Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Political Evolution of Edmund Howe in Southeast Nebraska

Edmund Dudley Howe, 1862-1949, spent most of his life on Orchard Grove Farm north of Table Rock in Pawnee County. From August 1892, through July 1894 Howe published two Populist Party newspapers in Table Rock: the Censor, and the Herald. Due to a boycott of the Herald, Howe left the newspaper business, concentrating on family and career. In the early years of the 20th century, he turned his attention to the nascent Nebraska Farmers Union, genealogy and the eugenics movement. In the 1930’s Howe moved to Lincoln and was active in the United States Socialist Party.

Edmund Howe’s parents were Orville Duane Howe, 1832-1917, and Mary Pepoon Howe, 1831-1903, who purchased the homestead of Alexander Allen in 1869. Howe arrived in southeast Nebraska with his family in 1871, when the railroad was completed. He began his career as a teacher and county surveyor; he graduated from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in 1887. Howe’s degree was in engineering.

Howe possessed printing equipment belonging to his grandfather, abolitionist newspaper editor and writer Eber Howe. Eber Howe was editor of the Cleveland Herald and later the Painesville Telegraph. Eber Howe’s printing press traveled with his son, Orville Duane Howe, when he moved to Nebraska in 1871. The press was used for Edmund Howe’s newspapers, the Censor, 1892, and the Herald, 1893-1894. From his grandfather, Eber, Edmund learned the importance of advocacy journalism. Howe used the press again in 1903 when he published Early Poems, a collection of his mother’s poetry. Around 1905, Howe’s sons decided to print copy on each other’s blond hair, and the press was dismantled.

Many of the Howes were writers and journalists. In addition to the Cleveland Herald and Painesville Telegraph, Howe’s grandfather, Eber, wrote Mormonism Unveiled, 1834, and Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer: together with Sketches of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier, 1878. Howe’s uncle, Edmund Dudley Howe, 1829-1849, for whom he was named, was a promising writer and essayist who studied at Oberlin in 1847. He died of malaria at age 19, showing literary promise. Howe’s father, Orville Duane, also wrote: his adolescent diaries from the 1840’s and 1850’s reveal an emotional temperament and a commitment to reform. Orville was present at the 1848 political convention of the Free Soil Party at Buffalo.

Howe’s mother, Mary Pepoon Howe, was a poet and wrote regular newspaper columns. Though much of her poetry has not stood the test of time, her writing reveals keen political interest; her topics include fugitive slaves and the plight of Native Americans. Mary Pepoon Howe was a committed suffragist and temperance advocate: she helped found Nebraska’s first women’s club in Table Rock in 1879. From 1882 to 1900, Mary wrote for the Table Rock Argus, a Republican-leaning newspaper; the Pawnee City Republican, and the Painesville Telegraph. Her column in the Table Rock Argus was called “North Table Rock News.”

Howe’s first cousin, Percy Pepoon, a West Point graduate, edited and published a Democratic newspaper in Arkansas: the Hardy Herald, in 1903. The Hardy Herald claimed to speak “For the Democracy of Jefferson, Jackson and Bryan.” Percy Pepoon’s father, Theodore Pepoon (T.W.), was also a newspaper man. In 1881, Theodore had purchased a half-interest in the Falls City Journal.

Edmund Howe’s first foray into writing was an adolescent diary. In 1876, at the age of 14, Howe recorded the meteorological conditions of north Table Rock, something he continued all his life. In addition to records of temperature and rainfall, there are clues about daily life in the community of Bunker Hill north of Table Rock. He wrote about visiting his cousins Percy and Mary, going to the mill, baking bread, doing the washing. The specter of illness and death was ever-present: on Thursday, April 27, for instance, Howe noted “Mamma is very sick.” On Friday, June 16: “Papa is not very well.”

In this teenage diary, Howe noted the family’s attendance at the Grange and “Lodge.” The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry is a farmer’s organization that advocates modest agricultural reform based on the Rochdale principles of fairness and ethics. The “Lodge” was the Independent Order of Good Templars, (IOGT), a temperance organization to which the Howe family belonged.

Temperance was important to the Howes, though they were not teetotalers. Mary Pepoon Howe’s recipes include instructions for wine and brandy sauces. Year later, when Howe edited the Herald, he devoted considerable ink to the Prohibitionist Party. Howe was critical: in the August 31, 1893 edition, he wrote: “It seems to us that the Prohibitionists of the state are rather unreasonable in opposing, in their platform, nationalization or state control of the liquor traffic” (p. 3). The Howe family opposed consumption of hard liquor especially at saloons, but private consumption of hard cider or wine was permissible.

Attending Grange or IOGT meetings didn’t involve travel for the Howes: both organizations met in the unfinished upstairs of their home throughout the 1870’s. Howe’s cousin, Henry Boone, wrote “The upstairs at Uncle Orville’s [Howe] was not finished off for some years and that big room up there was the community center of those days. Both the Grange and the Good Templars Lodge met up there.” Boone observed that some of the Pepoon relatives would not join the Templars because “the ritual was too religious.” (Harry O. Boone, Bunker Hill Items, January 22, 1939, unpublished). Neither the Howes, Pepoons nor Boones had church affiliation.

The Howe’s political views were on the reformist vanguard throughout the 19th century; their interests ranged from abolition to women’s suffrage and temperance. In the 1872 election, Boone notes that “our folks all supported Greeley.” Greeley ran as a Liberal Republican. Part of Greeley’s appeal for the Howes was his interest in spiritualism and socialism, beliefs they shared. Greeley died during the election, and Grant was re-elected.

In the early 1880’s, Howe taught at Bunker Hill School. The small community of Bunker Hill was home to around 50 of Howe’s relatives, from his mother’s side of the family. There were so many Pepoons in north Table Rock that the public schoolhouse, built by Orville Duane Howe, was known as the “Pepoon School” from the 1870’s through the 1890’s (Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star, September 17, 1939). Since Howe’s father, Orville, was the superintendant, and built the school, teaching was not a difficult job to procure.

In the mid 1880’s, Howe moved to Lincoln to get his degree in engineering at the University of Nebraska. In 1887, he returned to Pawnee County to farm and commence the newspaper business.

In August of 1892, Howe, along with his cousin, Fred Boone, began publishing the Table Rock Censor, a Populist Party newspaper. Bert Boone, Fred’s brother, was the business manager. Bert and Fred were sons of Eli Boone and Eunice Pepoon Boone. Eli Boone, along with Mary Pepoon Howe’s brothers, Joseph and Silas, served in the Union Army with the First Oregon Cavalry. Eli and Eunice (Pepoon) Boone and Joseph Pepoon received homesteads in Pawnee County because of their military service. In 1867, the Boones and the Joseph Pepoon family moved to Nebraska, along with another brother, Theodore Pepoon.
Howe and the Boone brothers were influenced by the National Reform Press Association, NRPA, which thrived in the 1890’s. The NRPA began in 1890 with Charles Macune, and served as the outreach branch of the Farmer’s Alliance. The Alliance, along with the Knights of Labor, formed the Populist Party. William Peffer of Kansas was the NRPA’s president, which, by 1896, included some 1,500 newspapers (“Lessons from American Populism” p. 1). Most Populist papers were modest operations put out by anyone associated with the party that owned a press.

The Censor and Herald were professional eight page weekly newspapers: they contained numerous editorial cartoons and drawings. Most of the editorial cartoons in the Herald came directly from the National Reform Press Association; none of the drawings originated in Table Rock. The Herald, before its abrupt demise, even featured an illustrated fashion section.

It is unclear how long the Censor was published: the third newspaper, volume 1, number 3, September 10, 1892 seems to be the only copy in existence today. Table Rock’s newspaper of record was the Argus, but the archives of the Argus for 1892 were destroyed by fire. It’s not known if the Argus mentioned its new rival. The Herald occasionally references the Argus in its 1894 editions; the Herald was published before and after Howe was the owner/editor, but Howe’s tenure changed it considerably. When Howe sold the paper, the format changed abruptly.

The Censor is a patchwork of articles borrowed and edited from other Populist news sources. The newspaper from which the Censor borrows most frequently is the Indianapolis Noncomformist. The Herald cross-promotes the Noncomformist, as well as Wealth Makers, offering specials for readers who subscribe to all three Populist papers. Wealth Makers was both a newspaper and press run by George Howard Gibson; Howe had a long association with Wealth Makers, and may have known Gibson personally.

