Journalism and Mass Communications, College of


Date of this Version



Published in SOUTH DAKOTA HISTORY 39:1 (Spring 2009), pp. 1-26. Copyright © 2009 South Dakota State Historical Society. Used by permission.


In the middle of September 1908, a "sort [of] trampish looking fellow" called on Doane Robinson, secretary of the South Dakota State Historical Society and head of the state's Department of History. The visitor had just spent more than forty days on the Upper Missouri River, making his way in a small boat from Fort Benton, Montana, to Pierre, South Dakota. He had written Robinson a week earlier to warn him that he might not be looking his best. "You will not expect me to appear in evening dress," he told Robinson. "Yesterday I saw a mirror -- it made me laugh heartily." Robinson, about to turn fifty-two, was almost twice the age of his guest, the young Nebraska poet and short-story writer John G. Neihardt, then just twenty-seven and nearly finished with a river voyage he was writing about for a New York magazine. Despite the young man's trail-worn appearance, Robinson found Neihardt to be "a fascinating conversationalist," at ease and more than willing to recite some of his poetry. Robinson would remember talking with him about Hugh Glass, Tom Finn, and the United States-Sioux wars, but Neihardt would recall another focus of their conversation: "Do you remember the night in September . . . when you introduced me to Jed Smith?" The meeting of these two amateur historians--one an exuberant young writer who was then in the middle of a powerfully productive period, and the other a booster of all things South Dakotan who would later initiate the idea for his adopted state's most famous attraction--marked the start of their mutual efforts to preserve the history of an early explorer of the American West. The story of how these two commemorators of heroes worked together and how their individual projects evolved offers insight into the way in which historians often build their scholarly work on personal interest and vision. In their pursuit of Jedediah Strong Smith, Neihardt and Robinson exemplified the idea that historians' personal interests, backgrounds, and world views influence their scholarship. Neither man believed that personal bias contaminated his scholarship, and Neihardt in particular did not believe that his research and writing had to be kept separate from his life.