Category Archives: History

Western Wednesday – Sod Houses on the Frontier

Dec 23, 2015

Okay, I confess that I actually wrote this blog post almost two years ago and am simply reposting it now. But I think a lot of people might not have seen it, and it’s about one of my favorite things in the Old West. So as part of my effort to bring you slices of Western history every Wednesday in the new year, I give you…sod houses!

Saskatchewan_sod_housePeople who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. People who lived in sod houses, however, could throw just about anything.

I happen to really like sod houses. I think my first brush with this particularly ingenious form of architecture was through reading the Little House on the Prairie series. I thought it was just awesome that people could make houses out of the dirt itself and could build them right into hills if they wanted to. I guess I’ve always been a hobbit at heart.

My appreciation for sod houses, however, grew as I learned more about the settling of the American frontier. In the early days of the Old West, settlers moving into the vast new lands opened by the explorations after the Louisiana Purchase had only the most basic materials to work with. In areas with forests, this wasn’t a problem. Cut the trees down, build log cabins and other wood frame houses, end of story. But across the prairie, were trees were scarce but the land was ripe for farming, a different kind of house was needed.

Detail of sod house construction - courtesy of Greg Willis, Wikicommons

Detail of sod house construction – courtesy of Greg Willis, Wikicommons

Sod houses were surprisingly strong. They were the ideal form of shelter in areas where the winds whipped and fires could spread like, well, wildfire. Sod “bricks” were cut from the virgin soil as part of the process of cultivating the land for planting. These bricks would be built into walls, like clay bricks, and a roof would be put on top. It sounds so simple. It was simple. It was also genius.

The sod was still living when it was first built into walls, and the roots of the grass had just enough time to grow the bricks together before it dried. The result was a fortress of a house…complete with insects and other “wildlife” growing in it. We are so deeply concerned about building “green” houses now, but these sod houses put our modern green architecture to shame.

Of course, with a sod house came sod problems. The walls living in more ways than one. Bugs, mice, and other little critters were just as cozy and happy within the walls as people were. If you lived in a sod house, you were never truly alone! Constant dirt was another problem. Unlike fired bricks, dried sod tended to “shed” over time. That’s not to say that the walls would crumble. The roots of the grass that had grown in the sod before it was made into bricks saw to that. But dirt and dust was a problem.

Dowse sod house, Comstock, NE - built in 1900

Dowse sod house, Comstock, NE – built in 1900

For many frontiersmen, it was a problem worth having. The solidness of a sod house was perfect for keeping out the cold. The sharp winds of the prairie didn’t cut through the walls the way it did with wooden houses. Better still, sod houses were fireproof. In the era before electricity, when one upset lamp could burn through a family’s livelihood, sod houses were the best insurance you could have.

Interior of the Dowse sod house. Not too shabby!

Interior of the Dowse sod house. Not too shabby!

Believe it or not, they were also incredibly durable. One book I read talked about a couple continuing to live in their two-story sod house that had been built in the 1850s well into the 20th century and their old age. These color photographs of the interior and exterior of a sod house, the Dowse sod house in Comstock, Nebraska, were taken in 2006 (thank you Wikicommons!), but the house was built in 1900. Still standing!

Yep, if I had lived in the mid-19th century and found myself settling on the prairie, I think I would have been happy to live in a sod house. And that’s about it, really. Just another interesting tidbit of life in the Old West that I find fascinating.

Fashion versus Clothes in History

Feb 23, 2015


Okay, I have this theory about historical clothing. And when I say clothing, I’m talking about the everyday uniform of the masses. Fashion is something entirely different. Fashion is extravagant and beautiful…and can usually only be worn by people who can afford it. Throughout history, particularly the 19th century, fashion was exquisite and varied as rapidly as it does today.