Authorship in Howe’s newspapers is occasionally vague, as in the front page article of the Censor: “The People and the Party,” attributed to “Farmer, Waycross, Georgia.” In other places, only initials are used, like “D.N.A, Harrisburg, Ill.” Howe is occasionally coy; a poem written by his mother is simply “contributed” (July 13, 1894, p.1). Family members and friends knew the author, but since Mary Pepoon wrote for the rival newspaper, Argus, her identity wasn’t disclosed. If no attribution for an article was given, Howe himself was the author.

Howe wrote more of the articles in the Herald, and frequently refers to himself in the third person: “Eddie and Myrta Howe are intending to hear Mrs. Lease at Pawnee City Tuesday evening” (Herald, 10/19/94, p.1). Myrta Eunice Howe, 1868-1904, was Howe’s sister. In the June 1, 1894 Herald, the “Programme” benefiting the Library Association and Woman Suffrage Society was printed: the play featured E.D. Howe in the role of “Udolpho Holloway, a Retired Merchant” (p. 1).

Though published in the small farming community of north Table Rock, Howe’s newspapers contain scant articles on agriculture, apart from a few ads. Methods of farming are never discussed. In both the Censor and the Herald, financial issues are paramount, and Howe links economic policy to the predicament of farmers. The 1873 Coinage Act, sometimes called the “Crime of 1873,” began a financial depression which lasted for years. Credit became tight; farmers, who relied on credit till harvest time, were especially hard hit. In 1893 there was another nationwide economic crisis as severe as the one in 1873; both depressions were devastating for farmers. For the Populists as well as “Silver Democrats,” remonetization of silver was crucial for economic recovery.

The 1873 imposition of the gold standard resulted in a “decline in agricultural prices of about 3% a year” (Micheloud p. 3). This annual devaluation of crop prices was a catastrophe for farmers. Howe noted that “Wheat is dropping in the great wheat marts. Still, the gold bugs cry aloud to the farmer that it will be better next year, and that we are having prosperous times generally. Yes, prosperous for the gold bug, but death to the farmer (Censor p. 6).”

In 1892, the year of the Censor’s publication, wheat prices “tumbled twenty cents per bushel” (Whitten p. 2), selling for less than in the 1870’s. By 1889, the price of corn had dropped, too, down to “about half the estimated cost of production” (Whitten p. 2). To compensate, Midwestern farmers on average were mortgaged to about 45% of their farms’ actual values. For Howe, the farmer’s problems would be remedied by less accommodating policies to Wall Street: in his first issue of the Herald, Howe writes “Any reform advocated in our monetary system which does not destroy the root that supports this money trust and take from it the right to issue money is not a true reform” (Herald, 8/10/1893). The Populists wanted a return to fiat currency as well as the remonetization of silver.

Farming and finance were integrally linked, as Howe observed in November 1893: “The average yield of corn around here is twenty five bushels per acre. The price is twenty cents a bushel and going down all the time. How many farmers think these figures show any profit? And yet when election day comes they will all turn out and vote for a gold standard and lower prices” (Herald 11/23/93 p. 1). Howe seemed resigned to the fact that his rural neighbors would vote against their own economic interest.

In addition to economic policy, labor issues were important to Howe; when he became president of the Farmers Union, he continued to champion workers’ rights. The Censor devoted considerable ink to the strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania. News of the tragic conflict between Carnegie and the steel workers, which began in June of 1892, dominated almost half of the newspaper. The strike is alluded to in the preamble of the Omaha Platform, the manifesto of the Populist Party. In the third paragraph it states: “urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection.” Furthermore, “a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down.” This “standing army” was the Pinkertons, frequently employed by businessmen such as Carnegie to “settle” strikes.

The Censor published the Omaha Platform in its entirety. The Omaha Platform, written by Ignatius Donnelly in 1892, spells out the proposed policy and economic demands of the Populist Party. Donnelly is sometimes referred to as America’s “Foremost Crank;” he founded a failed Utopian community. The Herald references the Omaha Platform repeatedly; in the February 2, 1894 issue, Howe maintained that the Platform actually predicted the Depression of 1893: “It is just what the populists said would be the result if there was not different financial legislation. The Omaha platform was plain on the matter.”

The 1892 Censor, published the same year as the Omaha Platform, also printed the Nebraska People’s Party Platform, a short document which affirms the state’s support for the Omaha Platform. This “Nebraska People’s Party Platform” was adopted by Nebraskans on August 3, 1892, at Kearney. The 1893-1894 Herald frequently featured what it simply calls “The Platform” on the paper’s front page. “The Platform” is neither the Omaha Platform nor the “Nebraska People’s Party Platform.” “The Platform” condemns “the leaders of both Republican and Democratic parties who are attempting to demonize silver.” (Spelling is occasionally irregular in Howe’s newspapers, especially when space is limited. It’s possible Howe should have printed “demonetize,” a reference to the Sherman Act.)

The differences between the Censor’s “Nebraska People’s Party Platform” and the Herald’s “Platform” show an evolving movement which was capable of emphasizing different issues. Howe, not expressly Christian, must have been uncomfortable with the unapologetic Christianity of most Populists. In a speech on page two of the Censor, General Weaver, the 1892 presidential candidate, proclaimed that the party had a “golden rule platform.” Weaver maintained the Populists would put “the religion of Jesus Christ in motion among men, the brotherhood of man.” Howe was a spiritualist, like his father and grandfather. Howe’s sister, Myrta, held séances at Orchard Grove Farm, and wrote meditations for metaphysical publications. Howe must have been relieved, then, when the “Platform” of 1893 stated “We are opposed to the union of church and state in any form or under any pretext whatever” (Herald 10/5/93 p. 1). In Howe’s first newspaper, the Censor, he doesn’t list Table Rock churches or times of worship: in the Herald, though, he continued the practice of Elmer Layman, the previous editor, placing a column “Church and Society” on the front page.

There were no ads for churches in the Censor, and the only article with a religious theme was written by Alice Thacher (she eventually married Louis F. Post, and is remembered as Alice Thacher Post). Thacher Post was a Swedenborgian. The Herald also featured alternative spirituality and women’s roles in religious expression. In the February 16, 1894 edition, Howe wrote: “Omaha has the only woman doctor of divinity in the world in the person of Miss Augusta L. Chapin. Miss Chapin, or Rev. Chapin, as she is entitled to be called, has been called to the pulpit of the First Universalist church” (p. 4).

A curious difference between the Nebraska People’s Party Platform of 1892 and the “Platform” of 1893 is the omission of women’s rights. The Nebraska People’s Party Platform said: “We favor equal pay for equal work for men and women” (Censor p. 3) while the latter document says nothing of the kind. Howe was the son and brother of suffragists, and his future wife supported women’s rights to vote. The Howe women were politically engaged in the Populist movement: Mary Pepoon Howe was keenly interested in Populist politics. In 1892, Mary Pepoon Howe noted in her column from the Sept. 20th Argus: “I was fortunate in hearing the debate at Pawnee City between Bryan and Field.” (This fragment comes from a family scrapbook, the Argus 1892 archives were destroyed by fire). William Jennings Bryan spoke at Table Rock in 1896, after Howe’s newspaper was out of business.

Though the Platform doesn’t mention equal pay, the Herald frequently covered women’s issues. The August 1893 papers often covered activities of the Prohibitionist Party. In Nebraska, as elsewhere, suffragists supported Prohibition: “A woman in Lincoln has sued some saloon keepers for $5,000 damages for selling her husband liquor until he had become a habitual drunkard” (Herald 11/23/93 p. 1).

The September 14, 1893 Herald lauded the “Inventions of Women,” and observed that “There are many women registered at the patent office in Washington as inventors.” In November 9, 1893, the front page covers a suffragist event: “about twenty members of the Table Rock women’s suffrage club marched around the streets election day bearing two banners, on one of which was inscribed ‘Equality before the law’ on the other ‘Taxation without representation.’” Howe added: “We hope they will keep up the agitation till every woman has the right to vote that wants to.” Howe didn’t name the participants; his mother and sister were no doubt among the marchers. Between Mrs. Howe, her daughter Myrta, and the various female Boones and Pepoons, the march in Table Rock might well have been a family affair.

