Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1981


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1981, pp. 169-180.


Copyright 1981 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In recent years many historians have increasingly turned their attention to what might be called microhistory. Rather than studying broad topics in a sweeping and comprehensive manner, they have preferred to examine a county, a city, political or social groups within a locality, or an individual firm or institution. The aim has been to present history from the grassroots or the sidewalks-a people-oriented history, so to speak. As a result of such works, historical understanding has been greatly enhanced.1

Little serious microhistory, however, has been done on pioneer agriculture, farm life, and standards of living. While there have been numerous studies of ranchers and ranches, as well as large corporate farms, the ordinary 160-acre homesteader who really brought the frontier to an end has been neglected and ignored. Partially, at least, the problem stems from a lack of adequate statistics. Most small farmers retained no accounts at all. When account books, diaries, and other materials have survived that reflect the daily living and business aspects of pioneer farming, they too often contain only incomplete bits and pieces of information. The records usually do not provide data over a meaningful time period. Consequently, it has been diffIcult to reconstruct on a year-to-year basis the experiences of settlers as they struggled to become established farmers on some raw frontier.2 The manuscript censuses, local histories, court house records, and other sources are valuable, but they do not provide data on annual production, seasonal price fluctuations, operating expenses, and general living conditions over a signiHcant time span.

The account books of Frederick A. Fleischman, who homesteaded in the east central part of southern Dakota Territory in 1880, provide an opportunity to take a detailed look at one of the thousands of homesteaders who moved to the unsettled frontier and turned his free land into a productive farm and comfortable home for himself and his large family. Unlike most farmers of the period, Fleischman kept fairly detailed records on his farming operations from the time he settled in Dakota until he retired in the early 1920s, some forty years later.3 While differences existed among frontier farmers, Fleischman might be considered fairly typical of thousands who settled on the western prairies, just east of the Great Plains, in the late nineteenth century. He began farming on government land with very little capital and achieved that elusive Jeffersonian ideal of owning a family farm, which gave him independence and a reasonable degree of economic security.

Unmarried and alone, Fred Fleischman ar· rived in Dakota Territory early in June 1879. Born in New York in 1853, the son of a German immigrant, Fleischman had first moved to Wisconsin before deciding to homestead in Dakota. He may have been influenced by glowing accounts advertising the opportunities farther west. "Here is a place for a man to rebuild his fortune again," said a Dakota terri· torial legislative report in 1869. "Here there need be no poor or destitute, for all that will work there is abundance ; here is a land yielding bountifully, open to all nations, where all may enjoy the blessings of a home."4 However exaggerated such claims may have been, it was free land that attracted Fleischman and thousands of other pioneers to the Dakota frontier. Then twenty-six years old, he selected land in Kingsbury County about forty-five miles west of the Minnesota border and some two miles north and a little west of what became the village of Oldham. Annual rainfall averaged about twenty-one inches in that part of Dakota . Fleischman was slightly ahead of the mass of settlers who flooded into the area in the early 1880s during the Great Dakota Boom. The census of 1880 reported only twelve farms in newly formed Kingsbury County, with a mere 197 acres improved.5 Fleischman was on the cutting edge of the farmer's frontier .