Fashion, 1862

Fashion, 1862

Fashion, 1900 - very different from 1862

Fashion, 1900 – very different from 1862 (also my favorite era of fashion history)

But I have a theory about the everyday clothes of the common man. Namely, that even though a few tiny details, like sleeve shape and size, placement of the waist, and skirt length, varied a little, when you get down to brass tacks, working women’s everyday dress didn’t change all THAT much for hundreds of years. The basic uniform of serviceable skirt, comfortable shirt, and possibly an apron remained steady until hemlines went up in the 20th century, and until pants took over.

Four regular women in 1865

Four regular women in 1865

Two household servants in the 1870s

Two household servants in the 1870s

Regular folks on the trail

Regular folks on the trail

Kickin' it at school, 1888

Kickin’ it at school, 1888

Just a family, 1900

Just a family, 1900

I haven’t done an in-depth study of clothing (which would be fun to do someday, mind you), but this is my very unscientific survey of old photographs from various eras, found on Pinterest. A little bit changed, but really, not that much.

I could totally dress like this and be happy

I could totally dress like this and be happy. Well, most of the time

I also want to note that when you search for Victorian Photography on Pinterest, you get a lot of Victorian post mortem photographs, and frankly, that whole fad just really freaks me out!

Cheyenne Women

Feb 09, 2015
A Cheyenne Woman, 1927. I think she could easily be the head of the Quilling Society. ;) Courtesy of Wikicommons

A Cheyenne Woman, 1927. I think she could easily be the head of the Quilling Society. 😉
Courtesy of Wikicommons

One of the most fun parts of my research into the Cheyenne way of life was discovering the way that women functioned in their society. The role of women was very different within the Cheyenne community of the second half of the 19th century than it was in white society of America…and yet in a lot of ways it was similar.

One of the big similarities that struck me was that male and female society amongst the Cheyenne were largely separate. The women had their duties and responsibilities, and the men had theirs. While the men were responsible in large part for hunting and warfare, both of which were important ways they provided for their tribe, women were in charge of what I would classify more as daily life chores of the village. This reminds me a lot how, in white society of the 19th century, a woman’s realm was the home, and, really, a man had far less say about how his house was run than a lot of modern people realize.

Cheyenne women were responsible for preparing good, making clothing, caring for children, and making and building tipis. There was a lot of prestige attached to these tasks too. I really enjoyed reading in George Bird Grinnell’s book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways about how Cheyenne women had various societies for the different tasks they performed. The Quilling Society was one of the most important of these, and to be invited to join was a great honor. Quilling was the art of decorating clothing and other items with quills and beads and other adornment, so it was sort of like a sewing or quilting circle in white culture, but with actual political punch in the running of the village.

I was impressed by how much clout women had amongst they Cheyenne. They weren’t considered as full equals with men, though. They didn’t smoke with the men, for example, which was an important social and ceremonial practice. There were some strange rules about where they could sit or how they had to walk around a fire or men who were meeting as well. But so many of these things were just as strange and eyebrow-raising as customs amongst white American society.

A Cheyenne couple talking under a blanket outside the woman's tipi. This is part of an awesome collection of ledger art, courtesy of

A Cheyenne couple talking under a blanket outside the woman’s tipi.
This is part of an awesome collection of ledger art, courtesy of

One thing that did really shock me and take me aback about how Cheyenne men and women interacted with each other, though, was the fact that grown brothers and sisters were forbidden to speak to each other. I have three brothers, and according to Cheyenne rules, I would not be allowed to speak to or have any kind of relationship to any of them. Not cool! I suppose I can see how this would have developed from an effort to prevent incestuous relationships? Maybe? Still not cool.

Another detail that I found to be incredibly sweet and that I included in my book Trail of Dreams was the Cheyenne way of courtship. If a young man wanted to “go out” with a young woman, he would wait at the door to her tipi with a blanket draped around him. Then, when she came out, he would wrap her in the blanket too, creating their own little cocoon in which they could talk (or make-out) without interference. Grinnell mentions that if a woman was particularly popular or desirable, she could step outside of her tipi and find several men in blankets lined up to spend time with her. Then she would spend a few minutes talking under the blanket of each man before going on with her duties.