The most celebrated woman of the Populist movement was covered innumerable times in the Herald. Mary Lease frequently spoke at Pawnee City, usually on the courthouse grounds. Mrs. Lease was lauded in the October 19, October 26, and November 9, 1893 papers; the May 11, 1894 paper features a half-page biography of the great orator. Howe rarely quoted her directly, rather, he reported on her appearances and the enthusiasm of the crowds that gathered around her.

The only Populist leaders mentioned more frequently in the Herald than Mary Lease were Jacob Coxey and Charles Kelly. The 1893 financial meltdown caused mass unemployment; jobless, homeless men wandered from place to place looking for work and food. Jacob Coxey and Charles Kelly decided to take these unemployed to Washington, D.C., so politicians could see what their monetary policy had wrought. Coxey organized in Ohio; Kelly brought men from California. Kelly’s men rode in boxcars from the West to the Midwest; in April of 1894, they were stranded in Council Bluffs. The Union Pacific Railroad, based in Omaha, refused to transport them any farther for free.

The April 27, 1894 headline of the Herald was “Council Bluffs and Omaha Labor Men Aroused to Help out Kelly’s Army.” Howe reported that “Governor Jackson of Iowa, Judge Hubbard and Sheriff Hazen were denounced by the speakers for their treatment of the Kelly ‘Industrials.’” One of Kelly’s “Industrials” was the young journalist Jack London, who wrote that the “good people of Omaha and Council Bluffs were bestirring themselves. Preparations were making to form a mob, capture a train in Council Bluffs, run it down to us” (“Kelly’s Army” p. 2).

Ultimately, the unemployed arrived in small groups in the capital. Howe recorded what happened to Coxey’s men: “The Government at Washington has steeped itself in disgrace by the prosecution and conviction of Coxey… for walking on the grass” (Herald, 5/18/94, p.1). Coxey and his men were cited for trespass.

The Censor and Herald present the worst aspect of Populism, something Howe apparently took for granted: racism. Even a cursory glance through the pages of the Censor reveals that anything “foreign” is always bad. The deep seated nativism of the period is impossible to ignore. While several ethnicities are denounced, Chinese and Jews are the most reviled.

In the Censor, Chinese “illegal aliens” are referred to as “Washees,” a slur apparently derived from their association with laundries. One article described “eighteen Chinese who entered the United States at various points along the Rio Grande border from Mexico in violation of the United States exclusion act” (Censor p. 3). The Chinese were the first immigrants to be expressly discriminated against: they were not allowed to become American citizens or even purchase land. Brought in the country to construct the railroads, Populists (and others) despised the Chinese workers themselves rather than the captains of industry who exploited them. In 1892, the year of the Censor’s publication, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed, and not revoked till the mid 20th century.

In the Herald, Chinese are associated with drug use. The February 23, 1894 edition has a lurid account of “An Omaha Opium Joint:” “Detectives got a tip that all was not right at a Chinese bazar [sic] run by Q Man Lee.” At 1325 Capital Avenue, police found “a man and a woman smoking opium pipes. They were almost stupefied and could not intelligibly reply to the questions asked them” (p. 4).

In “Fatting a Foreigner” (p.5), the Censor lambasted Lombard Street, the 19th century’s British equivalent to Wall Street in London. It is populated by “Lombard Street Jews.” “Lombard Street Jews” are “skulking” and “disloyal.” The September 28, 1893 issue of the Herald is more explicit; the article “What Are We Coming To?” by George Washborn, railed against “Jew bankers.” “I have spoken in former communications of the great Jew conspiracy to suck the life blood of modern commerce… into their own veins. These vampires are never satisfied.” Washborn continued, “the conspiracy of the great Jew bankers [is] to plunder the people of all nations,” and singled out Isadore Rayner of Maryland as “a Jew politician of a tribe that needs no describing.” Rayner was an unremarkable Democratic congressman from Maryland who became the state’s attorney general and later one of its senators. Washborn ended his rant with the disclaimer: “Let no man think, because I denounce the great international Jew conspiracy to demonetize silver, that I hate the Jewish people.”

Howe’s publication of this article is uncomfortable for his descendants: his three sons all married women of Jewish descent. Either Howe changed, or he kept racist views to himself; no anti-Semitism was ever reported by my grandmother.
Howe was editor of the Table Rock Herald from August 18, 1893 through July 20, 1894. Though the relatives of north Table Rock were like-minded, Howe’s political views were not shared by town folks. He was curiously out of step with other Nebraskans; in the Thanksgiving edition of the Herald, he even denounced football: “It is too brutal” (11/30/1893, p. 4).
Howe’s newspaper publishing ended abruptly in July of 1894. On July 4, Howe wore a “Coxey for Congress” pin on his lapel at the town’s celebration. This fashion accessory resulted in a boycott of advertisers against Howe, forcing him out of business. At least a dozen Table Rock merchants stopped advertizing in the Herald, making it impossible for the paper to be financially viable. In the July 6, 1894 Herald, Howe reported “The editor of the HERALD has been guilty of a grave crime, it consists in taking the Declaration of Independence too literally” (p. 1).

In the July 16 edition, there is an absence of commercial announcements on the front page; in lieu of ads, Howe printed in large type: “Coxey’s platform… is the platform that a few would be business men of Table Rock are trying to boycott.” The next blank space proclaimed “Keep off the Grass!” in reference to Coxey’s arrest for trespassing. On the final page, Howe published a poem, the “Twelve Wise Men of Table Rock.” It began: “There were twelve men of Table Rock,/And they were wondrous wise,/ they looked upon an Editor---/ And said, ‘Why, bless our eyes,’/ There something pinned upon his coat,/ Which fills our hearts with fear,/ For truly there the dreadful name/ Of Coxey doth appear….” Though Howe does not credit the author, it was in fact his mother, Mary Pepoon Howe. The boycott was successful: the July 20 edition was the last Howe published.

Fortunately for him, Howe had farming and engineering to fall back on. When the Herald ceased publication, Howe withdrew from journalism. Howe’s political ideas continued to evolve; like many Populists, Howe increasingly turned to socialism. In the mid 1890’s, Howe used the term “nationalism” for what would be called “socialism” in less than five years. “Nationalism is coming,” Howe wrote; “Our public schools, mail service, public highways and streets involve the principles of nationalism (Herald, October 19, 1893, p.1). “Municipalization” Howe explained, was “a step towards nationalism.” “In every instance where cities have taken control of the water supply and lighting of the city, it has been a great saving to consumers, a better service is rendered, and been a source of revenue to the city.” In one of the most politically naïve sentence ever written, Howe proclaimed: “Government ownership of railways, telegraph and telephones is by no means a partisan issue, but one that the good sense of men in all parties endorse, and to which the great common people are rapidly coming.”

Many American socialists were influenced in their political thought by a novel published in 1887: Looking Backward 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy. Looking Backward is a Utopian vision where the main character wakes up in a nearly perfect world; it was one of Howe’s favorite books, frequently discussed in the Herald. In the October 19, 1893 Herald, Howe wrote: “No man in American history has ever witnessed such great results in so short a time by the suggestion of an idea, as have followed the publishing of the book entitled ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy” (p. 1).

One of the passages Howe underlined in his personal copy of Looking Backward is especially idealistic: “No man any more has any care for the morrow, either for himself or his children, for the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave” (Bellamy p. 90). This was an expansion of the Populist position, which had called for nationalizing railroads and communication networks. For a struggling farmer, the “comfortable maintenance” of everyone “cradle to grave” must have held enormous appeal.

American socialists, like Eugene Debs, also a former Populist, believed the socialist ideal would come through non-violent reform. Howe was aware of Eugene Debs and his activities; Debs was president of the American Railroad Union. Howe reported on “President Debs” frequently in the Herald: Debs is mentioned in the May 4, July 6 and July 13 editions. Debs organized a “wildcat” strike in support of Pullman workers beginning in May of 1894; Howe’s paper was boycotted out of business during the deciding days of the Pullman strike; he covered the early days in his May and June newspapers. Debs was sent to prison on dubious grounds; there, he read Marx and became a socialist.

In the late 1890’s, what would become the Socialist Party of America (S.P.A.) was formed, holding its first convention in 1897. Eugene Debs was its leader and presidential candidate from 1900 to 1920. Socialism thrived in the Midwest. While some historians, notably Lawrence Goodwyn, claim that Nebraska’s Populist Party was always weak, that cannot be said of socialism. The Socialist Party of America held its national convention in Omaha in 1903 and 1904. Omaha was proposed as the site of the national headquarters; it lost to Chicago because of a shortage of printing and mail facilities (see “Socialist Party of America” p. 9).

