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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 vignettes.

"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," Hampsten said.

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.'"

Parenting styles
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," Hampsten said.

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," Hampsten said.

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.

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