Saturday, February 19, 2011

Homesteaders, the Badlands, & Black History Month

(SD Badlands, photo by Jane Heitman Healy, c 2008)

When you think of homesteading, what springs to mind? Laura Ingalls Wilder, sod homes, prairies? Those would all be accurate, but did you know that South Dakota homesteaders included some blacks?

(Oscar Micheaux, SD Cultural Heritage Center)

One black South Dakota homesteader who went on to fame was Oscar Micheaux. He settled in Gregory County in south central South Dakota, just west of the Missouri River, in 1905. He lived there for eight years and wrote "The Conquest: The Story of a Pioneer by the Pioneer." He later wrote seven novels and was the first African-American to write, produce, and direct a feature length film--"The Homesteader"--in 1918. The city of Gregory hosts the annual Oscar Micheaux Film & Book Festival, completing its 15th year this past August.

More about his films can be seen here on YouTube.

A fictional account of black homesteading in the Badlands is The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Written by Ann Weisgarber, who is white, the book depicts the harsh conditions, trying times, and tough choices of the title character, the wife of a former Buffalo Soldier, who felt that his claim to identity as an individual was in how much land he could acquire. The sacrifices they and their children made to survive and Rachel's spirit to overcome make this an interesting, haunting read. History, prejudice, and family life intertwine to give readers an understanding of the times and a look into a woman's heart.

Weisgarber says that the idea for the novel struck her when she toured the Badlands and saw a homesteader's sod hut there. "What if?" she wondered. The publication of the book took an interesting turn when it was refused by U.S. agents and publishing houses. She sent it to England, where it was published and received high honors. Then U.S. agents and publishers were interested!

Life in the Badlands is still harsh, but modern transportation, plumbing, and electricity are luxuries not available in the homesteaders' era. How well would you fare here? Me? I'm thankful for modern conveniences!
(photo by Jane Heitman Healy, c 2008)


  1. Oscar Micheaux! What a fantastic, energetic, creative man! I included a section about him in a new book. He often hand-delivered his independent films to theater owners. Sometimes, they offered backing for his next project. Saving money on studio time, he filmed in the houses of friends. In the south, he convinced theater owners to show his films in special matinées to draw in his unserved African-American audience.
    Great post, Jane!

  2. Thanks for the additional Micheaux information, bluerabbit. He defied his times!

  3. Several years ago my family and I toured the Bad Lands. It was wild and beautiful. Thank you so much for this post about the settlers in the area. I love to think of the courageous people who braved the harsh conditions. This courage knew nothing of the color of skin.
    Elaine Littau, author of Christian Historical/Western fiction

  4. Well said, Elaine. Thanks for stopping by!