From its inception, the S.P.A. had two branches: those who sought political reform, and “colonialists” who wanted to establish socialist communities. Interest in communal life didn’t begin with socialists; Populists like Ignatius Donnelly, author of the Omaha Platform, formed Utopian communities. In the April 27, 1894 Herald, Howe featured an article on Gibsonville, Michigan. He wrote: “In Michigan, the small town of Gibsonville has become a Utopian community, making baskets and brooms; there ‘neither poverty nor want may cross the threshold.’” Howe made the connection with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward explicit: the Gibsonville residents lived “the dreams of Bellamy.”

George Howard Gibson, the Populist newspaper editor of Wealth Makers, formed a short-lived Utopian colony near Lincoln. (Gibsonville, Michigan, was named for a general in the Union army, and should not be confused with G. H. Gibson.) In 1896, Gibson left Nebraska for Georgia to form a Christian socialist community, Commonwealth. Howe frequently referenced Gibson and Wealth Makers in the Herald. Gibson’s songbook, Armageddon: The Songs of the World’s Workers Who Go Forth to Battle with the Kings and Captains and Mighty Men (Lincoln, Wealth Makers Publishing, 1894), was part of Howe’s personal library, and used so frequently by the Howes that the cover is worn off.

Despite the songbook’s religiously apocalyptical title, Armageddon, the songs are secular and decidedly Populist. For Gibson, like Howe, the evolution from Populist to socialist was gradual. The song, “Mr. Timothy Hayseed,” for instance, is specifically Populist, closing with the couplet “The Farmer’s Alliance and Labor have won/ And on Nov. 8th we will shoot the first gun” (Armageddon p.51).

The 67 songs in Armageddon are stern, lampooning businessmen and usurers. Several songs have anti-Semitic subtexts, referring to financiers as “Shylock’s brood” (“Toil Shall Sovereign Be” p. 81), and comparing bankers to “Barabbas of old” (“The Money Power Arraigned” p.103). When, in 1913, former Populist vice-presidential candidate, Tom Watson, inflamed southern anti-Semitism in his newspapers, he was drawing from an established tradition. In the Populist mind, Jews were linked to the banking industry. While Tom Watson is perhaps the most notorious anti-Semite of the movement, Mary Lease, the Populist orator, shared those beliefs. In 1895, Lease wrote The Problem of Civilization Solved, where she denounced Grover Cleveland as “the agent of Jewish bankers” (Lease p. 200).

Since Howe stopped his political writing abruptly in 1894, and no correspondence of his from that time remains, it’s impossible to know precisely when he identified as socialist. Unlike Gibson, Howe was never a colonialist. Living in Bunker Hill, he was surrounded by like-minded relatives, though many began to leave southeast Nebraska after the Depression of 1894. Howe’s cousin, Percy Pepoon, another newspaper editor, moved to the free land in Arkansas. Percy, unlike Howe, became a Democrat rather than a socialist. Since the Howes were northerners, and political affiliation at this time was still mostly sectional, with the North Republican and the South Democratic, becoming a Democrat may have been more startling for the family than being socialist.

In 1896, Howe married Mamie Viggers, 1866-1937. Viggers was born in England, but of Italian descent. She was living in Lincoln at the time of the wedding, which took place in Omaha. The couple may have eloped, as neither was living on the state's largest city. They had three sons, Thomas, 1898-1977; Orville, 1901-1981; and Herbert, 1903-1989. A daughter, Helen, died in infancy. From 1900 to 1930, Howe concentrated on teaching, farming, surveying, keeping meteorological records, and raising three sons.

Howe never left politics. In the years before World War I, he became president of the Pawnee County Farmer’s Union, a progressive advocacy group that sought to further the interest of family farmers. In addition to lobbying, the Union was a farmers’ cooperative. The organization was created in 1902 in Texas, filling the void left by the disintegrating Populist Party. Many of its goals were the same as those of the Farmer’s Alliance. It came to Nebraska in 1913, and continues to this day.

Like others in the era, Howe was preoccupied with establishing pedigree. Race had always been a concern for Populists; Tom Watson maintained that he was of “pure” Anglo-Saxon descent. Howe, too, maintained he was of English heritage, though his mother was in fact French.

Mendel’s experiments with genetics had been rediscovered in the early years of the 20th century, and this prompted scientists to propose careful “breeding” of the “desirable.” The term “eugenics” was coined by Francis Galton, author of a racially “pure” Utopian vision in the novel Kantsaywhere, 1910. Eugenics was considered the logical corollary of Darwinism, with white Anglo-Saxons proclaiming themselves the fittest. It was mainstream science in the early twentieth century, and eugenics projects were funded by the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations.

The eugenics activities of America’s East and West coasts are well-known; the center of racial record-keeping was Cold Springs Harbor on Long Island, and most involuntary sterilizations occurred in California. The more widely researched eugenics practices of the coasts obscure the prominence of the movement in America’s heartland. The first eugenics sterilization law in the world was passed in Indiana in 1907, and the First National Conference on Race Betterment was held at Battle Creek, Michigan in 1914. This resulted in the construction of the largest eugenics center in the Midwest, funded by the Kellogg family.

During this period of unquestioned belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon “race,” Howe began a careful examination of his own ancestry. Howe left voluminous ancestral charts and diagrams showing the British origin of the Howe name, something that had never been in question. He was able to trace ancestors back to specific villages in England as far back as 1578.
Howe was intent on proving that the Howes came across on the Mayflower. He knew his English ancestors were in Boston by 1640. By careful research, Howe discovered that his progenitor Charles Howe married Eunice Conant, whose father arrived on the ship Ann in 1623. The Conants built the first house in Salem, and a Howe relative by marriage, Elizabeth Howe, was executed as a witch.

Scientists at the Cold Springs Harbor established a “Eugenics Record Office” in 1911, and dreamed of compelling every American to complete extensive genealogical records. Howe complied voluntarily. In the early 1930’s, principles of eugenics crossed the Atlantic and influenced German domestic policy. Every European within control of the Nazi regime was forced to account for his ancestry. American scientists considered euthanizing the “unfit,” but had to be content with sterilizing them; totalitarian governments didn’t have to choose.

Howe’s charts and voluminous correspondence with British authorities are embarrassing today. The effort he poured into the project is noteworthy: it was done in the age before e-mail or the Internet. There was apparently no dissonance between Howe’s socialism and concerns about his racial heritage. He did a lengthy genealogy on his first grandchild, my mother, on the back of minutes he kept for the U.S. Socialist Party. As Weizmann and others have observed, many socialists were supportive of eugenics, as were most conservatives. Eugenics was scientific orthodoxy in the early twentieth century, just as bloodletting had been in earlier times.

By the early 1930’s, all three of Howe’s sons had married women of Jewish ancestry. My grandmother said she never experienced anti-Semitism; she and her husband, Howe’s middle son, Orville, lived in the same house with her father-in-law. “It wouldn’t have mattered to him,” she once told me, concerning her Jewish heritage. It’s hard to reconcile such reported nonchalance with agonizingly detailed family records. Perhaps what started out as eugenics became simply an interest in genealogy. My mother’s family tree was the last Howe completed: on my grandmother’s side, he could find records going back only to 1880 in Poland. My grandmother’s grandmother altered documents to enter the country: perhaps that hindered Howe’s research. By the early twentieth century, immigration of Jews was curtailed, culminating in the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act.

Howe never left politics. In the early years of the twentieth century, Howe became president of the Pawnee County Farmers Union, a farmer’s cooperative and political lobbying organization. Howe was county president of the incipient organization in 1914 and 1915. Still in existence, the Farmers Union creed is “the owner-operated family farm is the keystone of a free, progressive, democratic national society” (“Farmers Union” p. 1). Howe’s cousin, Percy Pepoon was president of an Arkansas chapter of the Union.

Howe returned to the rhetoric he espoused in the Populist Party. In an undated newspaper clipping from the Argus, it reports “Mr. Howe assured organized labor of the friendship and cooperation of organized farmers.” This speech could have been lifted from the Populist Party, which was the union of the Farmer’s Alliance and the Knights of Labor. Though his editorial writing was silenced, Howe himself was never muzzled, and remained faithful to his political ideals.
Support for the First World War represented an inconsistency in Howe’s leftist politics. American socialism had an anti-war tendency: Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party of America’s candidate from 1900 to 1920, was against the War, and sent to prison because of his opposition. (The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 criminalized dissent.) Howe’s oldest son was drafted, but the conflict ended before he was deployed overseas: Thomas Howe would have been the first Howe to enter in conflict since the War of 1812. Was Howe opposed to his son fighting? If so, he kept it to himself.

