Dakota Country


It’s the invisible something in a picture which makes it a good one. The feeling yon have when you think of those mysterious people … ,” Harvey Dunn liked to tell his painting classes back in the 1930’s. By that time he had been a successful illustrator for many years, but the special quality he tried to achieve is less apparent in his commercial, polished works than in his paintings of old Dakota Territory, where his parents were ox-team land-seekers and where he was born in a homesteader’s shack.

Dunn’s Dakota paintings are frankly literary; they tell a story and evoke something of the mystery he saw in his people. One of the most fondly and evocatively painted is his In Search of the Land of Milk and Honey , a picture of a worn covered wagon with a woman and a baby in the seat, a trail-gaunted man walking beside the oxen. These home-seekers are plainly better equipped than many, not only in material possessions—a bald-faced saddle horse tied beside the wagon, and in the back a sod-buster, a store-bought walking plow—but also in their readiness for the new country. This is suggested tangibly by the water barrel and intangibly by the entire bearing and being within the picture. The man’s face is up, his eyes squinting into the distant horizon, although the grass is already dense and deep, excellent for livestock and for prairie fires in the western winds. But he plods firmly on, knowing what he wants, a true man, going out to make a place for himself and his family.

Somewhere, some evening, he will drop the wagon tongue with finality and water and hobble his stock while his wife bends over a fire of buffalo chips, cooking the supper. Afterward they will lean against a wagon wheel, the baby at the woman’s breast, and look out over the prairie gilded by a sky blazing beyond anything they ever saw in the country behind them, in any country. The man may test the grass with his teeth, consider last year’s sunflower stalks to gauge the earth’s fertility, the height he can expect his corn lo grow. Perhaps he will drag the spade from the wagon, strike it deep into the earth, try a ball of the soil in his hand, and perhaps nod to himself.

If the decision is against the location, they will head westward again in the morning, usually traveling the higher ground, looking for corner stakes if the land has been surveyed, for other settlers, for water perhaps, and a little timber, but mainly for a likely plot of farmland. The region of this and the other pictures reproduced here resembles that of Harvey Dunn’s native Kingsbury County, which lies principally on the divide between the Big Sioux and the James, or Jim, rivers, a ragged line of glacial moraines or coteaux that mark the fringes of the latest glacier. The home-seeker’s wagon rides the ridges like the gray wolf traveling them, hunting both ways and ready to dodge out of sight in either direction. There might be Indians, as in the war of 1864 along the overland trails and for generations down on the southern Plains, the country of the Comanches and their neighbors, well-schooled by the early Spaniards in raiding and the taking of captives for ransom. Generally the danger was slight, nothing compared to the scare stories in the newspapers that pulled up every canard to promote circulation or to further the business of the army contractors fattening on Indian alarms.

But no scare really stopped the boomer, the home-seeker. It was reported that eight million acres of the public domain were “entered” in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the year before Harvey Dunn was born, even though the papers were full of rumors of Sitting Bull’s surly restlessness on the reservation located practically in the middle of the Territory. Most of the settlers had found no greater menace than the boundless sea of unmarked prairie, at least not until the blizzard hazes began to whiten the horizon. To be sure, there was always the problem of food, illustrated by Something for Supper . Sensibly, Dunn has the boomer’s outfit stopped back on a rise, so as not to scare the game. The man in the foreground has a wild fowl in his hand, a bird large enough to be a wild turkey or a sage hen. His old muzzle-loader is up, ready for anything that might flush from the deep grass all around.

When the Dunns came to Dakota in 1881, the buffalo was gone from that region. Settlers in northwest Dakota and in Montana might find remnants of the great northern herd if they could beat the hide men to them, or be lucky enough to come upon the carcasses freshly killed, with only the skins gone and the meat left to rot on the prairie. The early settlers learned the Indian way of preserving the meat, cutting it in Hakes no thicker than the edge of a woman’s hand, to dry quickly in the constant wind. Well dried, the meat kept for months and was good boiled with a touch of prairie onion or garlic; with vegetables it made an excellent boiled dinner or a meat pie. Sometimes it was chopped into corn meal mush for scrapple, until there was pork. Lambs-quarter, wild everywhere, or turnip and radish greens cooked in the meat broth made a good spring dish, sometimes served with homemade vinegar from wild currant, plum, or grape juice and the vinegar mother carried west in a bottle. For years some early settlers had no fat except buffalo tallow, using it for frycakes and doughnuts, dipped candles, waterproofing cowhide boots and shoes, and greasing paper or flour-sacking tacked over the window hole until glass could be managed.