Date of this Version
Western Historical Quarterly 53:1 (Spring 2022), pp. 25–46.
In Red Cloud, Nebraska, in 1887, Anna “Annie” Sadilek (later Pavelka) pressed bastardy charges against the “son of a prominent family,” even though she could have, according to her pretrial testimony, pressed charges for rape. To the literary world, Sadilek is better known as Ántonia Shimerda, the powerful protagonist in Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia. However, it is Sadilek’s real-life experience that allows us to better understand life on the Nebraska Plains, specifically through an examination of the state’s rape laws and the ways these laws were subsequently interpreted by the courts. The Nebraska Supreme Court, between 1877 and 1886, established the need for the state to prove force as a primary component of the definition for rape, drew boundaries around acceptable reporting times, and solidified their stance on the requirement of corroborating testimony. These factors led Sadilek to charge Charley Kaley not with rape but with bastardy, a civil suit, which almost guaranteed a successful outcome for Sadilek and her child because it would not burden the county or state with their financial welfare. In analyzing Sadilek’s choices before the law, this article demonstrates the complexities of the gendered legal systems facing women like Sadilek who sought justice for crimes of a sexual nature. Additionally significant, this article draws attention to a space and place that lacks significant study in regard to the sexual power dynamics of the nineteenth-century Great Plains West, a multicultural contact zone highly susceptible to the influences of hypermasculine control.