After the Russian Revolution, American socialists fragmented, and the Socialist Party of America splintered into factions. There were a number of regional and state socialist parties. In 1928, Norman Thomas attempted to reunite the party after Debs’ death and the dispiriting Palmer Raids. Thomas was the Socialist Party of America’s presidential candidate from 1928- 1948. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Thomas had his roots in the same Christian socialist tradition as George Howard Gibson. Howe voted socialist in the 1932 election, casting his vote for Norman Thomas. Howe’s middle son voted for Thomas as well.

From 1933-1937 Howe lived in Lincoln, and kept the minutes for the United States Socialist Party, a little-known regional branch of the S.P.A. Howe voted for Thomas a second time in 1936. The “Socialist Party Election Platform for 1936” proclaimed: “Roosevelt Has Failed” but nonetheless called for the expansion of all New Deal programs. The Platform had a special appeal to farmers: the 1930’s was a time of economic hardship for farmers due not only to the Depression but also the Dustbowl. The seventh demand of the Platform was “Relief for farmers and farm workers: moratorium on all farm mortgages; WPA and PWA for farmers; no restriction of their right to organize (Platform p. 3).

In 1937, after his wife Mamie died, Howe returned to Orchard Grove Farm. Howe and his wife had been living in Lincoln with his wife’s sister, Nana Riggins; Howe spent the remainder of his years living with his son Orville on Orchard Grove Farm, where he’d grown up. My Jewish grandmother was at his bedside as he died.

Edmund Howe’s life is emblematic of progressive socio-political movements from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Howe moved from Populism to socialism, dabbling in eugenics in the early years of the century. He found an outlet for activism in the Farmers Union, serving as county president. Like fellow Nebraskan, George Howard Gibson, Howe’s newspaper was shunned by business leaders, and Howe was forced from journalism by a successful advertizing boycott.

No Howes, Boones or Pepoons live in Nebraska today. Perhaps the boycott of the Herald was an indication of the state’s political direction: today, Nebraska is conservative. It’s hard to imagine a Gibson or even a Bryan influencing discourse today. But Nebraska Populism was resurrected last year, as Madeline Ostrander observed: “Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska, many of them longtime conservatives, got angry about corporate influence on a single issue that has since captivated the entire state and upset national politics: the Keystone XL pipeline” (“Transpartisan Politics on the Plains,” p. 18). The Nebraska Farmers Union played a role in the struggle. Whether coming from the left or the right, Howe would be pleased that once again Nebraskans were standing up to the power of corporations.

I would like to thank the Nebraska State Historical Society for access to the Table Rock Herald, 1893-1894, and Helen Howe Saylor for access to the Censor and Edmund Howe’s diary and books.


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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Double Vision by Douglas Saylor (Paperback) - Lulu

Double Vision by Douglas Saylor (Paperback) - Lulu

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Teachable Moment?

Racism, like tolerance, has to be learned. I remember a time when my grandmother took advantage of a “teachable moment.” We had a discussion on race, and I’ve never forgotten the simple lesson she taught.

When I was 10, my family went to the silver anniversary of relatives. Members of my extended family were there, and I realized, for the first time, that one of my aunts was black. After the party, I was alone with my grandmother, and I said something smart, I don’t remember what.

My grandmother sat me down at the kitchen table, and gave me a cookie and a glass of milk. She was quiet; I knew I’d said something wrong. Finally, she looked me in the eye and proclaimed, “Black is beautiful. Never, ever forget that.” I haven’t. With a minimum of words and a maximum of authority, she said what needed to be said. I understood what comments and ideas were acceptable and what weren’t.

Times were different: my aunt’s ancestry wasn’t discussed. That would have been considered insensitive. As an adult, I have questions; for instance, did she experience racism growing up? She wed my uncle in the 1950’s, were there miscegenation laws that made the marriage difficult? I’ve never asked my cousins what it was like for them, or how they define themselves racially. I’m from a generation that didn’t talk about those things.

It’s been many years since I’ve returned to the rural Midwest where I spent my early years, and I rarely see my aunt or cousins. I have no right to ask them personal questions now. Like my aunt’s ethnicity, my own Jewish ancestry was rarely discussed. I’ve found freedom and happiness in discovering those roots, and feel comfortable talking about my heritage. Times have changed, and being Jewish or being black isn’t such a private thing. I worry that much of our discretion was shame-based. Over the decades my extended family has grown, and includes more African Americans, Native Americans and many different religions. I’m proud of them all.

At a recent cocktail party, the topic of race came up, and I said, “This is America, all of us have African American relatives.” My comment was met with silence. In 2002, Penn State geneticist Mark Shriver did random DNA testing on Americans, and concluded 30% of “whites” have some African American ancestry (see Steve Sailer, “Race Now: How White are Blacks, How Black are Whites” UPI, May 8, 2002). Race, like sexuality or religion, is a social construct with no intrinsic meaning. In the end, we have the right to define ourselves however we please.

Two of the best books on race I’ve recently read are Maggie Anderson’s “Buying Black,” and Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking “The New Jim Crow.” Anderson proposes a plan of conscious consumerism; by supporting African American owned businesses, you can help both the high unemployment rate among blacks, and help black youths have a good role model. In addition, black-owned businesses keep money in the community. When I posted the link on social media, I was called “racist” and “divisive.” Huh? I’m a leftist and an AIDS activist. Can’t people be shocked by that? Buying from black-owned business is anemic compared to other ideas I’ve supported. It’s a capitalist idea, after all.

I wish I had my grandmother’s patience and common sense. I’m surprised and sad to have friends from childhood tell me I’m a racist for mentioning the topic of race. From this perspective, whites are the real persecuted group; white people have no voice, no power, no positions of authority…

The shocking murder of Trayvon Martin seems like a modern lynching. Is this America’s teachable moment? Is it possible for America to change its ingrained racism? During the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama told the story of a conversation he had with his own grandmother, and her admission that she was sometimes afraid when she saw a black man. Maybe discussions of race have to begin around the kitchen table. If they’re done online or in the media, they too often result in ad hominem attacks. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could all sit around the table, have milk and cookies, and learn? If we can find a quiet place within our own hearts, maybe this senseless murder can be America’s teachable moment.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nebraska Pioneers: Two Sisters Emigrate from Sweden in the 19th Century

In the second half of the 19th century, Swedish immigrants flooded into America. It has been estimated that one-fourth of Sweden’s population left home for the New World (see “Swedish Immigration to North America” p. 1, and “Swedish Americans” p.2). In fact, Sweden “had one of the highest rates of emigration of all of the European nations” (“Swedish Americans” p.2). Both sexes emigrated, primarily the “young and healthy” (“Swedish Immigration” p. 1). This article will examine the lives of two sisters, Amelia Bergman (1855-1934), and Augusta Person (1858- 1956), who came from Sweden to Nebraska in the last decades of the 19th century. Augusta traveled across Nebraska in a covered wagon, and she and Amelia spent their early years in a prairie sod house. The sisters left diaries and letters which document their experiences; in addition, family anecdotes and genealogical research will supplement this portrait of Amelia and Augusta. Their lives are emblematic of many Swedish immigrants at this time.

The total number of 19th century Swedish immigrants was less than Italians and Irish, and is perhaps the reason for the lack of knowledge about them; famine and population growth was the principal reason for the migration of all three groups. The Irish and Italians settled in large urban areas on the East Coast, while Swedes came to rural areas of the Midwest. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which reversed the U.S.’s previous pledge to native people, and the 1862 Homestead Act, promising free land for those who “developed” it, paved the way for Swedes to settle in Nebraska. This legislation, combined with poor soil for farming and economic stagnation in Sweden, proved an irresistible draw for many Swedes, including Amelia and Augusta.

Amelia was born Maja Greta Carlsdotter in Ostra Tollstad parish, Ostergotlands lan (county), Sweden. She changed her name to Amalia Carlson when she arrived in America; in later life, the spelling was regularized to Amelia. For the purposes of this brief study, she will be referred to as Amelia. Amelia and Augusta’s parents were Carl Persson, 11/11/1814 – 3/1/1889, and Margareta Jonsdotter 3/11/1821 – 9/2/1860.

