900 Miles from Nowhere - Voices from the Homestead Frontier

Book review by Gwen Schock Cowherd, White Bear Lake, Minnesota

Kinsella, Steven R. 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voice from the Homestead Frontier. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society, 2006.

I am a great granddaughter of South Dakota Germans from Russia, who were one of many ethnic groups that took advantage of the Homestead Act offering settlers 160 acres of free land on the Great Plains. I have always hungered for knowledge, the specifics, of their everyday lives.

If you also are an American history buff and long for a look in the rearview mirror of your early predecessors, you can thank Steven R. Kinsella for researching and writing 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier.

Kinsella, a South Dakota son now residing in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a great-grandson of North Dakota homesteaders. His career includes past press secretary to U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, and author of books and articles on the outdoors. Spurred by his fascination of abandoned farm houses on his drives through the Great Plains, his book brings life to the past homeowners’ hardships and successes through letters, diary entries and photographs which settlers documented from 1860-1910.

The author’s research road tripped him to the Great Plains historical societies, state archives and libraries in the states of Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wyoming. The letters, diaries and photographs (most never before published) include the detailed torments of life on the prairie: tornadoes, blizzards, drought, high winds, fires, blistering heat, grasshopper plagues, isolation and loneliness, sickness and dieing, hunger, lack of proper clothing, poorly built homes, and inadequate farm equipment. Some of the letters are heart wrenching when describing the many adversities but many are also uplifting when revealing the camaraderie, hunting trips, bountiful crops, joy of family, sense of community, tenacity and positive attitudes of better times to come. Kinsella does a great job of interspersing letters of sad and happy, positive and negative, but yet keeping them topic organized in the book’s eleven chapters. Author researched insightful narratives precede each carefully selected entry. Listed in the back are the sources and notes of all letters, diaries, photographs and research.

I read with special interest the lives of the women and how they coped with childbirth and sick children with few doctors and medicines available. The women came from many backgrounds. Some ventured from eastern United States homes of comfort, with a husband for a thirst of adventure and land development sales. A few admirable women came on their own to stake claims. Some women came reluctantly following a husbands’ dream of prosperity. Kinsella offers the following excerpt: In the essay “Between Earth and Sky,” Debra Marquart tells the story of her German Russian ancestors arriving on the North Dakota prairie in 1885. While her great-grandfather saw untold economic opportunities before him, her great-grandmother fell to her knees and cried out, “Das ist der Himmel auf Erde!” which translated roughly means, “It’s all earth and sky!” Her reaction was common.

Another woman, Vera Wintrode, a young bride, wrote a letter describing her new found life on the prairie and her loneliness. She signed the letter, Mrs. Frank Wintrode, Cottonwood, South Dakota – 900 miles from nowhere. Thus, the title of the book.

Tears came to my eyes for the hardships my ancestors endured with feeling unwanted and their lack of language skills when I read this in a letter written by a Leipzig, North Dakota woman: “You get so sick of seeing Russians and hearing them spiel Dutch. You ask them anything and its always “ich nicht fur stehe[verstehe]” and they shrug their shoulders and look idiotic. Sometimes you fool them and try to ramble off a little Dutch and then they can’t do enough for you. Ah! We don’t live in the US any more for this is “Little Russia.”

In Kinsella’s epilogue, he describes a wintry day drive on the Great Plains which landed him in the ditch and the ensuing neighborliness that put him back on the road. I felt his turmoil having landed in a ditch a time or two. The weather can change quickly and is never to be taken for granted. Present day inhabitants, like their ancestors, are tough, hang on tight and stick together knowing the prairie is unrelenting, never to be trusted and never to change.

I encourage the reading of 900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier. It is a fascinating study of the early settlers and the pictures exceptionally telling. I envision this book being extolled by American History teachers for its period thoroughness and ease of read. Kinsella should be proud of his book. It took him four years and it was time well spent.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller