Ida Mary and I came through the winter
stronger than we had ever been before, but we welcomed
the spring with grateful hearts. Only poets can
describe the electric, sweet quality of spring, but
only the young, as we were young that year, receive
the full impact of its beauty. The deep, cloudless
blue of western skies, the vivid colors after the dead
white of winter, were fresh revelations, as though
we had never known them before.
One spring day I was making up the
paper, while the Christophersons’ little tow-headed
boy watched me.
“Are you going to be a printer when you grow
“Nope. I don’t want
no little types,” he replied. “I like
traction machines better they go.
My Pa’s got one.”
A tractor coming on the Strip! I ran to tell
As it chugged and caterpillared from
town through the Reservation, Chris Christopherson’s
tractor caused almost as much excitement as the first
steamship up the Hudson. Men, women and children
gathered about and stared wide-eyed at the new machine
as its row of plows cut through the stubborn sod like
a mighty conqueror. He was plowing a hundred acres.
A few cattlemen from the open country
rode into the Strip to see it and bowed their heads
to this evidence of the coming of agriculture.
Old Ivar Eagleheart, Two-Hawk, and
others of the Indian braves looked on. This mystic
power sealed their fate. It was in a last desperate
attempt to save territory for his race that an old
Indian chief had stood indomitable, contending with
the White Fathers. “Wherever you find a
Sioux grave, that land is ours!” In this plowing
up of the Indians’ hunting grounds no one thought
of Sioux graves.
The McClure homesteaders had filed
on their claims, proved up and gone, many of them,
leaving empty shacks. Here on the Strip were increasing
signs of permanency. Many Brule settlers went
back home and disposed of whatever property they had
in order to make permanent improvements on their claims.
Other machinery came. Within a radius of three
miles of Ammons three tractors ran all day. All
night one could see their bright headlights moving
and hear their engines chug-chugging over the dark
plain, turning under the bluebells and anémones
as they went, and the tall grass where buffalo had
ranged. Fragrant scent of wild flowers blended
with the pungent odor of new-turned earth and floated
across the plain. When those owning tractors
got through breaking for themselves they turned over
sod for other settlers.
In every direction on the Brule and
all over the plains which had been settled, teams
went up and down, making a black and green checkerboard
of the prairie.
Ida Mary and I had Chris break and
sow sixty acres of our land to flax. It cost
$300, and we again stretched our credit to the breaking
point to borrow the money. Try out fifteen or
twenty acres first? Not we! If we had a
good crop it would pay for the land.
The winners in the Rosebud Drawing
were swarming onto their claims, moving their families
and immigrant goods in a continuous stream. Towns
for many miles around were deluged with trade.
It was estimated that the Rosebud alone would add
25,000 new people to the West, with the settlers’
families, tradesmen and others whom the Rosebud development
would bring. A few groups of settlers from Chicago
and other cities came with a fanfare of adventure
new to the homestead country. But many stolid,
well-equipped farmers, too, went into Tripp County,
in which the Rosebud lay.
I got a letter from the Chicago reporter
saying: “I did not draw a Lucky Number,
but I came in on the second series to take the place
of those who dropped out. Am out on my land and
feeling better. It was sporting of you to offer
to find a claim for me. Things are moving fast
on the Rosebud.”
Word spread that homesteaders were
flocking farther west in Dakota to the
Black Hills and on to the vast Northwest.
That inexorable tide was pressing on, taking up the
land, transforming the prairie, forcing it to yield
its harvest, shaping the country to its needs, creating
a new empire.
We peopled and stocked the West by
rail and put vast millions in the hands
of the railroads. Wagon caravans moved on from
the railroad into the interior, many going as far
as fifty, sixty, a hundred miles over a trailless
desert. Homesteaders who had no money and nothing
to haul, came through in dilapidated vehicles and
lived in tents until they got jobs and earned money
to buy lumber. A few came in automobiles.
There were more cars seen in the moving caravans now.
It was not only settlers the railroads
carried west now, it was tools and machinery and the
vast quantities of goods needed for comfort and permanent
occupation; and the increasing demand for these materials
was giving extra work to factories and businesses
in the East.
On the Brule we watched the growth
of other sections of the West. At home alone
one evening, Ida Mary had carried her supper tray outdoors,
and as she sat there a rider came over the plains;
she could barely recognize him in the dusk.
“Lone Star!” she exclaimed as he stopped
He sat silent, dejected, looking over
the broad fields. He had brought the herd north
to summer pasture.
