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Plains Folk

Bad Seed


In August of 1887 the Jamestown Alert sounded an alarm. “The Russian thistle,” writes the editor, “the seed of which was brought to the territory by some Russian emigrants, is spreading with great rapidity in Yankton county, where it has been started.


“It grows to the height of three or four feet. Stem and branches are covered with needles. When ripe the plant becomes a ‘tumbleweed’ and rolls over the prairie threshing out its seed.


“It is more prolific than pursley and as persistent as original sin. It takes absolute possession of the land it gets its grip on.”


This 1887 report surfaced as I followed up on the chapter about tumbleweeds in the splendid new book by David Moon, The American Steppes: The Unexpected Russian Roots of Great Plains Agriculture, 1870s-1930s. I’ll say more about the whole book in a future essay, but right now let’s stay with this topic of tumbleweeds.


Moon, a historian of assiduous research habits and a global view, sees the journey of the Russian thistle to the American plains as a manifestation of settler colonialism--the worldwide movement of colonizing peoples and their stuff, including their biological stuff, from European centers to far-flung lands. More specifically, he argues that the arrival of this “icon of the American West” was “part of the far larger transfer of plants from the Eurasian steppes to the North American plains.”


In Russia they called it perikati-pole, meaning, it rolls across the field. It was not considered an especial problem there; it was just part of the general weed problem that came with the practice of summer fallowing.


In America the weed established and, of course, spread, as it was so well adapted to do in a windy land. By 1891, when the USDA issued its first substantial bulletin on the subject, its author, Lyster H. Dewey, engaged in some contact tracing. Accepting regional reports, he allowed as how the weed had been introduced by Germans from Russia--or just “Russians,” as the label was used then--specifically in Bon Homme County, Dakota Territory--just northwest of Yankton. Moon scrutinizes the evidence and finds it substantial, although anecdotal. Dewey and Moon both reject the allegations by some plains folk that the immigrants spread the weed on purpose for some reason.


Two things make me suspicious of reports blaming German-Russian immigrants. First, I am sort of a peculiar historian in that I embrace chaos theory. Theoretically it only required bad seed planted by one farmer to infest the entirety of the plains, and that could have been anyone. Second, we in America have a historical tendency to blame bad things on immigrants.


Digging into press reports, I find two things. First, I am dead certain that Russian thistle was present and recognized, although referred to only as “tumble-weed,” in Kansas during the 1870s--before anyone was talking about it in Dakota Territory.


Second, the general impression of blame seems to stem entirely from a single press report that originated in Yankton, was picked up by the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and then was copied by multiple papers in North Dakota. Here it is from the Dickinson Press of 22 November 1884: “The Russian thistle, the seeds of which were brought to the territory by the early Russian immigrants, is spreading with a rapidity which calls for prompt suppressive action on the part of city and county authorities.”


The naming of the weed, “Russian thistle,” fixed the blame. Be careful what you share.

-Tom Isern

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