Rattlesnakes And Tumbleweed: A Memoir Of South Dakota


A few years ago, when she was about seventy, Mildred Renaud took a creative-writing class in the adult-education program at the high school in Briarcliff Manor, New York, where she now lives. For class assignments she started writing an account of her childhood in Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas at the beginning of this century. Her teacher, impressed with the vividness of her memory and the charm and authenticity of her presentation, suggested that she submit these memoirs to AMERICAN HERITAGE. We were moved by this uncomplaining, even cheerful, account of an austere childhood lived in a harsh land, and we are pleased to publish a portion of her manuscript—the first writing she has ever done.

When Mildred was three years old, her mother died, and after being shuttled around among various relatives she finally went to live with her maternal grandparents in ityoj. She had just had her sixth birthday when we take up her story—a story that reminds us how short American history really is.

--The Editors

After school closed in May, 1907, Uncle Vernon, a circuit-rider preacher, came to take me to live with my grandparents, who were homesteading in South Dakota.

Grandpa Pike was a veteran of the war with Mexico and of the Union army and the Marines during the Civil War. While marching over frozen ground in Missouri, carrying his knapsack and that of a wounded fourteenyear-old soldier, Grandpa stepped in a hole and was injured so badly he was given an honorable discharge. He joined the Marines as soon as he was able and served the remainder of the war on a gunboat on the Mississippi River.

For these services the government gave him a section of land in South Dakota. Grandmother, wishing to take advantage of the Homestead Acts of 1862 and 1863, at age fifty-five filed a claim of three hundred and twenty acres adjoining Grandpa’s six hundred and forty acres. In the spring of 1905 she and Grandpa, who was then seventy-seven, closed their comfortable little home in Kirkville, Iowa, and moved to South Dakota with their bachelor sons, Vernon and Leon, who also filed claims. Uncle Vernon’s land adjoined my grandparents’ claim, but Uncle Leon settled on a wooded section nearer the Black Hills.

They took only the most necessary things for survival on the prairie, and for three years of loneliness, and built a shack with a lean-to covered with sod from the ground to the roof for protection from fire, wind, heat, and cold. Uncle Vernon’s shack was only one room, built the same way. The claims were several miles from Capa Station and other settlers, without roads and only the open prairie and Indian and buffalo trails to follow.

When the time came for me to join my grandparents in South Dakota, Aunt Eva packed my precious doll and the little tin dishes with my clothes in the valise and fastened the straps. I had to leave a turtle I had gotten for my birthday with one of my cousins.

When Uncle Vernon and I left Kirkville Station, the rivers were in flood stage, and many times the train inched its way along the track. It was night when we reached Pierre, South Dakota, and the end of the line. We registered at a hotel, and some kind woman took care of me.

The first railroad bridge was being built across the Missouri River between Pierre and Fort Pierre. We missed the ferry and had to cross the river in a launch boat with other passengers. It got stuck on a sandbar, and everyone rushed to the other side of the boat and told me to stay seated. The muddy water was almost to the edge of the boat, and I was afraid.

People gathered on the shore at Fort Pierre and sent a boat to rescue us. The train waited for us, and we were soon on our way to Capa. Oh, what a disappointment when we arrived there! No one to meet us! Capa was only a railroad stop with one building serving as depot, post office, and home for the Stationmaster. His only companion was a dog. We went inside and found the letter to my grandparents, telling of our coming, still in the box.

The postmaster gave us some food and water, and we started walking to the nearest ranch, eight miles away. Uncle Vernon carried the valises, and I carried the food and water. We stopped often, but briefly, to rest. As we walked along I wondered if we would ever find the ranch. All I saw was the endless prairie, beautiful blue sky, and far away some buttes rising straight up from the land. Prairie dogs were popping up out of their holes, barking sharply, then darting down again. Uncle Vernon told me to keep away from the cactus and the prairie-dog holes, where the rattlesnakes lived.

Tired and hungry, glad to find a warm welcome, we reached the ranch as the sun was setting. While Mrs. Weeks fixed our supper the children, Sanford and Marie, brought basins of water, and we got cool and clean. After supper the children showed us many things they had found on the prairie. Sanford had killed a hundred and twelve rattlesnakes with a bullwhip; the government paid a bounty for every rattle. We spent the night there, and the next morning Mr. Weeks took us in his wagon to my grandparents’ shack.