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The Pilots of Our Race

The ten speculators who laid out the anticipation town of Hoskins beside the lake in McIntosh County in the mid-1880s were aspiring capitalists; every action bespoke their acquisitive visions. Such restless souls always saw themselves as something more, something praiseworthy and eminently American, worth remembering when their physical works were gone. Perhaps to be celebrated in song and story, or songs that were stories.

One of the founders of Hoskins, along with Lilly and Wishek and the others, was an attorney from Bismarck named Seth D. McNeal. The Bismarck Tribune in 1885 called him a “celebrated lawyer, rustler, and literateur--lawyer by profession, rustler by instinct, and literateur as author of the famous Fourth of July poem, ‘Hoskins Lake.’” Because people in those days would put up with, even encourage a poet on the Glorious 4th. Unfortunately, McNeal’s opus of 1885 seems not to have survived.

But McNeal was back the next year to recite another poem: “Fourth of July at Hoskins--1886.” His friend Lilly preserved the manuscript, and subsequently Nina Farley Wishek published it in her wonderfully eccentric history, Along the Trails of Yesterday. (She was the Yankee schoolteacher who came to McIntosh County and married the Austrian banker, John Wishek, giving rise to the venerable line who still operates the McIntosh County Bank.)

Examining McNeal’s Independence Day stanzas from 1886, I believe they were meant to be sung to the tune of “Beulah Land,” the hymn, or its popular adaptation, “Dakota Land.” He begins,

A few short years ago these lands where now this picnic bower stands
Were occupied by Indian bands as free as prairie blast

It was important to begin by ushering the indigenous people off the stage of history, nevermore to return--“He’s gone from here forever,” the poet declares. Unfortunately, McNeal then wastes quite a few lines on racist exhortations, including some objectionable language. (No, I’m not projecting values here, people knew the words were dirty, that’s why they used them.)

It was an open land, then, so,

We came the pilots of our race, we each came from a different place
We came to fill this glorious space on Uncle Sammy’s farm

Possession of the land was transformational, to the people as well as the land. It was downright ennobling.

How like a king upon his throne, to live on land that’s all your own
An independence still unknown to many in the east

Lest anyone miss the message, a boomer trope surfaces:

McIntosh County leads the van, offers the grandest results to man
Who will take a homestead while he can on her undulated plain

Which sounds a little sexy, doesn’t it?

Such a developmental service to the country deserves to be remembered and honored.

Perhaps our descendants will bend in tears
o’er our peaceful graves kept green for years
And bless the memory of us pioneers long since gone to join the band

And thus is born the legend of the old settler, the myth of the pioneer. There’s the ballad. And now for the monument, the stones to go with the words.

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