A Harvest Reaped From Their Stories: In Search
of the Truth of Children
Hand, Gail Stewart. "A Harvest Reaped From Their Stories: In Search of the Truth of Children." Grand Forks Herald, 15 September 1991, sec. 1B.
Elizabeth Hampsten didn't set out to write a history of childhood
on the plains and she doesn't claim this is the definitive one.
It is instead an impressive, relentlessly honest appraisal of what
it meant to be a child in a desolate and isolated land. It draws,
in part, on material from the Historical Data Project kept in North
Dakota's Heritage Center. When people wrote about the early years
of statehood, "often they would start off with highly detailed,
wonderful vignettes," Hampsten said.
Over the years, as she traveled around North Dakota, talking to
church groups, to senior citizens associations, to women's clubs,
she was bombarded by stories. She collected more and more wonderful
"People are always talking about their childhood." Yet,
she found little collected history on it.
And during North Dakota's Centennial, she was struck by the contradiction
of dying towns and civic pride, happy memories juxtaposed against
bitter complaints of overwork. "Towns were dying but they'd
pull themselves together in the Centennial for an ox-cart parade,"
or some such. "I'd hear stories of general romanticism of the
good old days, and then they would go on with stories about how
they'd really suffered. I think honesty is a better way to honor
people - to say how things really were...And the stories were pretty
grim," And they'd usually be followed by "a story slightly
grimmer, if anything," Hampsten said.
She doesn't back away from the unpleasant. Hampsten's book touches
on the racism of the pioneers and the general disregard toward the
native people they displaced. American Indians were to be converted,
gotten rid of, or used as decoration.
Hampsten decided to collect stories people always inundated her
with during her talks about the early days. And she sought out those
who had interesting stories to tell. People like Prepiora, "who
are helpful, interested and willing to share" what they know
about their family's past.
"I had a sense sometimes that people were surprised that I
was interested in their lives." Once after Hampsten spoke to
a group, a woman next to her at lunch revealed that she was born
in a sod hut, something she found so shameful, she'd never told
a soul until Hampsten.
She got help from other resourceful people. The late Florence Clifford,
who was married to UND President Tom Clifford, produced an extensive
history of both their families, culled from letters, diaries and
in-depth interviews. If her ambitious project is not exactly typical,
"it's certainly evident of the kind of energy people here have,"
Another Grand Forks woman, Mary Margaret French Frank, shared details
of a serene and stable childhood. She told stories of doll tea parties
and how she and her friends would fuss over dolls' health, as one
might expect from a physician's daughter.
Hampsten, an energetic English teacher at UND, has a habit of turning
projects into books. "One just does it," she says with
a modest shrug. Her book, "Read This Only to Yourself: The
Private Writing of Midwestern Women, 1880-1910," was published
in 1982. It's an interpretation of pioneer women's lives revealed
through diaries, letters, journals and family histories. She edited
a collection of essays published for the Centennial, "Day In,
Day Out: Women's Lives in North Dakota." Long known as the
editor of Plainswoman magazine, the UND English associate professor
is just back from a two-year stay in Uruguay, where she spent some
time as a child.
She believes there is a connection between geography, history and
politics. For instance, rural states do not have a strong history
of child protection legislation, unlike urban ones, "where
there was a very strong emphasis on children's rights."
North Dakota may have limited support for child services because
of the history of those who settled here, who brought harsh attitudes
along with children to the prairie, she said. "The lack of
generosity toward children has a history. Things like education,
welfare, anything that benefits children or the care of children
falls pretty well down on the list of people's social and political
interests," Hampsten said. "It may always have been hard
for some people to see children as individuals and not a half a
step up from domestic animals."
"It also concerned me a lot that as I was working on this
book, the federal government was cutting social services and states
are having a harder time keeping them up and children are suffering."
Besides the facts revealed in settlers' documents and interviews,
Hampsten is interested in source material as literature. "To
me, the expression in itself is at least as important as the factual
data." She tended to use more than the usual number of quotes
from settlers or their accounts. "I would summarize only when
the information was not revealing."
