intellectual and sensate.

Now, this idea of a book entitled, Collections. In the days before state historical societies published historical journals, generally quarterly, they put out annual volumes publishing papers and sketches submitted by the members. Nowadays we look back at these quirky publications with bemused disdain, because after all, they do not meet our conception of scholarly standards.

Except, these writers more than a century ago, they had game. They were trying to be scholarly and authoritative; at the same time, they were chronologically close to the events they were describing. They had a tendency to slip into first person and say, I was there, and this is how it happened.

As a cohort, too, these antiquarian writers of the early twentieth century document the spirit of the times. Here is what I mean, in the case of the work under review. Most of the states of the Great Plains, although they had large populations of immigrant farmers, were dominated, in political and literary matters, by an English-speaking, Anglo-American elite. State historical societies included, perhaps especially.

The published collections of such societies, therefore, are full of essays by old settlers, great white men, with nice Anglo-American names. As a corollary, when Walter Prescott Webb wrote the foundational history of our region, The Great Plains, in 1931, he said nothing at all about immigrant settlers.

Here, though, in these discolored pages from 1905, I find an extended article by Sveinbjorn Johnson, “The Icelandic Settlement of Pembina County”; then another by Omon B. Herigstad, “The First Norwegian Settlement in Griggs County, North Dakota”; and then by Waldemar C. Westergard, “History of the Danish Settlement in Hill Township, Cass County, North Dakota.” To top it off, there is a survey of ethnic settlement across North Dakota, sketching in who settled where.

Two things come of this. First, in deep dark winter, I am thinking, I can’t wait for good weather to go out into these ethnic settlements and look up the descendants of the sturdy folk I am reading about. Second, I feel a little underdog jubilation welling up.

Like many of you reading or hearing this, I am of immigrant farmer stock. I love it that here in North Dakota, the most foreign state of them all, we immigrants shouldered in for a seat at the table of history. And here am I, a literary man, making bold to recount and interpret it all, inheriting the earth and its stories.