History, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Ethnicity on the Great Plains, EDITED BY Frederick C. Luebke. Published by the UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS • LINCOLN AND LONDON for the CENTER FOR GREAT PLAINS STUDIES University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1980. Pages ix-xxxiii.


Copyright (c) 1980 University of Nebraska


Immigrants from Europe formed a major element in the population that settled the Great Plains in the nineteenth century; their descendants constitute the majority of persons in many parts of the region today. A century ago, as the agricultural frontier moved across central Nebraska onto what is considered the Great Plains, foreignborn persons consistently formed a much larger proportion of the inhabitants on the western edge of settlement than they did in the state as a whole. Some years later the census of 1890 revealed that in North Dakota, for example, 42.7 percent of the population of that newly admitted state was foreign-born, easily the highest proportion for any state in the Union. According to the census of 1970, immigrants and their children still account for 22.7 percent of North Dakota's population, and in ten of the state's fifty-three counties the proportion exceeds 30 percent. l Although many students of American literature will find such data validated by impressions gathered from the works of Ole Rolvaag, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, and other writers, most scholars seem unfamiliar with the importance of ethnicity for the history of the Great Plains. Through the years, state and local historical journals have published many articles, usually written by amateurs, that recount the settlement of various immigrant groups on the plains, but most professionally trained historians have tended to ignore ethnic history and to concentrate on traditional political and economic issues. Some, no doubt, have been influenced by Walter Prescott Webb, who observed in his widely read book, The Great Plains (193 1), that European immigrants, as well as blacks and Asians, avoided the Great Plains, especially in the southwest, and left the region to old-stock Americans of English and Scottish ancestry. Carl Kraenzel, a sociologist whose Great Plains in Transition was published in 1955, described the racial and ethnic minorities of the "region in one brief chapter, but concluded that "factors of race, nationality, and religion" played "only a small part" in accounting for the minority groups of the region. Instead, Kraenzel defined his minorities in economic or occupational terms and emphasized that such groups lacked the techniques needed to control their own economic affairs. Recent journalistic treatments of the Great Plains either ignore ethnicity as a variable in human affairs or treat distinctive groups as curiosities.2 The explanation for this failure to incorporate ethnicity into studies of the Great Plains region lies chiefly in the ideas scholars have used to organize their work. Regional studies are naturally conceived in spatial terms; that is, they are founded in the notion that a region has fairly distinct boundaries encompassing uniform physiographic characteristics, such as climate, topography, and soils, that require the inhabitants to act in certain ways or at least within certain limits. Cultural adaptation to the dictates of the physical environment thus becomes tantamount to a successful inhabitation of the region. The scholar may thus be disposed to assume, for example, that all farmers in Rawlins County, which is located in northwestern Kansas and extensively populated by the descendants of German-Hungarian, Swedish, and Czech immigrants, adapted to the environment in much the same way, regardless of ethnocultural origin.