A Dakota Boyhood


If one were to start making a list of things that unmistakably say “America”—things such as the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial, and Mount Vernon—one would come very soon to the old buffalo nickel. This handsome five-cent piece with a buffalo on one side and an Indian on the other was unquestionably one of the most American of all United States coins. Its designer, James Earle Fräser, was born in Winona, Minnesota, in 1876, but when he was four his family moved to Dakota Territory where his father, a civil engineer, was in charge of building a railroad. Fraser became a student at the Art Institute of Chicago at the early age of fifteen, went on to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, was an assistant to the great Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and eventually became one of America’s most famous sculptors. But always his early years on the Dakota prairie exerted a powerful influence over his imagination. This influence is reflected in Eraser’s most famous works—the statue of an Indian warrior called The End of the Trail , the statue of Theodore Roosevelt as a Rough Rider in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and, of course, the design for the buffalo nickel. When Fraser died in 1953 he left a huge collection of statues, models, letters, sketches, books, papers, photographs, and manuscripts, which last year was given to Syracuse University by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Oliver H. Sawyer. Among the manuscripts was an unpublished autobiography, and from this document A MERICAN H ERITAGE is proud to present for the first time the chapter that covers Eraser’s formative years in Dakota Territory. In the original manuscript, which has been edited here, the chapter opens in 1880 with the Eraser family newly arrived in the territory and living in a boxcar near the town of Mitchell in what is now South Dakota. After a few months they move to an unfinished ranch house where they manage to survive a typically ferocious northern Plains winter. After such an experience, the coming of the prairie spring makes a deep impression on the young boy. — The Editors


Late March found the sun climbing the sky and shedding its warm direct rays on the prairie’s hard, crusted snow. In the early spring, latecomers to the plains were surprised at the changed look of the country—the melting snow formed great lakes, which covered much of the landscape. These so-called lake beds were a great convenience for the wildlife, and on windy days or dark nights geese and ducks flying toward the north would settle on them by the thousands to rest and feed. In the calm moonlight they would fly in V formation and their guiding honking could be heard through the night. In heavy weather I have seen great flocks settle down and walk on the open prairie.

There was a vast variety of waterfowl besides geese—black and white swans, brants, teals, mallards, canvasbacks, and numerous other species.

I can’t recall seeing a crow, a buzzard, or a robin while I lived in Dakota, but the bobolink with his gay song and bright yellow and white markings was everywhere, as was the meadow lark, the sweetest songster of that region, with possibly the most beautiful song of any bird of the plains. Later, great flocks of blackbirds came when grain had been grown.

Some of the deeper lake beds retained water the year round. These were filled with cattails and flags, and made an ideal spot for the nesting of many kinds of birds, particularly wild ducks, rail, and other waterfowl.

As the shallower lake beds dried and the tender grass shoots and myriads of insects came up from the ground, prairie chickens would gather in thousands to feed. Their chattering produced a strange hum when heard from a distance, much like the sound of a large city. It puzzled us greatly when we first heard it early one spring morning. The curious sound came from the south, beyond a slight ridge where there was a flat strip of moist lake bed about half a mile long and rather wide. My aunt and I followed the sound, which grew louder and louder as we crawled to the top of the rise. There, to our astonishment, on the flat surface of the drying lake bed, we could see prairie chickens racing back and forth in such numbers that it seemed impossible for them to find space to avoid one another in their wild rush. We were amazed to learn that birds were making the strange noise that puzzled us so much—certainly only thousands of them could have produced such a volume of sound.

In spite of the incessant chatter of the hens we could hear the booming of the cocks and see them standing on separate clumps of earth or on a lone rock, each proudly watching his particular flock. The cock seemed like an actor wanting to impress by his vivid presence and strange antics. It was surprising to find that a bird so small could make a booming sound that could be heard for miles. The notes were boom-ah-boom , ending with a curious elongation of the same note. During the booming, large orangecolored sacs on either side of his neck would swell and the feathers on the back of his head would rise and stand straight up like horns, giving him a gorgeous and aggressive appearance. And he was ready and eager for a fight. Any other cock coming near would cause a fierce battle.