Swedish surnames were not standardized until 1901 (see Hogman, “Swedish naming practices in earlier times,” p. 11). Before then, daughters took their father’s first name, the patronym, and added “dotter,” daughter. Sons took the patronym and added “son.” Amelia and Augusta’s surnames were Carlsdotter; while their brother’s surname was Carlsson. Scandinavian genealogy requires patience, since the surnames changed with each generation, and sisters’ and brothers’ surnames were not the same. I am indebted to Ms. Jean Bjork for her genealogical research on Amelia and Augusta.

Little is known about the sisters’ childhood. Their mother, Margareta Jonsdotter, died when they were children, and the father may have remarried. One of Amelia’s granddaughters recalls: “Grandmother told me that when she was a little girl, her family was rich, more or less. She and her younger sister [Augusta] used to sit on the top of the stairs and watch the big parties that her parents were having. But her father had a drinking problem, and one night when he was drunk he signed some notes for some friends, and the family lost all their money” (e-mail from Helen Bergman Hartman, 11/12/2000). Later she adds, “Grandmother never mentioned anything more about her mother and father.” Whatever the family’s circumstances, Amelia and Augusta remained in close contact with their three sisters and brother in Sweden and occasionally returned to visit.

In 1880, when she was 25, Amelia came to America. She was unmarried, and made the trip alone. According to notes from her son, David Bergman, the date of her arrival in Nebraska was April 1. Swedish records report the date of her departure as March 1, via Fredrikshamn, Denmark. She stayed with the C.B. Johnson family of Saronville, Nebraska, in Clay County. Saronville was a Swedish community; Swedish immigrants had begun to arrive in south central Nebraska in 1869.

Clay County is situated near the California-Oregon Trail; in 1864 it was the site of the Nebraska Territory’s last major Indian War along the Blue River. Nebraska was not uninhabited before the arrival of Europeans settlers; throughout the 19th century, native people were forced to cede land through treaties and wars. Saronville was founded on land that had previously belonged to the Pawnee, the “most populous tribe in Nebraska” (“The Pawnee, Omaha, and Oto-Missouria Tribes on the Nebraska frontier,” p. 1). Ough, the eventual home of Augusta in western Nebraska, had been home to the Arapaho and Cheyenne nations.

Saronville today has a population of just 54; like many agricultural towns in Nebraska, its peak population was in 1900, when it had 200 inhabitants. By 1870, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad started its westward line from Lincoln, and the little hamlets that sprung up along the way were named in alphabetical order (see “Saronville—Clay County” p. 1).

The Saronville Swedish Evangelical Lutheran church was built in 1881, though the town itself did not come into formal existence till 1882. The Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church was similar to the state church of Sweden. Sweden became officially Protestant in the 16th century (“History of Sweden” p. 1). While many Swedish communities in Nebraska stayed Lutheran, others reflected the schisms that were suppressed in their home country (see Lindell for a discussion of religious expression in Svenksamerika). Religion does not seem to have been the major reason for Amelia’s and Augusta’s emigration, though at the time of their immigration, Sweden recognized only the state church. Once in Nebraska, the sisters became involved with the Swedish Baptists.

Shortly after her arrival in Saronville, Amelia took up residence in the household of Andrew Fredrick Bergman, (1829-1924), his wife Anna Sophia Vester, or Wester (1825- date unknown) and their adult children. Andrew Bergman, born Anders, was the son of another Anders Bergman (1805-1846) and Maja Andersdotter (1804- 1856). The Bergmans were from Fellingsbro, near Orebro. According to Swedish records, Andrew’s father, Anders, was a carpenter turned soldier. The first Bergman ancestor in Sweden that can be found is Jonas Persson, (1772-?), Andrew Fredrick’s great-grandfather.

Andrew Bergman’s occupation is listed as a shoemaker and farm hand; the Bergmans moved from Westansjo to Vastra Skedvi, Vastmanland county, in 1861 (both villages are near Orebro). In 1873, at the age of 44, Andrew and his wife, Anna Sophia, who was 48, immigrated to America via England. Jean Bjork, a distant relative, wonders if Amelia and Augusta were acquainted with the Bergman family in Sweden: Ostergotlands and Vastmanland are close by. If so, that information was not recorded by Amelia or her descendants.

Andrew and Anna Bergman had four children, two sons, Andrew (Anders) and Carl Johan, and two daughters, Anna Lovisa and Sofia Amalia. Andrew and Anna, along with two of their adult children, Carl and Sofia, settled in Saronville in 1873. This was less than 10 years after the Indian War of 1864. Anna Lovisa emigrated in 1878, and Andrew in 1880. By 1886, the family was prospering; according to Clay County records, Andrew the father, and his sons, Carl and Andrew, all owned farms in the Saronville area (see Davy and Dunlap, “Clay County Plat Book – 1886). In terms of plots owned, if not acreage, the only family owning more land in Saronville at the time was the Israelsons.

Andrew and Anna Bergman’s religious tradition is unclear. In the first half of the 19th century, all Swedes were obliged to belong to the state church. Jean Bjork has found clues she thinks indicate the Bergmans were Swedish Baptists, but other family members believe they were Jewish. Little has been written about the emigration of Swedish Jews to Nebraska, and nothing about Jews in Clay County. Presumably the Israelsons were Jewish as well. As in most other European countries, Swedish Jews experienced discrimination, and could not become full citizens till 1870 (see Rebecca Weiner, p. 3). Vastmanland, the home county of Andrew F. Bergman, never had a synagogue or even a Jewish cemetery, making it difficult to verify any ties to Judaism. Still, the Bergmans belonged to a religious minority, either Jewish or Baptist, and that may have been the reason they left Sweden.

According to family accounts, Amelia came to work as a domestic at the Bergman farm near Saronville in payment for her passage. If so, why did Amelia go to the Johnson’s house first? As previously mentioned, it is possible Amelia’s family knew the Bergmans in Sweden. Less than four weeks after Amelia’s arrival in the household, she and Carl Bergman eloped. Amelia and Carl were wed on May 1, 1880, at the Clay County courthouse. They were both 25. The marriage was not approved by Andrew and Anna Sophia, Carl’s parents. According to a granddaughter, it was said that Amelia was pregnant. Amelia was never allowed back in the Bergman’s home.

In spite of his parents’ anger, Carl was given his own plot of land on his father’s farm just after his marriage, and he and Amelia moved into a sod- house, a dugout, on the property. Wood was scarce in central Nebraska, and it was 10 years before Carl and Amelia mortgaged the farm to begin construction of a frame house.

Amelia and Carl had eight children, three of whom, Jessie, Royal and Goldie, died in childhood. The five surviving children were Gunnard (1883-1957), David (1888-1972), Caleb (1891-1970), George (1893-1983), and Ellen (1896-1960). All were born in the sod dugout on the couple’s farm. According to family recollections, Carl “didn’t really like to farm. He would rather take his guitar and sing and play for the dances” (Helen Bergman Hartman, p. 2). In fact the “Bergmans were very musical. Father [Gunnard] and Uncle Caleb each had violins that they bought in a second hand store, and they played by ear” (Hartman, p. 2). Carl made violins and guitars for the family.
Amelia’s husband loved music and played guitar; Amelia expressed herself artistically and creatively through quilting. She set up a quilting frame in her dining room, and spent hours sewing elaborate quilts. She encouraged her grandchildren in this craft; Geraldine Bergman Carlson recalls being given a needle and thread when visiting. Ms. Carlson writes “I know now that after I left each time she would sit and patiently rip out my quilting” (letter from Geraldine Carlson to Helen Saylor). Some of Amelia’s quilts are still in her family’s possession.

In 1898, tragedy struck for Amelia. Carl died, at age 43. The youngest child, Ellen, was just two, and the farm had been mortgaged to begin construction of a frame house. Amelia had a keen business sense, and kept the place going. She even saved enough to put all the children, except Ellen, through college. Gunnard attended normal school, as did David. Caleb wanted to practice a trade, and chose not to attend college.

