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Homesteader's Lament


Hurrah for Emmons County, the land of the free The home of the grasshopper, the bedbug and flea I sing loud its praises, I sing loud its fame While starving to death on a government claim


If you are a little nutty about folklore, you might recognize this song, but you’re thinking there’s something wrong about the way I’m singing it. The song, set to the tune of a traditional jig, “The Irish Washerwoman,” is commonly rendered as “The Lane County Bachelor.” Sometimes it’s called “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” because it details the trials and troubles of a pitiful fellow trying to prove up a homestead claim on the plains. In Lane County, Kansas.


Except I’m here to tell you today that the earliest known published text of this standard prairie folksong--known only since this week, when I found it in the Emmons County Record of 21 September 1894--comes to us indeed from Emmons County, North Dakota, more specifically from the southern part of the county, around Westfield. The singer who situated the song in Emmons was one George Ryckman, who began his stanzas like this:


George Ryckman’s my name and a bachelor I am I’m keeping old bach on an elegant plan You will find me out west in Westfield’s old plain Starving to death on a government claim


The authors of folksongs often are anonymous or at best obscure, but in this case, the originator of our song identifies himself in the first line, and he can be traced. I have documentation on George Ryckman from the land patent index of the Bureau of Land Management; from manuscript census returns; from grave records; and from short news articles about him.


Ryckman, as was common on the homesteading frontier, was no lone eagle. He had two brothers and other relations who also settled nearby. They hailed from Ontario, Canada, and entered the United States in 1887. George Ryckman was born in 1861, and so when his song was published, he was about 33 years old.


And, unlike his brothers, he was single--an important element in the song. In the final chorus he declares his intent to “go to Ontario and get me a wife / And live on corn dodgers the rest of my life.” Well, he didn’t. Instead he married a woman from South Dakota with whom he had several children.


The evidence indicates Ryckman succeeded as a farmer, for he received federal patents to a homestead, a timber claim, and a preemption claim paid for with cash. Sometime in the 1920s he relocated his family to California, where he continued farming until his death in 1937.


All versions of “The Lane County Bachelor,” “A Homesteader’s Lament,” “Starving to Death on a Government Claim,” or whatever you call it, comprise multiple stanzas packed with hardships and annoyances: bachelor life, bad food, ragged clothing, rattlesnakes, grasshoppers, bedbugs, fleas, heat, cold, drought, and poverty. The Ryckman version, appropriately for North Dakota, is the only one that mentions mosquitoes.


In the final stanza Ryckman allows, “As for myself I’ll no longer remain / To starve to death on a government claim.” But in real life, he does. Remain, I mean, not starve. So the song is a spoof. The hardships may be real, but the singer in fact is persisting and prevailing. As does the song, which becomes an ironic classic of folk literature. More on that in a future essay.


- Tom Isern

Prairie Public Broadcasting provides quality radio, television, and public media services that educate, involve, and inspire the people of the prairie region.
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