“Did you escape the pesky homesteaders
by going south?” she laughed.
“No,” he said soberly.
“They’re all over. Not near as thick
as they are here, but Colorado and New Mexico are
getting all cluttered up. Old cattle trails broke cain’t
drive a herd straight through no more why ”
he looked at her as though some great calamity had
befallen, “I bet there’s a million miles
o’ ba’b wire strung between here and Texas!
Shore got the old Brule tore up.”
She laughed. “Better not
let my sister hear you say that. Look at our
crop coming up.”
“I didn’t think you’uns
would stick it out this winter,” he said.
“Most of the settlers stayed,” she assured
“Looks like the end of the free
range,” he said. “Cattle business
is going to be different from now on.”
He smiled wanly and asked for his mail, which consisted
only of a pile of back-number copies of a newspaper.
He took them and rode “off to the southeast,”
the vague description he had given us as to where
But he had brought news. The
stream of immigration was flowing in to the south
and west of us, into country which was talked of as
more arid and more barren than this tall grass country.
The barb-wire told the story.
The United States had entered an era
of western development when the homesteaders not only
settled the land, but moved together, acted together,
to subdue the land. It was an untried, hazardous
venture on which they staked everything they had,
but that is the way empires are built. And this
vast frontier was conquered in the first two decades
of the twentieth century; a victory whose significance
has been almost totally ignored by historical studies
of the country, which view the last frontier as having
vanished a generation or more before.
Iron trails pushed through new regions;
trails crossing the network of new civilization broadened
into highways, and wagon tracks cut their way where
no trails ever led before. New towns were being
built. Industry and commerce were coming in on
the tidal wave. A new America!
No cut-and-dried laws, no enforced
projects or programs of a federal administration could
possibly achieve the great solid expansion which this
voluntary land movement by the masses brought about
It takes almost every commodity to
develop a vast dominion that has lain empty since
Genesis. It took steel for railroads, fences,
and plowshares. It took lumber and labor labor
no end, in towns and out on the land. It took
farm machinery, horses, harness, stoves, oil, food
and clothing to build this new world.
I was delighted when one day there
came a letter from Halbert Donovan, the New York broker.
It contained great news for The Wand. And
there was a little personal touch that was gratifying.
“We are beginning to feel the
effect of a business expansion back here,” he
wrote, “which the western land development seems
to be bringing about. If it continues, with all
the public domain that is there, it is bound to create
an enormous demand in industry and commerce. And
I emphasize the statement I made to you that it is
a gigantic project which a government alone could
finance, and which requires the work of powerful industrial
“But, looking over that desolate
prairie, one wonders how it can be done; or if it
is just a splurge of proving up and deserting.
However, it is surprising what these homesteaders
are doing, and it is ironic that a little poetic dreamer
should have foreseen the trend which things are taking.
And I feel you deserve this acknowledgment. How
in the name of God have you and your sister stuck
The reason that Halbert Donovan was
interested in the progress of this area, I learned,
was that his company had mining investments in the
Black Hills and it was investigating a proposed railroad
extension through the section.
The expansion which was beginning
to be felt across the continent grew for five years
or more up to the beginning of the World War, and then
took another spurt after the war. It was not merely
a boom, inflation to burst like a bubble. It
grew only as more territory was settled and greater
areas of land were put under cultivation.
“Do you know what we need out
here most of all?” I said to Chris Christopherson
one day, having in mind a settlers’ bank.
“Yah, yah!” Chris broke
in, his ruddy features beaming in anticipation.
“A blacksmith shop! More as all else, we
need that. Twenty-five miles we bane goin’
to sharpen a plowshare or shod a horse yet.”
Trade, business, industry? Yes,
of course. But first the plow must pave the way.
During those years money flowed from the farm lands
rather than to them. The revenue from the homestead
lands was bringing millions into the Treasury.
That spring the newspaper office became
a clearing house for homestead lands. People
wanting either to buy or sell relinquishments came
there for information. All kinds of notices to
be filed with the Department of the Interior were
made out by the office, which began to keep legal
forms in stock. Gradually I found myself becoming
an interpreter of the Federal Land Laws and settlers
came many miles for advice and information.
The laws governing homesteading were
technical, with many provisions which gave rise to
controversy. I discovered that many of the employees
in the Department knew nothing of the project except
the letter of the law. Through my work in handling
proofs I was familiar with the technicalities.
From actual experience I had learned the broader fundamental
principles as they could be applied to general usage.
