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“We Are Not Entirely Out of Civilization”: A Homesteader Writes Home in 1873

Moving to the Great Plains meant building a home on broad, flat, and treeless prairies. Borrowing from the Plains Indians and earlier pioneers in Kansas, Mattie Oblinger and other homesteaders built sod houses. They cut the prairie sod deep and wide, laid it up like giant bricks, and fit the bricks together snugly without mortar. Mattie and her husband Uriah obtained their land through the Homestead Act of 1862, claiming and improving their 160 acres over five years. Other lands for farmers became available from the vast acreages of public land given to the railroad companies as subsidies. The Oblingers and other settlers formed communities of young families with a rough social equality and common concerns about crops, religion, and social isolation. They faced a series of hardships on the land in the 1870s: blizzards, droughts, and grasshoppers, as well as low crop prices. Mattie died in childbirth at the age of thirty-six.

Letter from Mattie V. Oblinger to George W. Thomas, Grizzie B. Thomas, and Wheeler Thomas Family, June 16, 1873

Fillmore County Neb

June 16th 1873

Dear Brother & Sister & all of Uncle Wheelers

Thinking you would like to hear from us and hear how we are prospering I thought I must write you a letter and to fulfill the promise I made when I last saw you

The reason I have not written sooner I have not had the time I have wrote a letter almost every sunday to send home and that has occupied most all my leisure time Sunday is rather a poor day for us to get a chance to write too for we have went to Church and sunday school every sunday I have been here two sundays we went about 9 miles the rest of ther time we went to Giles the next preaching will be at Giles which is in two weeks The man that preaches is quite old and is a baptist minister but when he preaches he makes no distinction in denominations We have a good sunday school in progress now I suppose there must be about fifty enrolled We have not the means yet to carry on sunday school yet as they do in older settlments but we have our bibles and hymn books and we all gather together and read a lesson and then ask questions and sing and offer prayers and I think we do about as much good as any sunday school I know it is not quite so interesting as if we had money to buy papers and books I think we have Just as enterpriseing people here as any where There was methodist preaching yesterday about four miles from here Mr Elliotts and us had intended to go but it threatened rain and it was so late when our sunday school and society meeting was out that we did not go I think there will be a methodist preaching place established in the neighborhood before long as there was a methodist preacher around a few days ago hunting up the scattered members in the country He said the conference had sent him here so you see we are not entirely out of civilizatian I know if you was here you would not think so I have just as good neighbors as I ever had any where and they are very sociable I was never in a neighborhood where all was as near on equality as they are here Those that have been here have a little the most they all have cows and that is quite a help here I get milk & butter from Mrs Furgison who lives 1/4 of a mile from us get the milk for nothing and pay twelve cents a pound for butter she makes good butter Most all of the people here live in Sod houses and dug outs I like the sod house the best they are the most convenient I expect you think we live miserable because we are in a sod house but I tell you in solid earnest I never enjoyed my self better but George I expect you are ready to say It is because it is somthing new No this not the case it is because we are ... on our own and the thoughts of moveing next spring does not bother me and every lick we strike is for our selves and not half for some one else I tell you this is quite a consolation to us who have been renters so long there are no renters here every one is on his own and doing the best he can and not much a head yet for about all that are here was renters and it took about all they had to get here Some come here and put up temporary frame houses thought they could not live in a sod house This fall they are going to build sod houses so they can live live [sic] comfortable this winter a temporary frame house here is a poor thing a house that is not plastered the wind and dust goes right through and they are very cold A sod house can be built so they are real nice and comfortable build nice walls and then plaster and lay a floor above and below and then they are nice Uriah is going to build one after that style this fall The one we are in at present is 14 by 16 and a dirt floor Uriah intends takeing it for a stable this winter I will be a nice comfortable stable A little ways from the door is a small pond that has watter the year round we use out of it for all purposes but drinking and cooking We have the drinking water cary about 1/4 of a mile and the best of water We have two neighbors only 1/4 of a mile from us