Hampsten writes about the men who inquired about this rough territory,
about the soil, the weather. "They did not ask whether life
would be tolerable for children and women. Crabapples, chokecherries,
and wild plums are about the only fruit trees that grow in Grand
Forks County; summers are short and winters dangerous. One might
wonder whether an environment hostile to fruit trees may not also
be less hospitable to the survival of children. By 1891, schools,
churches, and doctors were appearing in Grand Forks, but few of
these amenities existed in the countryside. Children were intended
to be an asset to farming, not the other way around. For, in the
first years of settlement, what was done `for' the children often
caused them severe hardship. The journey itself sometimes brought
on the deaths of children who might well have lived had they stayed
where they were."
Education not valued
Education on the prairie was spotty. Some teachers were wonderful
and inspirational; others were ineffective or downright cruel.
Most children relished an opportunity to go to school, for it was
their only respite from work. Indeed, Hampsten's book traces the
connection between compulsory school attendance and child labor
laws. Some settlers saw compulsory school attendance as an intrusion
upon the family's (the father's) rights.
In 1980, Ben Walsh, of Courtenay, N.D., wrote an essay "I
Attended a Country School." He starts with the old joke that
defines a country school as "a building built for the purpose
of depriving a child of an education."
Walsh "describes sympathetically the lot of farm children:
`They were born into hard work and hardship. They learned, while
still very young, that what they wanted they must first earn, or
do without,' and while they gained much from the experience of classroom
and playground about how to get along with others, `they were destined,'
Walsh says. `never to have an education.' Education was not valued
in their time and place; work was what was important and education
merely a distraction from work.'"
Some stories based on letters of parents of 100 years ago are appalling:
stories of month-old infants being slapped for expressing "will."
"That's an extreme expression," of the lack of perception
of the baby as a person, Hampsten said, and the desire to instill
passive behavior in even tiny children, "but it was not eccentric,"
Another story outlines the life of terror for the family of a domineering
preacher. Children could not ask for food, but were dished out what
their father deemed appropriate - after he ate.
"We don't realize why Spock was so revolutionary after generations
of parents literally believing that you beat the devil out of your
kid. There's a whole Calvinist tradition that's pretty grim,"
Cruel beatings during childhood leave dark memories. One man learned
to hate his vicious father and said he would never attend his funeral.
Children also witnessed violence against their mothers in a place
where women were commonly held beneath men in every respect.
Too much work
For some families, the frontier experience did not mean success
but simply physical danger, worse schooling and deep poverty.
"Except for the early solitary explorers, it was not single
men only, but also families who moved to the West from Europe or
the Eastern United States, a decision typically and primarily made
by married men, who put themselves in danger, to be sure, but also
exposed women - and children most of all - to a more precarious
existence than they had known before. Sea voyages overland journeys
by train, by wagon and on foot; the construction of housing and
barns; farming, working on railroads, lumber crews or mines - all
these activities posed even more danger to children than to their
parents, for children were participants in, as well as observers
of, their fathers' work."
Death became so common that describing death became a literary
form. What makes this book more than a history is Hampsten's critical
eye on the literary qualities of the writing.
The life of the family
"Women worried all the time, if we believe what they wrote;
some grew nearly frantic because it was so difficult. Such worry
may have numbed families, for in spite of the constant anxiety women
felt for the children, we hear tales of calamities that could only
have been brought on by incompetence," Hampsten writes.
Hampsten said that few pioneers undertook the experience with good
planning. "They didn't even have maps...In so many cases, the
places where people came from sounded a whole lot better."
for children, at least, than where they were headed.
Yet, some upper middle class families managed to maintain the trappings
of life in the East. The children of doctors and other professionals
seemed to have a more genteel upbringing than those less well off.
Some of the factual writing about settlement family life imitates
"sensational sentimental fiction: children die, starve, are
beaten, suffer from exposure and overwork, and are cared for by
no one, least of all by the parents who abandoned them or died.
But unlike popular novels for the period on these themes, they contain
no moral: Virtue does not triumph - indeed virtue is not even mentioned
- and no hero saves the day."
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.