Amelia spoke little English. Since the children all learned English in school, Amelia used them as translators. According to Amelia’s diary, which she kept sporadically from 1908-1925 (translated by Mia Christina Devitt-Haggkvist in 2001), she supported her family by selling eggs and poultry. In 1915, she sold the farm and moved to Verona, Nebraska. Verona was also a Swedish community, originally named Sweden (see Aufdenkamp, “A Town Called Verona” p.1). This house, considered one of the finest in Verona, was later moved to Clay Center, where it remains.

In 1885, five years after Amelia’s immigration and hasty wedding, she convinced her younger sister, Augusta (1858-1956), to leave Sweden and come to Nebraska. Augusta came to Saronville and met her future husband, Hocan Person (1861-1904) shortly after her arrival, though the two married later. Hocan was also a Swedish immigrant. (Endogamy, marriage within ethnicity, was important for the newly arrived Swedes. Most of Amelia and Augusta’s children also married Swedish immigrants.) Augusta and Hocan had two daughters, Nanni and Ellen, and four sons, Jay, Phillip, Edward and Carl. Nanni died in infancy. Hocan, Augusta’s husband, died at age 43, the same age as Amelia’s spouse. Both sisters raised five young children as widows.

Between 1885 and 1895, Augusta wrote letters home to Sweden. By November of 1885, Augusta lived and worked in Lincoln, Nebraska. She states that she was earning $2.50 a week, presumably as a domestic. Augusta wrote to her father from the capital city, describing the marvels of the New World. She tells of a strange, new crop, corn: it “grows on tall stalks between 3 and 4 yards high; and on the stalks are large cones in the same fashion as pine cones” (“Wauneta Daily Breeze,” vol. 73, section 2, 8/4/1960, page 1, translated by Phil Person). More mysterious to Augusta is the skating rink: “They have here a large long house. The people who wish go there and go skating. The skates have four small wheels underneath and then they skate on the floor with music just like a dance” (W.D.B. p. 1).

In April of 1886, Augusta returned to Saronville, where she stayed with her sister Amelia and got married. Augusta’s husband, Hocan Person, writes that they were acquainted for a year and half, though during the 10 months Augusta worked in Lincoln, the couple did not see each other. After the wedding, Augusta and Hocan decided to settle near Ough, Nebraska, near the Colorado border, where they homesteaded. There were still native peoples living in western Nebraska through the mid-1870’s, and homesteading was not attempted before then (see “Who’s Who in Chase County, 1940, p. 1). Southwest Nebraska was the traditional home of Arapaho and Cheyenne, though the Lakota occasionally made incursions (see “Native Americans and the Settlers on the Nebraska Frontier,” p. 1). The Arapaho and Cheyenne were forced by an 1861 treaty to settle in Oklahoma, and the Lakota were removed to South Dakota in 1875.

Augusta was apprehensive about moving West, explaining to her family that they would farm “Out there on the wild prairies where until now only buffalo and Indians were found” (W.D.B. p. 1). Augusta was aware that an ecosystem as well as a civilization was destroyed to facilitate the arrival of settlers, though she expresses no emotion about it. From Saronville, Augusta and Hocan have “200 English miles to go with oxen.” She explains to her siblings that “it will take about two weeks before we arrive” on their future farm.

Augusta describes her trip in a covered wagon in a letter to her sisters and brothers in Sweden, dated May 16, 1886:

“I wish to tell you how our journey out here went. We had an ordinary farmer’s wagon, such as they use here. We had 5 bows over the wagon and canvas cloth stretched over the bows and then we had on oil cloth on top so rain could not come in and this was our home during the journey. We slept in the wagon each night. And then we dug a little hole in the ground where we stopped and grazed the animals, and there I cooked the food… Amelia gave me 3 hens, and I got a rooster from another lady. We kept them in a cage on the back of the wagon…. It went slowly but safely forward and now we are safely and happily here.”

It must have been difficult for Augusta to leave her sister Amelia in Saronville, and head again for the unknown. But she explains the necessity of homesteading: “he who is less well fixed must use this method if he wants to procure his own home. It is certainly tied-up with certain difficulties. But they are not always insurmountable” (W.D.B., p. 1).

Upon their arrival in Ough, Nebraska, Augusta writes: “We have built ourselves a sod-house which is 14 ft. long and 12 ft. wide. I have a bed and a table. Those Hocan has made. For chairs we use packing boxes” (W.D.B., p.2). Both Augusta and Amelia spent the first years of their married life in a sod dugout, and both gave birth to their children in such a dwelling.

Augusta’s letters to Sweden become increasingly laden with religious language. She writes: “We have here both English and Swedish neighbors. They live in sod-houses as we do. There are some Swedish Baptists, but if there can be enough for a congregation I do not know. I am so little acquainted I do not understand what the spiritual possibilities and circumstances may be…. But I will let that alone and instead thank our Heavenly Father for much aid and mercy and love which he gives us every day and hour” (W.D.B., p. 2). Religious life in Sweden was legally restricted to the state church, and Augusta was unclear about other kinds of spiritual expression.

In 1852, Gustaf Palmquist, a Swedish immigrant, established the first Swedish Baptist church in America. The denomination flourished in America years before it was legally recognized in Sweden. The Swedish Baptist General Conference of America was formed in 1879, and services were held in Swedish till 1945, when the church was reorganized as the Baptist General Conference. By then, only the oldest members were monolingual Swedish speakers.

The “English” Augusta refers to were English speakers, not settlers from Britain. For Augusta, the world was divided into two camps, the Swedes and the others. Lindell notes that Swedes were presumed to assimilate more thoroughly than they actually did (Lindell p.1). Swedish immigrants tended to be clannish, and avoided interaction with non-Swedes. The writings of Amelia and Augusta portray this distrust of non-Swedish outsiders. Even relations between Swedes and other Scandinavians were sometimes estranged: in Verona, Nebraska, where Amelia lived the final years of her life, the Swedes and Danes chose to be buried in separate cemeteries (see Mark Coddington, “Forgotten feud”).

Like her sister Augusta, Amelia left first-hand written material. She kept a diary, though she didn’t write daily, from 1908 to 1925. It was written in Swedish, like Augusta’s letters home. Neither sister learned to write English. If Amelia was overwrought with the pressure of raising five children by herself, she did not record it in her diary. Amelia’s journal was concerned with the daily tasks of her life, and financial transactions. It reads more like a business log than a diary, and is devoid of emotion. Her writing style is stark and dispassionate, almost as if she is observing someone else’s life rather than describing her own.

Amelia’s son, David Bergman, was disappointed when he first came across his mother’s writing after her death, and considered it too uninteresting to translate. For instance, on Wednesday, January 8, 1908, Amelia wrote: “Very windy the entire day. I went to Saronville in the afternoon.” On January 18th: “Warm and nice weather. Caleb and I went to Saronville. Caleb got shoes for $3.00, pants $1.00.” These are typical diary entries.

Even when noting significant family events, Amelia records no emotion. On October 21, 1912, she writes simply, “went to dinner. Caleb got married.” Caleb was her son (and this writer’s great-grandfather). Caleb’s wife, Nellie Schneller, wasn’t Swedish, and Amelia surely had an opinion about that. While the primary function of her diary might have been business accounting, she uses the same cold tone when she writes of her father-in-law’s funeral, a son’s marriage, the deaths of her close friends Mrs. Sundling and Mrs. Gustavson, who died just a day apart. The birth of a grandchild is as simply recorded as the entry, “painted the kitchen today.”

Sometimes Amelia’s entries are vague. For instance, on January 20th: “I went to Grandpa with the thing I borrowed.” The only “Grandpa” in the diary is the father-in-law with whom she had frosty relations. What did she borrow; what would he have lent? Although she was never allowed to enter her father-in-law’s home, she was in contact with him. Amelia was even able to rely on him for help. On January 29, 1908, she wrote: “I went to Grandpa’s with Ellen’s shoe.” Andrew was apparently still practicing his skills as a cobbler.

In later years, Caleb Bergman took his daughter, Viola, to see her great-grandfather. She remembers him as a man with a long white beard. Viola, the great-granddaughter, was not invited to enter his home, but spoke to him in the yard. When Andrew was dying, Amelia drove the children living in the area to see him and receive his blessing. At this time only, the children were allowed into the Bergman home, while Amelia waited in the car. “They don’t like me very much in that house,” Amelia reportedly said.

Though she had just the one daughter, Ellen, the child Amelia mentions the most was George, the youngest. When he came home from World War I, on October 21, 1919, she notes his return. Presumably she is glad to see him, but she doesn’t say so.

