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Oh Give Me a Home

The relationship between George F. Will, Bismarck’s renaissance man and the son of the seed man Oscar H. Will, and Otis A. Tye, the rough and ready frontiersman who worked a few years for the seed company, was strong. George had his degree from Harvard, he was the heir to his father’s business, and he had a restless mind, always occupied with scholarly interests. Otis was the restless type too, having led the life of a bullwhacker to the Black Hills, a trapper on the tributaries of the Missouri River, and a cowboy on the Montana range.

When young George made plans to travel the northern plains in search of matters of anthropological interest, he needed minders — I’m sure that was what his father was thinking when he seconded two of his best employees to accompany the lad. The first was William Sunderland, a bachelor farmer who worked a quarter-century for the Wills. The other was Otis Tye, the frontiersman. I figure Sunderland was the minder, the trusted hand who would be the voice of caution. Tye was the tough guy, the fellow you needed around in a pinch.

In 1908 Will, Sunderland, and Tye — with Tye acting as the guide who knew the territory — lit out for northwestern South Dakota to search for anthropological sites and curiosities. The Bismarck Tribune reported their departure, and Will wrote up their findings, “Some Observations Made in Northwestern South Dakota,” for the journal, American Anthropologist. Among the findings: a turtle effigy atop the Cave Hills, and the notable carvings inside the Big Cave.

In 1910 the three made another expedition, this time along the Missouri River. Tye went first out to Glasgow, Montana, where he built an eighteen-foot boat he placed in the Milk River. After Will and Sunderland caught up with him, they floated down the Milk to the Missouri, thence home to Bismarck (Tye leaving the other two at his homestead north of the city). Will said he wanted to meet Indians, visit reservations, and perhaps locate archeological sites. Not much is reported of the results, but many years later Tye let slip that in fact, Will was scouting for an eastern museum, the name of which he did not recall.

That 1908 expedition, another thing about it, of some importance in retrospect — the guys got to singing cowboy songs, which both Sunderland and Tye knew, and Will wrote them down. Subsequently he published the texts in two articles for the Journal of American Folklore, 1909 and 1913.

It was Otis Tye who taught George Will how to sing,

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

And the stanzas and chorus of “Home on the Range,” much as we know it, but with some words peculiar to Otis Tye. The thing is, the wider world had no knowledge of this song. Composed in Kansas in the 1870s, it had gone underground, transmitted by word of mouth in folk tradition. Until recently, we thought “Home on the Range” was lost to the literate world until 1910, when the Texas collector John A. Lomax published his text, collected from a black saloon keeper in San Antonio, in his book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.

Lomax collected the song in the summer of 1908. Will got the song, from Tye, the same summer — we don’t know just when in either case — so far as we know, it’s a tie as to which songcatcher got it first. Will, however, published Tye’s song in the Journal of American Folklore in 1909. Lomax did not make print with his song until 1910. Thus, credit North Dakota with a first in the rediscovery of the finest piece of lyric folk poetry ever to grace the culture of the North American plains.

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