Toward The Little House

A LIFELONG FASCINATION with the stories of a famous pioneering family finally drove the writer to South Dakota in hopes of better understanding the prairie life Laura Ingalls Wilder lived there and later gave to the world.

When she was a little girl in Wisconsin in the 1870s, her father would take her and her sister on his knee after supper in their log house and tell them wonderful stories about bears and panthers and little boys who sneaked out to go sledding on the Sabbath. Then later she would drift off to sleep in her trundle bed hearing her father play his fiddle. Even after they left their comfortable house, and meals became unpredictable, the stories went on, as did the fiddle music. It was too good to be altogether lost. Read more »

Into The Face Of History

Starting with a single, haunting battlefield image, an amateur photo detective managed to reconstruct a forgotten photographer’s life and uncover a treasure of Indian portraits.

I had waited six months to see it. A long-time collector, I loved to roam the monthly swap meet in Long Beach, California near my home. Half a year before, I’d stopped at the booth of a dealer in old photographs and asked if he had anything related to General Custer or to the Battle of the Little Bighorn, both favorite topics of mine. He told me that he had a stereo view of the Custer Battlefield, but he hadn’t brought it with him, and it wasn’t for sale. “It’s by a photographer I’ve never heard of,” he explained.Read more »

The Most Wonderful

Dan Patch never lost a race. But that’s not how he made his owner a multi-millionaire. America’s best-loved horse was also perhaps the most shrewdly marketed animal of all time.

In mid-September 1904 Americans reading about Teddy Roosevelt’s conquest of the Republican presidential convention and the decisive Japanese victory over the Russians at Liao-yang came across a brief news item from Kansas: Dan Patch had taken ill in Topeka and would probably die. The announcement sent tremors of anticipatory grief not only through horse fanciers and turf followers but through millions of people who had no particular interest in the track.Read more »

The Census War

Nearly a hundred years ago two rival cities fought hard and dirty to win the battle of numbers

In mandating a national census every ten years, the framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned a counting, not a bashing, of heads. Certainly the Founding Fathers could not have foreseen anything like the strife between a pair of Minnesota cities perched on opposite banks of the Mississippi River. But the intense rivalry between the twin towns of Minneapolis and St. Paul peaked a century ago during the 1890 census, and the tallying of their populations became a battle of neighboring police forces, lawyers, judges, and crooked enumerators. Read more »

Martians & Vikings, Madoc & Runes

A seasoned campaigner’s look at the never-ending war between archaeological fact and archaeological fraud

In 1961 three rockhounds found an unusual nodule near Olancha, California. It contained ceramic, copper, and iron components and seemed obviously man-made. Although ( California is the home of some of the world’s finest universities, the discoverers took the artifact to the Charles Ford Society, reportedly “an organization specializing in examining extraordinary things.” The results were predictably extraordinary.Read more »

The Hinckley Fire

All through the late spring and summer of 1894 a haze of woodsmoke hung over the town of Hinckley in Pine County, Minnesota. Small fires burned unheeded in the cutover timberlands throughout the county, throughout the whole eastern part of the state. In mid-July, section gangs of the St. Paul & Duluth Railroad were out fighting fires north and south of Hinckley, and they succeeded in getting the flames under control before the right-of-way was damaged. At about the same time, a correspondent for a St.Read more »

The Boy Artist Of Red River

Between the ages of fifteen and twenty, young Peter Rindisbacher captured on canvas the lives of Indians and white pioneers on the Manitoba—Minnesota frontier

On August 12, 1834, a twenty-eight-year-old Swiss-born youth named Peter Rindisbacher, who was just beginning to attract international attention with his colorful and realistic drawings of Indian life along the mid-western United States and central Canadian frontiers, died in St. Louis. In a brief obituary the Missouri Republican noted his passing: “Mr. Rindisbacher had talents which gave every assurance of future celebrity. … He possessed a keen sensibility and the most delicate perception of the beautiful.” Read more »

The Preposterous Pathfinder

Giacomo Beltrami’s discoveries were mostly illusory, but he had a glorious time making them, and the people of Minnesota have never forgotten his name.

In the serious story of the exploration of the Mississippi River, there is one unique and preposterous character. He is Giacomo Constantino Beltrami, an Italian of comic-opera proportions. Beltrami was in every way a glorious misfit. He was wayward, unpredictable, and humorous. It was impossible for him to be anything but a charming maverick, and when this dilettante set forth alone to discover the true source of the Mississippi, he did so in a gush of hyperbole.Read more »

Massacre!

Minnesota’s Sioux uprising began with senseless murder on a peaceful Sunday afternoon. Before it ended, the smell of death was everywhere

 

The day was August 17, 1862, a Sunday when most of the settlers in southwestern Minnesota were taking a Sabbath rest in the midst of the farmers’ yearly race to get in the ripe grain while the weather stayed good. If it was like most days in a Minnesota harvest season, there was a blue haze along the prairie horizon and the dusty smell of dry grass and wheat stubble in the air. Read more »