So after learning all these things and more, I hope that I’ve translated them well into the story of Trail of Dreams.

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George Bird Grinnell and The Cheyenne Indians

Feb 03, 2015

I’m a day behind on my Monday History post, but I would rather be late this week than skip it entirely. Because today I want to talk about the man to whom I owe an incredible debt of gratitude in the writing of Trail of Dreams. And that’s George “Bird” Grinnell.

George "Bird" Grinnell, courtesy of Wikicommons

George “Bird” Grinnell,
courtesy of Wikicommons

Now, you’ve probably never heard of Grinnell. He was born in 1849 and died in 1938, so that’s no surprise. But to me, he’s the kind of man that should have been studied in History classes all those years ago. Grinnell was a key figure in the early conservationist movement, a naturalist, anthropologist, and someone who recognized early on that the West was disappearing and needed to be preserved and documented as much as possible.

Grinnell was born in Brooklyn and went to school at Yale, but his passion was for the open lands of the West. He began traveling West as a young man, even going along with one of Custer’s expeditions against the Indians as a naturalist. (Not THAT expedition, though) His experiences instilled in him a great need to preserve the land, and, along with Teddy Roosevelt, he was one of the founding members of the Boone and Crocket Club. He also organized the first Audubon Society.

But where I owe my debt of gratitude to Grinnell is in his relationship with and connection to the Native American tribes of the West. At a time when their land was being taken away and the government of the people who flooded into their lands persecuted them, Grinnell lived amongst the Native Americans and earnestly sought to learn their ways. His book, The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, was an essential resource for me in writing Trail of Dreams, because it details every aspect of life amongst the Cheyenne at the end of their way of life as they knew it.

Portrait of a Cheyenne brave, from the Smithsonian collection, courtesy of Wikicommons

Portrait of a Cheyenne brave, from the Smithsonian collection,
courtesy of Wikicommons

Grinnell was accepted amongst the Cheyenne. They were the ones who gave him the name “Bird” in honor of the fact that he would come and go, like a migratory bird. He would spend entire seasons living with them, talking to them, and experiencing life as the Cheyenne knew it. You can tell from reading his book that he really listened to all of the stories that the people had to tell him. They trusted Grinnell and were open with him.

When you read Grinnell’s book, which was published in 1923, the most remarkable thing about it is how personal it sounds. He tells the stories of the Cheyenne with a closeness that speaks to the relationships he had with these people. Half the time he writes as though reporting anthropology, but then he’ll slip into retelling anecdotes about specific men and women, their triumphs and their foibles, as though you’re sitting around a campfire smoking with him. Those kinds of details drive home how real and how human these voices from the past are, and how much they lost.

Another thing that I find so important about Grinnell’s work is that he was driven enough to publish it and many more articles. He began publishing in journals in the late nineteenth century, and was prolific in the early 20th. Sometimes we forget that, even at the time when official policy was far more destructive toward the land and the Native Americans, not everyone agreed with what was going on. It was a good reminder for me to see that there were men and women who worked tirelessly to preserve the way of life and the untouched land that was being bowled over by progress. Not only did I enjoy reading about that, I’ve tried to bring it into my Hot on the Trail series through some of the characters, namely Dean Meyers and Aiden Murphy.

So as nice as it is that you would read my books, I hope that you’ll pick up Grinnell’s The Cheyenne Indians when you have a chance. This is History the way it’s meant to be told. Real. Alive. Human.

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The Irish Potato Famine – Background

Jan 19, 2015
An Irish farm, likely abandoned during The Great Famine. Maybe it's occupants came to America? courtesy of Wikicommons

An Irish farm, likely abandoned during The Great Famine. Maybe it’s occupants came to America?
courtesy of Wikicommons

So before you know it, the fourth book in my Hot on the Trail series, Trail of Dreams, will be out! This story follows Katie Boyle and Aiden Murphy as they make their journey west to a new life. But before you get to their story, before their story even gets to America, there’s a huge piece of history that you need to know. Because part of the reason why Katie and Aiden and their families left Ireland to begin with (as did about a million other Irishmen) was because of the Great Famine.

