Prevailing Over Time: Ethnic Adjustment on the Kansas Prairies, 1875-1925

Reviewed by Marion Mertz

McQuillan, D. Aidan. Prevailing Over Time: Ethnic Adjustment on the Kansas Prairies. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

“What then is an American, this new man?” (page 201)

D. Aidan McQuillan attempts to answer the question by a study of three ethnic groups who, from 1875 to 1925, came to America to tame the Kansas prairies.

The author chose to focus on three groups of immigrants: Swedes, Mennonites, and French Canadians. Mennonites were considered prime examples of the Protestant work ethic: hard work, frugal living, thriftiness, and the reinvestment of capital in farming. The French Canadians represented the opposite end of the continuum: family solidarity, even at the expenses of an improved standard of living, described an indolent and inefficient. The Swedes represented an intermediate position on the continuum: hardworking, but lacking the tight cohesion and cooperation of the Mennonites.

The aim of the study was to examine and compare the basic judgments that members of an ethnic group make in everyday life: their farming decisions, adaptations to their new environment, and the priorities they assigned as they adjusted to the opportunities of American life. The study concentrated on central Kansas in a narrow transition zone between the humid Mississippi lowlands and the sub-humid Great Plains. Thirty-two counties in this area were included because they made available detailed data sources: average rainfall between twenty-five and thirty inches; taxation records; homestead records; railroad documents; atlases; population turnover; economic improvement; and agricultural decision making.

In order to establish a community the pioneer farmers had to contend with droughts, grasshopper plagues, prairie fires isolation, and loneliness. The pioneers had to call upon entrepreneurial eagerness as well as a persevering spirit. Eventually, plowed fields were hacked out of the virgin land, homes were built, and banks, school, churches, stores, hotels, newspaper and telegraph offices, flour mills, lumber yards, cattle ranches, and grain elevators sprang up. By the end of the pioneer period the three factions, Mennonites, French Canadians, and Swedes had developed a distinctive self-identity. Community spirit was strong.

By 1885 families no longer saw themselves as immigrants but as “members of a cohesive group with a distinctive culture that shared a common language, religion, and national origin.” The English tongue was adopted readily showing the willingness of the ethnic groups to interact with their American neighbors. McQuillan underscores the flow and ebb of the lives of the immigrants with maps, tables, and graphs as he compares the mobility patterns of each of the three ethnic groups with the American born control groups.

Ultimately, material and financial success ensued, but the immigrants were able to retain their ethnic identities. Farming decisions were made and resulted in a diversified farming system: the growing of wheat, corn, alfalfa, and sorghum, and the raising of cattle, sheep, and hogs. Immigrants coalesced around leaders and created communities. They established a new identity within those communities and created a new way of life in response to local environmental challenges.

The author substantiates his findings with charts, maps, and very sophisticated statistical analyses of crop yields, farm incomes, livestock production, and labor requirements. There are a total of 42 tables providing much detail covering farm operations, farm income, size, and enterprises, and labor force. McQuillan provides 20 pages of detailed notes. His outstanding bibliography covers manuscript documents, published documents, books and articles, and unpublished these and dissertations. It is evident the author used extensive resources to develop this book, Prevailing over Time: Ethnic Adjustment on the Kansas Prairies, 1875-1925. The author provides a well developed and detailed index.

Students, researchers, and historians of agriculture, ethnic and immigration studies, sociology, and anthropology will find this book to be a wonderful addition to the literature and study, specifically of Kansas and the Great Plains States. This book is highly recommended for college and public libraries beyond the state of Kansas. McQuillan has provided a well researched scientific study. It would be a challenged for researchers to consider such an extensive study of immigrant groups for other states.

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