James C. Schaap

Contributor

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa. 

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I’d like to think of them as ours, but they aren’t—not really. Bison will be forever associated with our own Great Plains, but evidence of their roaming has turned up from Florida to Alaska, Maine to Mexico. They don’t “belong” only to those of us who live here.

I'm thinking you have to be of a certain age, a certain vintage, to use a word like ungodly with any seriousness. For added bluster, sure, as in, "It was ungodly cold last night, wasn't it?" That was it as an adjective, an add-on. "Who on earth made this ungodly mess?" You know.

But the word ungodly lost currency as a noun long ago, a usage that was once theological and judgmental. Fifty years ago, it didn't matter if you were Protestant or Catholic, you knew very well who the "ungodly" were: they were them and not us.

Remember Sacagawea

Apr 10, 2017

What happened to her when she was a kid wasn't all that unusual among nomadic, war-faring Great Plains tribes. When her people--the Shoshones--started into a bloody fight with another--the Hidatsas--she got herself kidnapped, lost her home, then got another she surely hadn’t asked for, and was eventually--sad but true--sold into slavery. At the time, she was only ten years old. 

Hairwork

Mar 27, 2017
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Think of it as a tiara, a delicate little crown your daughter may have worn for her uncle’s wedding, a princess-like thing made up of clusters of what might seem dried tendrils of garden plants. It’s nothing at all like a wig. It’s far too, well, artsy; but there’s no denying that it is a hair piece, even though I’m sure no one ever wore one. They decorated their sitting room walls, these delicate crown-like objects of human hair framed artfully and hung proudly.

Exactly where the Corps of Discovery was when William Clark took men to a beaver dam that day no one really knows. Historians guess the place was once somewhere above Macy, Nebraska; but wherever it was, it isn’t. Too bad.

It’s not altogether clear what kind of gear they employed to catch fish. Clark described the technology this way: “the men picked up Some Small willow & Bark [and] we made a Drag.” A seine of some sort, I’m sure, which would have required a couple of the men to drag the ends through the water to thereby trap fish within.

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There's very little to see now but row after row after row of foundations, a procession of rectangles angling down a long slope toward where there once stood a front gate. If you get there in June, the whole expanse will be awash in wildflowers, a bright yellow smiley face on a place you can’t help but grimace to remember.

Go up the gentle hill west of LeMars sometime. Take a right when you get up the rise, and you'll find an abandoned place with an old house square enough to be a dorm. 

Once upon a time, it was.

Up there, you could well be on top of the world. East, the Floyd River snakes around the city of LeMars, which was far smaller back in 1880 when Captain Reynolds Moreton built the place where you're standing, a place he called Dromore Farm, named after a castle in Scotland. In his day that house was twice as big, but it’s still lordly, although silent now, abandoned. 

James Schaap

The only means of getting man and woman, beast and wagon across the rain-swollen Niobrara was by rope, hand over hand. Dozens of oxen and as many as 500 horses had to get to the other side, as did 523 Ponca men, women, and children. 

And the rain wouldn't stop. All those wagons were disassembled and shouldered through and over the raging Niobrara. It took a day to recover, yet another rainy day.

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We’ve taken that razor-straight county road east and west often enough to have stopped, but never did. Last week, with time to kill, I pulled off where a bleached sign announced a historical marker with the headline Fort Brule.

When Sven Johnson, his wife and two children, left their native Norway, they spent the next eight weeks crossing the choleric Atlantic in a sailboat. Impossible to imagine.

A brother lived here in this new land, 100 miles from a place called Omaha, where that brother promised to meet Sven and his family, and did, although a couple days later than he'd said. If the Johnsons worried for a couple of homeless days, Sven doesn't mention it in his pioneer memoir.

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