John Pet­tit, Emma Mae Geiger Pet­tit, Julia Etta Geiger, and Arvil Pet­tit (baby) in Long­dale, OK, 1904. Pho­to cour­tesy of San­dra Greer

Were there Jews on the prairie? 

My most recent mid­dle-grade nov­el, A Sky Full of Song, began as I sat at my lap­top study­ing a pho­to­graph of home­stead­ers in front of a dugout. As I was gaz­ing at the pho­to, I began to won­der about home­steading in rela­tion to Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry. My atten­tion was caught by details like the iris­es plant­ed in front of the rus­tic home, the home­made baby car­riage, and the dog and the cat who had clear­ly been put in place to pose for the pho­to­graph (although the cat, unsur­pris­ing­ly, was busy stalk­ing off).

Had any Jews ever tak­en advan­tage of the Home­stead Act of 1862, I won­dered. Had Jews ever strug­gled to farm the land and lived in earth­en dugouts? Had there ever been any lit­tle Jew­ish girls run­ning around the prairie like Lau­ra Ingalls Wilder and her sis­ter Mary, or like the young Willa Cather? It seemed incon­gru­ous with the his­to­ry and sto­ries we all learn in school even to imag­ine it!

I began to do research. I quick­ly learned that some Jew­ish refugees who came from the Russ­ian Empire to the Unit­ed States in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies did make the choice to home­stead. Most set­tled in East Coast cities or per­haps far­ther west in Chica­go. Theirs are the clas­sic turn-of-the-twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish immi­grant sto­ries we all know so well. 

But not every Jew want­ed to set­tle in a city. Some Jew­ish immi­grants want­ed to farm. And the Home­stead Act of 1862 even seemed to offer the promise that they could even­tu­al­ly own land of their own — if they could prove it up.” This entailed pay­ing a fil­ing fee, liv­ing on the claim land, build­ing a home, farm­ing, and mak­ing spec­i­fied improvements.

For some Jews, this was an irre­sistible oppor­tu­ni­ty. Most of the Jew­ish home­stead­ers arrived in the ear­ly years of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, rel­a­tive­ly late in the home­steading era. Most set­tled in North and South Dako­ta, some­times in com­mu­ni­ty groups or in extend­ed families . 

But often the land that was left to claim wasn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly good for cul­ti­va­tion, and farm­ing it was a huge chal­lenge. The Jew­ish Agri­cul­tur­al Soci­ety, one of Baron de Hirsch’s char­i­ties, helped with equip­ment and funds as the farm­ers struggled.

As an Eng­lish pro­fes­sor as well as a children’s book author, I have writ­ten schol­ar­ly works about lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry. But when I began writ­ing his­tor­i­cal nov­els (A Sky Full of Song is my third), I quick­ly learned how much more deeply I need­ed to know his­to­ry to write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Most of the ques­tions a his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist needs answered are high­ly spe­cif­ic ques­tions about dai­ly life, and such ques­tions are not answered by broad, sweep­ing works of aca­d­e­m­ic history. 

I quick­ly learned that some Jew­ish refugees who came from the Russ­ian Empire to the Unit­ed States in the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies did make the choice to homestead.

But these were the ques­tions I need­ed to answer in order to write my nov­el about eleven-year-old Shoshana Rozum­ny, her par­ents, her old­er broth­er and sis­ter, and her twin three-year-old sis­ters, as, in 1906, they flee Liuba­shev­ka (mod­ern-day Ukraine, at that time part of the Russ­ian Empire) and begin home­steading in a North Dako­ta dugout. Shoshana delights in the wild beau­ty of the prairie and her family’s new ani­mals, espe­cial­ly her kit­ten Zis­sel, found and res­cued on their long train trip from New York. But she also strug­gles to find her way in North Dako­ta when her fam­i­ly encoun­ters ten­ta­tive offers of friend­ship from some set­tlers and overt hos­til­i­ty and prej­u­dice from others. 

I won­dered – what sim­ple, cheap food would a fam­i­ly like Shoshana’s have eat­en on the prairie? What would Jew­ish women from a small vil­lage in Ukraine have told their daugh­ters about men­stru­a­tion? How obser­vant would they have been — and would they all have remained so under home­steading con­di­tions? Did babies wear dia­pers? Is it pos­si­ble to paint or paper the earth­en walls of a dugout? What did Jews do for can­dles on the North Dako­ta prairie? Some of these ques­tions were chal­leng­ing to answer. Often even schol­ars I asked didn’t know!

Then there were the big­ger ques­tions. What par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges did Jew­ish home­stead­ers face? Did they face anti­semitism and what forms did it take? What encoun­ters might there have been between Jew­ish set­tlers and the Indige­nous peo­ples of the plains?

To answer ques­tions like these, I turned to per­son­al mem­oirs, indi­vid­ual accounts of fam­i­ly his­to­ry, record­ed and tran­scribed oral his­to­ries, news­pa­pers from the time, and sev­er­al con­tem­po­rary jour­nal­is­tic accounts. 

As I researched, I found some par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful works that oth­ers inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about this lit­tle known piece of Jew­ish Amer­i­can his­to­ry may enjoy. 

Rebec­ca E. Ben­der and Ken­neth M. Bender’s Still was a book I read with great atten­tion. It is a com­pelling, deeply researched and con­tex­tu­al­ized his­to­ry of five gen­er­a­tions of the Ben­der­sky fam­i­ly as they fled oppres­sion in Odessa to take up new lives in the Dako­tas.

Rachel Calof’s Sto­ry, edit­ed by San­ford Rikoon with an epi­logue by Jacob Calof, was also tremen­dous­ly help­ful to me. In 1936 Rachel Bel­la Kahn Calof wrote this account of her life sto­ry, includ­ing her jour­ney from Kiev to North Dako­ta, her arranged mar­riage to Abra­ham Calof upon arrival, and the years they spent home­steading in dire con­di­tions. Her chil­dren had the Yid­dish mem­oir trans­lat­ed and ulti­mate­ly agreed to its pub­li­ca­tion in 1995. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing and some­times very dis­turb­ing account of her ardu­ous experience.

Sophie Trupin’s Dako­ta Dias­po­ra: Mem­oirs of a Jew­ish Home­stead­er is anoth­er first-hand account that I trea­sured. Sophie Trupin came as a child to the Dako­tas, and her account of her mem­o­ries is keen-eyed, detailed, and poet­ic. It was a delight to immerse myself in it.

The sto­ry of the Jew­ish home­stead­ers is a fas­ci­nat­ing, com­plex one. While I was writ­ing A Sky Full of Song, I often jok­ing­ly thought of it as my Lit­tle Jews on the Prairie” novel. 

Yes, Jews were there too. And my nov­el imag­ines one family’s expe­ri­ence on the plains.

Susan Lynn Mey­er is the author of two pre­vi­ous mid­dle-grade nov­els—Black Radish­es and Skat­ing with the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty—as well as three pic­ture books. Her works have won the Jane Addams Peace Asso­ci­a­tion Award, the New York State Char­lotte Award, and the Syd­ney Tay­lor Hon­or Award, among many oth­ers. She is Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Welles­ley College.