I became a sort of mediator between
the homesteader and the United States Land Office.
It was a unique job for a young woman and brought my
work to the attention of officials in Washington and
several Congressional public land committees.
Slowly I was becoming identified with the land movement
itself, and I had learned not to be overawed by the
fact that some of the government’s under-officials
who came out to the Strip did not agree with my opinions.
I had clashed already with several of them who had
been sent out to check up on controversies in which
the homesteaders’ rights were disputed.
They knew the technicalities better, perhaps, than
I did; but in regard to conditions on the frontier
they were rank amateurs and I knew it.
Land on the Brule was held at a premium
and landseekers were bidding high for relinquishments.
So attractive were the offers that a few settlers
who were hard pressed for money, sold their rights
of title to the land, and passed it on to others who
would re-homestead the claims. Several early
proof-makers sold their deeded quarters, raw, unimproved,
miles from a railroad, for $3000 to $3700 cash money.
Real estate dealers of Presho, Pierre,
and other small towns looked to the Brule as a plum,
trying to list relinquishments there for their customers.
But I got the bulk of the business! One of the
handy men around the place sawed boards and made an
extra table with rows of pigeonholes on it, and we
installed this in the back end of the print shop for
the heavy land-office business.
Most of our work on land affairs was
done free in connection with the legal work of the
newspaper. Then buyers or sellers of relinquishments
began paying us a commission, and one day Ida Mary
sold a claim for spot cash and got $200 for making
the deal. Selling claims, she said, was as easy
as selling shela (tobacco) to the Indians.
The difficulty lay in finding claims for sale.
The $200 went to Sedgwick at the bank
on an overdue note. He had moved into a bank
building now, set on a solid foundation, instead of
the rolling sheep wagon whose only operating expense
was the pistols.
That entire section of the frontier
was making ready for the incoming torrent of the Rosebud
settlers to take possession of their claims.
Droves of them landed at Presho early, reawakening
the town and the plains with a new invasion.
Thousands who had not won a claim followed in their
wake, and everyone, when he had crossed the Missouri
River, heard about the Brule.
The government sent out notice for
the appointment of a regular mail carrier for the
Ammons post office. Dave Dykstra had resigned
to farm his land, and Sam Frye, a young homesteader
with a family, was appointed.
We began to need more printing equipment
to carry on the increased newspaper business and to
take care of the flood of proofs which would come
in that summer; there was interest and a payment on
the press coming due. So there was a day when
Ida Mary said we were going to go under, unless we
could do some high financing within thirty days.
“Oh, we’ll get through
somehow,” I assured her. “It’s
like a poker game; you never know what kind of hand
you will hold in the next deal.” Planning
ahead didn’t help much, because something unexpected
But no matter what hard luck a homesteader
had or how much he had paid the government, unless
he could meet the payments and all other requirements
fully he lost the land and all he had put into it.
We could not afford to lose our claim, so I concentrated
on my Land Office business.
As usual, something happened.
I was sitting in the private office of the United
States Land Commissioner in Presho when a man walked
into the front office and put a contest on a piece
of land. I heard the numbers repeated through
the thin partition and I knew exactly where the land
lay; it was a quarter-section south of us on the reservation,
which belonged to a young man who had to abandon it
because he was ill and penniless. He had got
a leave of absence which had run out, and he had no
funds to carry on and prove up the claim. Yet
he had put into the gamble several hundred dollars
and spent almost a year’s time on it. Now
he was to lose it to the man who had contested it.
Nothing could be done to save the
land for the man who had gone home; he had forfeited
it. I started from my chair. The contest
must be filed in Pierre. If I could get one in
first, I could help out the man whose illness had
deprived him of his land, and help out the ailing Ammons
finances. But it would be a race!
Through the outer office I rushed
while the land agent called after me, “Just
a minute, Edith!”
“I’ll be back,”
I told him breathlessly. “I’ll be
back. I just thought of something!”
I made the trip from Presho to Ammons
in record time, raced into the post office and filled
out a legal form with the numbers I had heard through
the thin wall. But I needed someone not already
holding a claim to sign it, and there wasn’t
a soul at the settlement who would do.
It was getting dark when Ida Mary
finally announced jubilantly that someone was coming
from the direction of the rangeland. It was Coyote
Cal, thus called because “he ran from the gals
like a skeered coyote.”
Talking excitedly, I dragged him into
the print shop to sign the paper. “I don’t
want any doggone homestead pushed off onto me,”
I thrust the paper into his hands.