I must stop and get supper

Supper is over and dishes washed I wish I had a cow or two to milk I would feel quite proud then think will get one after harvest Uriah is going up near Crete to harvest The wheat and Oats looks well here but there is not so much sown as in older settlements each man calculates to do his own harvesting in this neighborhood this year there is several men going from this settlement in to older ones to get harvesting Mrs Elliot and I are talking of staying together while our men go harvesting Almost every man here does his own work yet for they are not able to hire I think it will be quite different in a few years Uriah has 23 acres of sod corn planted it looks real well I tell you it is encourageing to have out a lot of corn and all your own We have a nice lot of Squashes and Cucumbers & Mellons & Beans comeing on There was a striped bug worked some on our squashes but did not bother our other vines We have our Potatoes and cabbage up at Giles as they do not so well on sod I set a hundred & thirty cabbages last week they are every one growing We have the nicest patch of early rose potatoes in the neighborhood will not be long until we will have new potatoes We have fared pretty well in the potato line as Uriah bought ten bushel when I come to Crete he bought for seed and to use we will have plenty until new potatoes come If nothing happens we will have a nice lot this fall I have nice Tomatoes plants comeing on I want to set more Tomatoes and Cabbage this week I get Garden vegetables in Giles garden I could not make garden here as we had no sod subdued and I have such good neighbors they said they would divide their garden vegetables I planted a lot of beet seed in Mrs Alkires garden they look real nice Uriah is breaking sod to day he will soon have 40 acres turned over then it will be ready to go into right next Spring It looks like it was fun to turn the sod over here there are no roots or stpumps to be jerkinking the plows out It has been very warm for a few days and it makes old buck pant considerable he is almost fat enough for beef old bright is not so fat so he gets along the best

We have had an immense lot of rain here this season but I guess this has been the general complaint every where I think we had the hardest storm saturday night or evening that has been since I come the wind blew very hard I do not know how long it lasted for I went to sleep and the wind was blowing yet We can not notice the wind so much in a sod house as in a frame Giles a Doc came home with us yesterday I heard them & Uriah laughing about going out to see if the fences was blown down I looks very strange to me to see Crops growing here and no fence around them They have a herd law here and the stock a man has for use about home he must Lariett them out his other cattle he puts them in herds in the neighbor hood gets them herded for 25 cts per month The prarie looks beautiful now as the grass is so nice and green and the most pretty flowers I can not tell how many different kinds I have noticed I have seen three Antelopes one Jack Rabbit and one swift and lots of prarie squirrels I thought when I left the timber I would not see any more birds but there are lots of them here some that are entirely different to any I ever saw in Ind There is more Rattle snakes here than there are garter snakes in Ind Uriah has killed two on our place there are not so plent right in our neighborhood as they are three miles east of here near a prarie dog town some men over there have killed as high 18 & 20 John how is this for high hardly any one gets bit with them they are mostly black rattle snakes Sam has sold out to Mr Mc Clanin. McClain he had not improved as much as the law requested he should and he was afraid some one would jump his claim and then he would be out he sold very cheap only got fifty dollars I ask him if he was going back with out secureing a peice of land he said no Ill bet I dont go back home with out owning some of this nice prarie he said he was bound to have land here He is going to buy RR land and then he will not have to stay by it I think he will go to Ind this fall I have not heard him say for certain This is a lonely place for a single man for there are not many young ladies here for them to go with but there are lots comeing on a little too young for Doc Uriah Cook started for Minnesota last monday he bought eighty acres one mile east of us paid one hundred & twenty five dollars he has a very pretty 80 He set no time to come back Geo do you and Grizzie of comeing west yet if you do I wish you would come here I am quite sure you would like the country for it is as pretty and good as it can be of course it has some draw backs as all other places do Ella is fat and hearty she said I should tell you to come over and bring Earny she often speaks of him I got her a little kitten last evening she is trying to comb it We are all well hope this will find you all well and Aunt Eliza getting better I washed to day Now Geo I send this in your name but I want you to besure and give it Uncle Wheels too as postage is scarce I thoughgt this would do all I want you all to besure and write soon We send our love and best wishes from

U W O & M V Oblinger

Direct to Sutton Clay County Neb Excuse letter paper

Source: Nebraska State Historical Society, Digital ID, nbhips1109

Source: Uriah W. Oblinger Collection, Nebraska Historical Society, from Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, American Memory, Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/nbhihtml/pshome.html