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That Hungry Coyote

The prairie ballad, “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim,” the anthem of the settler society on the Great Plains, may have originated in western Kansas in 1880—flowing from the pen of the homesteading printer, Frank E. Jerome—but it was a hardy traveler. During the early 1880s the song percolated in Dakota Territory, especially along the Jim River, living a quiet life of little public notice—only to emerge full-blown as a popular favorite in 1883.

Details of the exchange remain inscrutable, but its contours are clear from newspaper evidence. In June 1883 the song appears in the Arcadia Reporter (Arcadia, Kansas). The text contains vivid details not present in early iterations of the ballad—a hungry coyote sneaking through the grass, for instance—and, more importantly, modifies the plotline. The song no longer celebrates two buddies batching together on a homestead. Rather it channels a plaintive claimant struggling alone, wishing his dear wife would join him in the West, and foreseeing them populating the plains with a happy agricultural society.

Swiftly the ballad populated the press across the Sunflower State, and once again, textual details matter. Key 1883 texts that summer of 1883 situate the singer as

... happy as a clam on these lands of Uncle Sam
In the rich and fertile Valley of the Jim.

And there is no James River in Kansas. The same texts also speak not of coyotes but rather “prairie wolves,” thus employing the northern plains term for Canis latrans.

Quickly in Kansas, the ballad was recognized as a reworking of Jerome’s original song—while spreading across the other states of the plains and, notably, resurging in Dakota Territory. In 1883 we find “Little Old Sod Shanty” in the Mitchell Republican, the Hope Pioneer, the Dickey County Leader, and elsewhere Dakota-wise. The author of a Ransom County history details how in 1883 a substitute typesetter at the Ransom City Pilot heard the ballad circulating and “was anxious to have a copy of her own, so she worked long and earnestly setting it up.”

“Little Old Sod Shanty” not only saw print across the territory, it also won the hearts of Dakota pioneers, such that in memory, as celebrant old settlers on public occasions, they made the song central to rituals of remembrance.

Newspaper accounts say that in 1892 at Williamsburg schoolhouse, Emmons County, following an address entitled “The American Pioneer,” a male duo comprising Charles Stuart and D. H. Yoder rendered a version of “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim” that registered resounding approval.

In 1909 an organized gathering of the Old Settlers of the Red River Valley in Grand Forks opened with the toastmaster requesting those assembled join in singing “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim”—and they knew the words!—singing them, according to local press, “with a familiarity which hearkened back to the old sod shanty and hungry coyote days of the early settlers.” A couple months later there was a meeting in the same city of the state Grand Army of the Republic, opened by one Comrade Ball of Grafton, a beloved raconteur, who got up and sang “Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim.” It was, a reporter tells us, “the big hit of the evening.” As it was at multiple chautauquas and old settler gatherings in Valley City, where citizens sang fondly,

The hinges are of leather, and the windows are not glass
While the roof it lets the howling blizzard in
And I hear the hungry coyote as he sneaks up through the grass
’Round my little old sod shanty on the claim

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