“It won’t obligate you in any way,”
“All right,” he agreed.
He enjoyed playing jokes and this one amused him.
“But you’re sure I won’t get no homestead?”
Coyote poised the pen stiffly in his
hand. “Let’s see,” he murmured
in embarrassment, “it’s been so gosh-darn
long since I signed my name danged if I
can recollect ” the pen stuck in his
awkward fingers as he swung it about like a lariat.
Finally he wrote laboriously “Calvin Aloysius
With the signed paper in my hands
I saddled Lakota and streaked off for the thirty-five-mile
trip to Pierre.
Late that night a tired horse and
its rider pulled up in front of a little hotel in
Ft. Pierre. I routed a station agent out
of bed and sent a telegram to the young man who had
left his claim.
Next morning when the U. S. Land Office
at Pierre opened its door the clerks found me backed
up against it with a paper in my outstretched hand.
Half an hour later, when the morning mail was opened
at the Land Office, there was a contest in it filed
at Presho. But I had slapped a contest on the
same quarter-section first, a contest filed by one
Calvin Aloysius Bancroft, a legal applicant for the
In the mail I received a signed relinquishment
for the land from the young man, withdrew the contest
and sold the relinquishment, which is the filer’s
claim to the land, for $450. I had made enough
on the deal to meet our own emergencies and had saved
$200 for the young man who needed it badly.
And The Wand was still safe.
All around us the land was being harnessed, a desert
being conquered with plowshares as swords.
Scotty Phillips stopped in at the
print shop on his way from Pierre, where he lived,
to his ranch. “The stockmen have been asleep,”
he said. “They ridiculed the idea that
the range could ever be farmed. And now they
are homesteading, trying to get hold of land as fast
as they can. I have Indian lands leased, so I
am all right.”
As a squaw man he naturally owned
quite a bit of land, a piece for each child, and he
had three children.
Panicky, some of the stockmen filed
on land, but a homestead for them was just big enough
for the ranch buildings and corrals; it still did
not allow for the essential thing large
range for the cattle. They began to buy from
homesteaders and lease lands around them. For
years the livestockman of the West had been monarch
of all he surveyed, and the end of his reign was in
sight. Like all classes of people who have failed
to keep step with the march of progress, he would have
to follow the herd.
A strong spirit of cooperation and
harmony had developed among the army of the Brule.
They worked together like clockwork. There was
little grumbling or ill-will. Just how much The
Wand had done in creating this invaluable asset
to a new country I do not know, but it was a factor.
We were a people dependent upon one another. Ours
was a land without established social law or custom.
It was impossible to regulate one’s life or
habits by any set rule; and there was no time or energy
for idle gossip or criticism. Each one had all
he could do to manage his own business.
I had been working at high pressure,
and as summer came on again I went back to St. Louis
for a few weeks of rest, back down the Mississippi
on the Old Bald Eagle to find my father waiting at
the dock. I had half expected to find the family
awaiting roaring stories of the West; instead, they
listened eagerly and asked apt questions about soil
and costs and the future. Things weren’t
going well for them. Perhaps for my father and
the two small boys the future would point west.
I was surprised to find the general
interest that people in St. Louis were taking in the
West and in homesteading. Its importance, something
even of its significance, was coming to be realized.
They asked serious questions and demanded more and
more information about the land. Business men
talked about new opportunities there. “Bring
lots of new business, this land movement,” I
heard on many sides.
After those long months of struggle
for the bare necessities, I was greatly struck by
lavish spending. It seemed startling to one from
pioneer country. Where did the money come from,
I wondered, that city folk were spending like water?
I had come to think of wealth as coming from the land;
here people talked of capital, stocks and bonds; occasionally
of trade expansion. Surely this western development,
I protested, was responsible in part for trade expansion.
Ida Mary had said I ran to land as a Missourian did
to mules; for the first time I began to consider it
as an economic issue.
I was restless during my stay in St.
Louis; the city seemed to have changed or
perhaps I had changed and I was glad to
get back home. It was the first time I had called
the West home.
Unbelievably unlike my first sight
of the desolate region, I found it a thriving land
of farms and plowed fields, of growing crops and bustling
communities, whose growth had already begun to affect
the East, bringing increased business and prosperity,
whose rapid development and far-reaching influence
people were only slowly beginning to comprehend.
All this had been achieved in less
than two years, without federal aid, with little money,
achieved by hard labor, cooperation, and unquenchable