Land of the Dacotahs
From the first chapter, “The Seven Council Fires”, of Bruce Nelson’s Land of the Dacotahs.
“One who has not himself seen the northern plains can have no accurate conception of their nature. They have been called a desert; yet, while there are patches of arid land here and there, there are millions of acres of grassy prairies, innumerable creeks and rivers, and heavy growths of timber. They have been called a flat and monotonous prairie, but there are badlands of tortured and twisted beauty, buttes and bluffs and hills and valleys, and gently rolling plains that rise and fall like ocean swells as far as the eye can reach. And in the Black Hills this ‘flat’ land possesses the highest elevation between the Rockies and the Atlantic seaboard: Harney Peak.
“The plains have been called treeless, but there are great forests, and all the creek and river valleys are lined with lofty cottonwoods and thick with low-hanging willows. They have been called cold, yet the thermometer sometimes rises in midsummer to 120 degrees; and they have been called hot, although winter temperatures occasionally drop to 40 degrees below zero or lower. They have been called barren, these plains that once supported such a wealth of wild game and profusion of natural vegetation; and this, too, is partly true, for in the 1930’s the prairies lay parched and lifeless, but in the 1940’s they produced such a wealth of grain and livestock that their wheat crops alone were measured in the hundreds of millions of bushels and lay spoiling on the ground for lack of storage and transportation facilities.
“It is a land of savage extremes, this land of the Dacotahs, of bitter cold and intense heat. Yet in spring there are balmy air and soft winds and the revivifying green of prairie grass and flowers, and in the fall, when summer’s heat has dwindled, the flaming gold and scarlet of wooded hill slopes. But in winter, when the whistling winds knife southward from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the air is filled with stinging pellets and the blanketed earth lies cold and rigid as iron. The clear bright days of summer turn suddenly black with the purple menacing clouds of the prairie hailstorm, and hot summer nights erupt into flashing thunderstorms of incredible awesomeness and beauty; every lowering cloud hurls its lances of flame earthward and the thunderous artillery of the skies is continuous and deafening. There are times of drought and protracted heat, when the land lies prostrate and gasping, the prairie roses droop and die, and the very native grasses wither; and there are times of fearful flood and disaster when the glutted rivers spread destruction over the level bottomlands.
“It is a land of superb sunsets and magnificent distances, of limitless arch of sky. On its eastern border the broad yellow curve of the Missouri sweeps sharply southward toward the sea; to the west the jagged peaks of the Rockies thrust themselves up boldly, like a great sinew in the shoulder of a sprawling continent. And between river and mountain range is the vast running sweep of the plains country: prairie and hill and lake and forested valley.
“And always there is the wind …”
One of my favorite passages and as good a description as exists of Dakota. Unfortunately one could assume from the above that the Missouri forms the eastern border; in truth it includes lands drained from the west by the Red River of the North, but who am I to critique Bruce's poetic account.
The book itself is a necessary reader for any who wish to study the history of the Dakotas. Full description is Land of the Dacatohs by Bruce Nelson, 5th printing of the Bison Book Edition, 1964, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. First published 1946 by the University of Minnesota Press, Library of Congress catalog card number: 65-108129, ISBN 0-8032-5145-9.
Print versions of this page, as well as many others at this website, are available. Click on the name below to contact The Dakota Icelanders Project.