Those of you with televisions may be aware of a popular reality game show called Survivor: ____, where the ____ is replaced by such exotic geographic names as Borneo, the Australian Outback, the Amazon, Palau, etc. The premise of the show is to maroon a group of strangers in a desolate location, where they must provide food, water, fire, and shelter for themselves, while competing in challenges to earn either a reward or to avoid being removed from the game. It’s a game – although the contestants may get sunburned or injured, no one dies. The players are always within sight of the television crew, and when things don’t work out they can be immediately airlifted to a hospital or a comfortable, air-conditioned hotel.
In contrast is the contest for survival that was engaged in by the earliest settlers to Nebraska, our ancestors. Beginning around 1870, immigrants arrived in the area with the intention of settling in and making a new life as farmers/homesteaders. In many cases they were virtually penniless, spoke the local language poorly or not at all, and were mourning family members lost during the long journey. These pioneers had no expectation of returning to their friends and families in Europe, no possibility of a government safety net if they got into trouble – they knew that they had to dig in and survive.
They survived a harsh climate, hunger, human, livestock, and crop diseases, and plagues of locusts. In the first years they lived isolated, lonely lives, being too far away from churches, schools, and social activities. Most of us have heard these stories of hardship and deprivation passed down as oral tradition, but sadly, these tales have rarely been written down. In writing her invaluable 1929 book, A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska, Rose Rosicky tapped the memories of some of our pioneering ancestors. I’ve reprinted two of the stories from early settlers of Colfax County, Frank Čejda and Joseph Krenek.
Frank Čejda, who was living in West Point when Ms. Rosicky was preparing her book, wrote thus of pioneer days in Colfax County:
“In 1867 I came with my parents to Wisconsin from Bohemia and from Wisconsin to West Point in 1870, by wagon from Fremont. During the two years we lived there, father managed to make a living by working for the homesteaders and sawing wood for fuel in the town. In May, 1872, he took a homestead in Colfax County, one and a half miles (west) from the present townsite of Howell. The entry fee was $14.00, but all the money we could scrape together was $12.00. That was all we paid. How the difference of $2.00 was made up I do not know, but I suspect E. K. Valentine, at the time Registrar of the U. S. Land Office in West Point, a kindly man, paid it, father having worked for him.
“Our Home.” The dugout of an early homestead family, cut into a hillside and covered with a pole roof, was far more primitive than even the more “modern” sod house. Nebraska State Historical Society photograph C689-45.
We now had the claim, an old wagon, an ox and a dug-out on the claim. How to move with one ox? Father was acquainted with Frank Herold of West Point and in conversation discovered that he too had one ox, which he lent to father, not only for moving, but also for breaking ten acres. We loaded the wagon with clothing, bedding (furniture was unknown to us), an old stove and cooking utensils, and prepared to traverse the twenty-four miles we had to go. There being no bridges, travelling was hard and the old ox (the other was young) mired in a creek so badly that we had to ask help to pull him out. Finally we reached our new home and were soon settled, for aside from the beds and stove, there was no furniture to place about. There were no barns or sheds and the old wagon was the only farm implement, except the breaking plow that we borrowed to use that season.
We broke ten acres and planted them to corn and potatoes. Our nearest neighbor was Joseph Kovar, two miles southeast and the next nearest Peter Shad, three miles in the same direction. To the north we had no neighbors for fifteen miles or more until the Elkhorn River was reached. Thus we were the farthest located of the first homesteaders in northern Colfax County. As the eldest of three children, I farmed during the next three years, for father was away earning enough to supply us with groceries and flour. Work was scarce and wages low. It required three years’ labor to put enough land under cultivation from which to make our living.
During our first summer there, several thousand Indians passed by, going to battle with other tribes or hunting buffalo and they camped at night within half a mile of our dug-out. They asked for food. We had nothing but hard bread, which mother gladly gave them, she was so frightened. Our bread being gone and there being no flour or provisions, and father away in West Point at work, we had nothing to eat. Father did not come for a week and in the meantime we subsisted on wild spinach leaves, which we cooked and ate. So I may say that we lived a week on weeds. When father came, he brought flour and groceries. Many times during our pioneer days did we have to ration our food, when provisions began to run low. During the first two years barley coffee and corn mush, cooked in water, was our menu, for we had no cow to give us milk. Meat was scarce and wild game also, because there was nothing for it to feed on. When crops began to be raised, grouse, prairie chicken, deer and elk came. They disappeared later, when the country began to be more thickly settled.
