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.