Amelia dutifully records all financial transactions. On February 2, 1908, she writes: “Caleb has borrowed 75 cents.” She frequently sells eggs, and kept a large number of chickens. From February 3, 1908: “I have been to Saronville with 24 dozen eggs. Got 18 cents a dozen.” Three days later, she was able to get 20 cents per dozen. She was a hard worker, and her activities include chopping wood, digging in the garden, going to auctions and buying hens.

Like her sister Augusta, Amelia took an interest in the Swedish Baptist movement, though it was short-lived. Verona had a Baptist church, which was built in 1890, though it never had a full time pastor. Attendance declined after the early 20th century, and the building was struck by lightning and burned, after it was sold for use as a dance hall (see “Only two families reside in Clay County community of Verona”). On August 11, 1918, Amelia notes “I went to the Baptist Church morning and afternoon.” Frequently on Sundays she writes that she “stayed home all day.” For Amelia, religion isn’t the all-consuming interest it is for her sister Augusta. Amelia was as matter-of-fact about church as she was about everything else, including her children and friends.

Augusta’s letters home to Sweden describe fervent religious activity in western Nebraska. In a letter written on New Year’s Day, 1890, she writes: “We have in the past year had inquiries of several preachers--- Baptists, Methodist, and Lutheran. The Methodist was American. The Lutherans had a big meeting here this spring when we got to be eye-witnesses when the preacher had 5 souls born again in water” (W.D.B., p. 2).

For Hocan Person, Augusta’s husband, religion was important, and colored the relations between Ough’s Swedes and its other settlers. He writes, in January of 1887: “The Swedes are few here as yet but we are awaiting several who are coming this spring, and then you can believe that there will be Swedish get-togethers. Until now, only the Americans have had meetings about 4 or 5 miles from here” (W.D.B., p. 2). Linguistic and cultural differences kept Swedes from attending English-speaking churches. As discussed earlier, most Swedish immigrants had little interest in spending time with non-Swedes.

In a letter from February of 1889, Augusta writes: “I will now tell you that we are continuing a congregation here consisting of 8 members. We come together on Sundays and read God’s word together and have Sunday school. The outsiders do not meet with us very much; but we try to keep spiritual unity with each other with bonds of peace and call on you and ask you to be united in God. Here in this country there is trouble among the Baptists concerning Unity” (W.D.B., p. 2).

By “outsiders” Augusta means non-Swedish. While eight may seem a small number for a church, the membership requirements were specific. Services were in Swedish; at this time, neither Augusta nor her sister spoke much English. Lindell writes that in the latter half of the 19th century, Svenskamerica “had a private world, bounded by church and family, where the Swedish language and heritage prevailed” (Lindell, p. 1).

For both Amelia and Augusta, church and family were indeed the closest social circles. Since they lived in Swedish communities, friends were also important. Amelia mentions numerous friends, and describes attending various parties and suppers at the homes of people with Swedish surnames. Augusta’s letters were written to her siblings back home, and after times were better for both of them, Augusta and Amelia made frequent trips back to Sweden. Both women’s primary identification was with Sweden, and Amelia, at least, was reluctant to become an American citizen. According to a granddaughter, Amelia considered moving back when her children were grown.

During their early years in America, times were difficult for the sisters. Both were widowed at age 43 and left to raise five children. Although living in the same state, Amelia and Augusta rarely saw each other, despite the eventual completion of train service between Ough and Saronville. In February, 1892, Augusta writes to her Swedish siblings: “I wish to tell you I have been out on a journey this year. I have been on a visit to Sister Malin [Amelia]. You can understand that it was precious for us to get to see each other. We had not seen each other for nearly 6 years…. We went with horses for 12 miles and took the train at noon. We arrived at Saronville at 4:00 in the morning…. Malin did not know about it (my coming) before she opened the door for me. Now I won’t try to describe our meeting. That you will have to imagine” (W.D.B. p. 2). The 200 mile journey took 16 hours.

According to Jay, Augusta’s oldest son, Hocan Person’s dying words were “Whatever else, see that our children get educations” (see Doris Minney, “Educator,” W.D.B). Augusta did so. Jay attended Kearney Normal College; Phil Person received his doctorate and became an instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Edward became a medical doctor; Ellen attended normal school and married a professor; Carl went to Harvard and became a lawyer in New York City. These were remarkable accomplishments for the children of immigrants. Amelia, too, insisted on education for her children, and was angry when her son Caleb refused to go to college, preferring trade school.

Amelia’s frequent observations about the weather display a farmer’s principal preoccupation. Her brief, unemotional diary entries frequently include “have done a little bit of everything” as she writes on March 26, 1908. On April 28, Amelia writes “I have been busy with digging and planting.” Poultry is her chief concern, though, and the price for which she can sell eggs. For Augusta, too, who increasingly turned to cattle ranching, livestock became a surer way of making a living than agriculture.

In 1893 and 1894 the crops in Nebraska failed, due to drought. By November of 1894, Augusta and Hocan were forced to leave their home in Ough and move to Kansas. She writes to her Swedish siblings: “I will tell you why we are in Kansas. 1893 was a very dry year…. This year we became so utterly dried out so that we got nothing of anything. And so on August 1 we made our way to Kansas in order to make it easier for us to get through the winter…. It certainly felt peculiar when our dear little congregation had to cut loose and one go here and the other there in order to search for a livelihood. But those who revere God feel everything is for the best.” Augusta adds that “We had a letter from Malin (Amelia). They have not had much of the earth’s fruit, either, this year” (W.D.B., p.2).

Through thrift and hard work, Amelia and Augusta prospered. Neither of the widows chose to remarry. After retiring, they moved to town. Amelia settled in Verona, near Saronville, and Augusta in Wauneta, near Ough. Augusta stayed active in the Baptist church, and was involved in that denomination’s Ladies’ Aid Society throughout her very long life--- she lived almost a century.

In addition to religion, Augusta had a lifelong passion for fishing. Until her later years, when she suffered a stroke, Augusta frequently took rod and reel to the Frenchman Creek. When she visited her sister Amelia, Augusta fished in the Little Blue. Once she was gone a very long time, and her nephew George Bergman went to look for her. According to George’s daughter, Geraldine “she was in the water up to her waist, stuck in brush with her long dress on. She just laughed. We got her out and she had caught some fish which she cleaned and we had for late breakfast” (letter from Geraldine Carlson to Helen Saylor).

Amelia’s interest in the Baptist movement waned. She is buried in the cemetery of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church of Verona, the denomination closest to the state church of Sweden. Amelia’s grave is not far from her father-in-law, Andrew’s. The burial place of Amelia’s husband, Carl, is unknown. He may have been buried on the family farm, or alongside Amelia without a headstone.

By the end of World War I, Nebraska was no longer a frontier state. Most Swedish immigrants had begun to assimilate. While all of Amelia’s children spoke Swedish, none could write it. Exclusively Swedish- speaking churches were in decline. Automobiles and trains replaced covered wagons. Wood was plentiful and easily available: people no longer lived in sod-houses. The pioneer world of the two Swedish immigrant sisters vanished, as completely as the world of the Pawnee and buffalo had.

The writings of Amelia and Augusta can be read from a feminist perspective. Both sisters were literate (Sweden had compulsory primary education beginning in 1842), and left written accounts of their lives, which they lived on their own terms. They departed Sweden as young, single women, and were widowed relatively young. Amelia and Augusta each raised five children. They were successful farmers, and prospered.

Augusta’s letters are religious and sometimes exclusionary, and Amelia’s diary is concerned with accounting for every single cent. If their writings seem harsh, it might be due to the hardness of their lives. Amelia Bergman and Augusta Person were dedicated to their families and to their farms. They were not Florence Nightingale or Clara Barton; their writings are reminiscent of the memoir of Gluckel of Hameln, the 17th century Jewish mother who guided her children through their marriages and careers. Amelia and Augusta were practical and thrifty, mundane rather than heroic. They were clannish and non-assimilating, though they did send their children to public school.
The lives of Amelia and Augusta are a casebook study of Swedish immigration to Nebraska in the second half of the 19th century: they arrived healthy, young, single, and married fellow Swedish immigrants. Through hard work and thrift, they and their families prospered, and, like other European immigrants, wove their traditions into the pattern of American life.

I am indebted to Geraldine Bergman Carlson and Helen Howe Saylor for access to family records as well as personal recollections of Amelia Bergman. 


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