Pioneering in North Dakota

Western Road Trip

Skipping northward today, we take a look at some Western history.  When you travel in the Western United States, you are surrounded by history–not the centuries-old art and buildings that surround you in Europe, but the more recent history of settler’s trails, ghost towns, and mine camps.

Destination: North Dakota

Book: Dakota, or What’s a Heaven For (November 2010)by Brenda Marshall

North Dakota Railroad Tracks
North Dakota Railroad Tracks

This is a big book with a big story to tell.  Although I have read a lot of western history, I had no idea of the way that the Dakotas (at the time of the novel one territory rather than North and South) were settled.  The story of Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For sweeps you along by focusing in on the individual story of one fascinating woman and her relationships.  Because Frances’ father-in-law is involved with the railroads, a critical component in the settling of the territory, and her husband is in journalism, the family is very well-off and Frances comes into contact with people of all layers of society.  This enables Brenda Marshall to cover the areas of politics, economics, transportation, agriculture, and all the other components of history in the form of  stories rather than dry facts and statistics.

North Dakota
North Dakota

The reader generally sees the world through Frances’ eyes. But Marshall avoids presenting a rosy-hued view of the pioneer life by countering the optimism and enthusiasm of Frances with the downright disgust that her husband, poetry-spouting, unambitious Percy, feels about this territory that he has been dragged to against his will.

Although she lives a privileged life, Frances is endowed with the toughness that got pioneer women through the rigors of settling in raw land.  Her attraction to Percy’s sister, an impossible love in the Gilded Age, forces a grim acceptance of compromise on her.

Which was better, Frances wondered: to know the limitations of your life, as she did now, or to continue to believe in the dream of independence, as did so many?

Among the many characters in the book, I was most drawn to Kirsten, representative of the Norwegian immigrants and settlers who Frances was thinking of when she spoke of “so many” who believed in independence.  Kirsten, a servant girl who comes from a dirt-poor household with an alcoholic father is a practical realist who tells long-winded stories that help the author feed us details about life in the Dakotas. Observing the life of Frances’ family, Kirsten reflects, “There are people who make things happen and people things happen to.”

Marshall pins her characters to the wall like insect specimens with her sharp observations.  When Frances gives birth to a son, the baby is “a red, wrinkled simian-like creature prone to leakage.” But the baby changes her.

Frances looked fairly beaten by her experience….beneath her eyes were dark circles, her skin had none of its typical healthy flush and she lay unnaturally still…Then she had looked down upon the wizened creature next to her, and Percy understood that there slept Frances’ newest ally. ‘I have populated the opposition,’ he thinks.

The personal story of a forbidden love, and the strength of women, in my estimation, was somewhat weakened by the fact that all men in the book are seriously flawed–weak or evil or both. All the women characters are more complex and interesting.

The proprieties forced upon people by the Gilded age fascinate me and complicate life for the characters. Besides the fact that a woman of standing like Frances could not imagine openly loving another woman, she is constrained in her relationship with Kirsten the servant girl because of class differences.  When her husband’s behavior becomes totally insupportable, she wonders how she can survive without the marriage, bad as it is.

Was she “to take in dresses to mend?….apprentice herself, at thirty years old, to the milliner who had constructed her finest hats?

And even though she has proved a godsend to her father-in-law by straightening out his business affairs, she muses,

She could compute the wages of threshing crew in her head more quickly thatn John Bingham could on paper….but there were the skills of a helpmate, a wife, a daughter-in-law. Or of a bookkeeper, which is to say, a man.

It comes as something of a shock to realize how limited her options are.

N. Dakota snow
N. Dakota snow

It is hard to understand loving the Dakotas as the characters  live through the year’s cycle of wind–winter blizzards-spring flood- summer heat and drought-more wind-prairies fires-until the one golden time of the year, Indian Summer, arrives. The settlers come for top soil “Deeper ‘n you can (go),” and cheap and plentiful land near railroad tracks with trains waiting to take produce to market. And when the wildflowers carpet the prairie, all is forgiven.

N. Dakota wildflowers
North Dakota wildflowers

Percy, who hates the place, nevertheless writes promotion pieces for the railroad agents who travel to Europe to recruit immigrants, and even he finds inspiration in this land that encourages thoughts of freedom as he travels by train.

The trees had fallen away, the lakes had disappeared, and the hills had leveled out so completely that it was as if God had taken a tug at the edge of the rippling and rolling terrain while Percy slept and pulled it smooth.

It is a wide land that encourages thoughts of freedom–the economic freedom of owning your own land and the cultural and social freedom that allows women to homestead and to lead lives not possible in the more “civilized” parts of the United States.

If you have 3 minutes, I highly recommend that you look at this video. The book trailer for Dakota presents some wonderful pictures that bring the place to life as well as comments by the author of this very ambitious historic novel, Brenda Marshall.

Have you traveled in the Dakotas? Would you have made a good pioneer settler?

Discaimers and Credits: Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of Dakota. Photographs are from, used with a Creative Commons license. Thanks the photographers by clicking on each photo to learn more. Links to Amazon are affiliate links, meaning if you purchase anything while you are Amazon, it helps A Traveler’s Library stay in business even though it costs you no more.



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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

3 thoughts on “Pioneering in North Dakota

  1. I think this would be a fascinating read. I’ve been exploring my family history and my maternal grandmother was born in North Dakota- I have many documents (homestead affidavits)belonging to my great-grandfather– of land in Hebron, North Dakota from 1896. I just looked up Hebron and found out there are only 900 people living there now- I wonder in 1896 how many people were living there.

    My great grandmother’s family were all in Nebraska and North Dakota- I have heard stories of all of them being real pioneer types- I think that is where my strong pioneering spirit comes from 🙂

  2. This book sounds like a fascinating read. Frances had a lovely vantage point from which to view the world around her.
    Unfortunately, I haven’t done much travel in the western US. These photos really make it come alive. Thanks, Vera!

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