The Great Famine in Ireland, sometimes referred to as the Irish Potato Famine, happened from around 1845 to 1852. During that time, nearly a million poor Irishmen and women starved to death. If that wasn’t horrible enough, they starved to death in a country that was fertile and bountiful, where approximately thirty to fifty shiploads of produce and foodstuffs were being exported to Britain every day. That was more than enough to feed the dying population. So why did so many people die and why were so many people forced to flee for a new life overseas?

The answer has more to do with politics and governance than it does with a shortage of food. And to understand that, you have to go way, WAY back to the Tudor and Stuart dynasties. Because even though the English had attempted to conquer, conquered, and reconquered Ireland several times, it wasn’t until the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I that they managed to get a serious foothold and to stick around. How did they do this? By sending Protestant lords to seize and govern largely Catholic lands. Yep, remember that whole mess with the Catholics and Protestants? Well, triple that for Ireland.

Fast forward to the dawn of the 19th century. In 1801, under the Act of Union, Ireland was governed directly by British appointees from abroad. By this time, the vast majority of the landowners and aristocracy in Ireland were Protestant, British, or Anglo-Irish families without a long hereditary claim to the land. The majority of the working population of Ireland were the Catholic Irish. To make matters worse most of those British landowners lived in Britain, not in Ireland at all. They relied on middlemen to collect rents and manage their properties, and the middlemen were notoriously crooked.

Depiction of a food riot in Ireland in 1846. That block at the top of the stick is a loaf of bread! Courtesy of Wikicommons

Depiction of a food riot in Ireland in 1846. That block at the top of the stick is a loaf of bread!
Courtesy of Wikicommons

So the situation that existed in Ireland in the 1840s (to oversimplify a bit) was that landowners with no personal ties to the land they owned, with no sense of obligation to their tenants, who had a different religion, different priorities, and no sense of loyalty or responsibility were more focused on exploiting the resources of their land to gain the most cash value that they could from it. The Catholic Irish who actually lived there had very few rights or control over their own land and were oppressed and controlled by foreigners. Over two-thirds of the population depended on potatoes for their sustenance, because everything else that was grown on the land went straight to market for the benefit of the absentee landlords. So when a common potato blight hit the land, wiping out the one crop that sustained millions, even though the rest of the land remained fertile, the population was devastated.

Worse still, the majority of those absentee landlords did nothing about it. They didn’t value the lives of their tenants enough to divert their considerable profits to save these people. In fact, historians are now engaged in a major debate about whether this era can be referred to as a famine, or if it should be classified as genocide. It’s clear that vast loss of life could have been prevented if the resources and output of the land had been put to use and distributed among the Irish instead of being exported so a few people could get rich.

Tragic. Completely and utterly tragic. It’s no wonder the Irish rebellions at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries were so vitriolic! And it’s no wonder the Irish people are so passionate. It also explains why so many of them pulled up roots and came here, to America.

Ah, but this plays into another aspect of my upcoming book, Trail of Dreams. Katie and Aiden’s lives were directly, adversely impacted by the destructive influence of a foreign power invading their land and crushing them in the name of progress, production, and advancement for a few. Without giving away too much of the plot of Trail of Dreams, in an ironic twist, they find themselves smack in the middle of another people whose lives have been shattered by foreigners marching in and claiming their land. The similarity was striking enough to me as I was writing to influence the attitude that both Katie and Aiden have to their Cheyenne neighbors. It seems to me, given the history of the Irish, that the way they would view what was happening to the Native Americans would strike a chord with my characters.

I don’t want to say too much more, though. I just invite you to think about the devastation that occurs when people think more about their bottom line than they do about the lives of the people who support that bottom line. It’s what makes history so alive to me.

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