Author chronicles daily lives, personal struggles of early settlers

History may be written by the victors, but anyone with pen and paper has always been able to scratch out letters to family and friends and tell them what their lives are like.

History may be written by the victors, but anyone with pen and paper has always been able to scratch out letters to family and friends and tell them what their lives are like.

Fortunately for us, author Steven R. Kinsella has delved into a treasure trove of letters just like this. They tell us what life was like for those who settled the Great Plains.

"Hard, very hard it is for a great many people, who are near to despair, having hoped that they would be spared this year, they now see all again lost,'' wrote the Rev. A. Kenter from Lamberton, in Redwood County, on July 4, 1874.

The reverend was describing the grasshopper plague that devoured wheat crops on successive years on the western Minnesota prairie. It's just one of the many revealing letters that Kinsella offers us in "900 Miles from Nowhere: Voices from the Homestead Frontier" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2006).

Many of the letters tell similar, heart wrenching struggles, but Kinsella said he was struck most of all by the "heartwarming'' messages he found in the writings of the pioneers. Their personal missives to friends and families back home spoke of the perseverance and optimism they maintained in the face of severe hardships. But make no mistake, the letters betrayed their emotions too.


"My Dear Rhoda: I have the blues tonight about as bad as a man can have them,'' wrote one homesteader in Colorado to the girlfriend in Michigan who did not follow him.

Kinsella, 49, of St. Paul, grew up in Mitchell, S.D. His great-grandparents were homesteaders in North Dakota. He traveled South Dakota as a press secretary for U.S Senator Tom Daschle from 1987 to 1993.

Kinsella said that he was always interested in the abandoned, ghost-like farm houses he saw on the northern prairies. He was inspired to pursue the first-hand accounts of their former occupants after he explored the remnants of an old sod house he came across as part of a field archaeology study in South Dakota.

Letter writing was a passion for pioneers who had left friends and family behind. Kinsella pored through hundreds of the hand-written letters kept in archives from Colorado and Wyoming to the Historical Society of Minnesota.

The only difficult part was the need to winnow them down for the book. "These were my favorites,'' he said.

The title of the book comes from the letter a new bride wrote during her first year in a sod house. Vera Wintrode finished her letter with a comment on the remoteness of her address: Cottonwood, S.D. -- "900 miles from nowhere."

Kinsella came across Vera Wintrode's letter at the South Dakota Historical Society in Pierre, S.D. It had been discovered in the 1970s in a wall by a homeowner doing a remodeling project. He donated the letter to the Historical Society.

Kinsella later learned that Vera Wintrode's modern day descendants had been trying to learn about their family history, and had no idea the letter existed. Yet they happened to live only a few blocks from the Historical Society archives in Pierre.


It is a telling story for all of us. We live amidst a world created by these pioneers, but are often unaware of their personal stories and motivations.

Most of the early settlers came to the plains with incredible optimism and a sense that they were part of something important, Kinsella wrote. They were driven by the offer of free land, and encouraged by the propaganda of both government and private industry alike.

"Throw seeds in the ground and you were going to be rich,'' said Kinsella.

The pioneers quickly learned otherwise, over and over again as drought, grasshopper plagues, blizzards and depressed farm prices all took their toll.

Kinsella said understanding how the individual pioneers coped and often times succumbed to the adversity they faced explains a great deal about the Plains today. The region's long distrust of conglomerates and grain companies, suspicions of big government, and strong patriotism can all be traced to the experiences of these early settlers, he wrote.

The first person accounts told in the letters help us see the world as did the pioneers. We also enjoy an insightful glimpse into this world in the many pioneer era photographs reproduced in the book.

When he read through the letters, Kinsella said he sometimes felt as if he were invading someone's private life. He often found it difficult to pull himself away the vicarious experience.

Of course, Kinsella knew the outcome that many of the letter writers would experience as he followed their hand written accounts of the year-to-year struggles.


He said he still has a difficult time answering the question it posed: Would he have continued to persevere in the face of repeated failures, as was the case with so many pioneers?

The lessons learned by the pioneers are not forgotten, at least certainly not on the Plains. When Kinsella holds book signings in rural areas, he said that most of those he meets can relate directly to the personal stories of hardship told in the book. They can put a face or name of their own to almost every sort of adversity found on the Plains.

When he holds similar book signings in urban areas, many of those appearing hold a more nostalgic view of the hardships their ancestors endured, he said.

We are all advantaged by the fact that so many pioneers did persevere. Kinsella notes that the Great Plains are beginning to see a resurgence of interest today. The importance of the region's agricultural resources and the potential of renewable energy have brought about a new sense of optimism to what was once termed the Great American Desert, said the author.

He is confident that the lessons of the past have been learned and won't give way to the unrealistic expectations of the pioneer days. Perhaps in that sense, the letter writers are the victors, especially those who lost so much. Thanks to Kinsella, their letters serve as lessons well learned and best of all, understood from the heart.

What To Read Next
Get Local