Many years after I realized how frightened mother must have been when the Indians asked for bread that time. One day, when thinking about it, it dawned on me, for I recalled that a young Indian boy had asked me why she changed color and became so white. I had not noticed it, but he had. As soon as she could get away, she ran to the neighbor’s, but there too only the woman was at home. After our first year or two, wild game provided us with meat and hunting became a delight. I had an old muzzle loading gun that we had traded for ten bushels of 15-cent corn. One can imagine what a ‘beauty’ it was, but I prized it highly. One day, walking through a draw where the grass grew high, I came upon a deer lying down, but I did not see him until he had jumped up, frightening me so that I had no strength to raise the gun until he was two hundred yards away from me, out of shot. Although I have seen as many as twenty-five deer at one time, I never bagged one. Others had better luck. For instance, the Novotny brothers in one winter killed sixty.
In the spring of 1873 we had the ten acres, broken the spring before, prepared for seeding wheat, but no money to buy it. Father set out for the Tabor settlement, five miles south, to see if he could borrow the seed wheat until he could raise some. It happened that on that day there was a wedding at Tom Sindelar’s place and Tom at once filled a sack of wheat, saying, ‘Here, I donate that to you,’ and the others present followed suit, each one there giving him a sackful. Never was anyone happier than my father, and I myself can never forget their kindness and am grateful for it. The Czech settlement known as Tabor was established in 1870. At the time we located in Colfax County, they had already raised crops there and had horses, something not known in our vicinity. Later they built a church and a dance hall. Up to 1874 there was no church within twenty miles of us, so we had to attend the St. Charles church near West Point until that year. Then a church was built in Olean, four miles west of us.
There was no school within many miles until 1876, something I missed very much. I had attended school for some time in Wisconsin and then for two years in West Point, reaching what perhaps now would be the third or fourth grade, but from the time we settled on our claim to 1876, I saw no book and scarcely a newspaper. I had ‘forgotten the letters of the alphabet. When the school was built, two miles from us, I began to attend as a beginner, and continued until I was twenty-one, but never more than three months in the year, in the winter, for I had to run the farm.
During the first few years there were no social gatherings except on rare occasions, for there was no gathering-place and no refreshments to offer. A wedding now and then was the only jollification. My first vacation from farm work in three years was to participate in a Fourth of July celebration in West Point, in 1875. I was obliged to walk the whole distance (24 miles), but was glad to do it.
Prices for farm products were very low. In 1874 we got $1.80 for 100 lbs. dressed hogs and we had to haul them twenty-four miles to market. In 1874 we bought our first cow. Unfortunately we soon lost her. She fell head-first into a cave on Joseph Pimper’s place and a year elapsed before we could buy another, so that we lived three years without milk. And yet in those days no one thought we were under-nourished because we had no milk, for many others were in the same condition.
It was not until 1877 or 1878 when we bought our first team of horses by trading for them a yoke of oxen and giving a mortgage of $150.00 on the team. The neighbors told us if we did not pay the mortgage when it fell due, we would lose our horses, and we believed them. We had just finished threshing grain, so father began to haul it to market, to be able to pay the mortgage within a week. For six consecutive days he hauled wheat to market 24 miles each day, starting with a load at four in the morning and returning at ten in the evening. It was a strain on him, but a greater one on the horses, for toward the last they would fall asleep as soon as they stood still.
Winters were most dreaded, for we had to provide shelter for ourselves and the animals too. For fuel we had to depend on sunflowers, cornstalks, weeds and straw. One winter there was much snow. Our cattle-shed was built in the side of a hill. It was so covered we could not gain entrance. As fast as we dug the snow away, the wind would blow the drifts back. So we decided to dig a hole through the top of the covering of the shed. As this was of straw, we soon accomplished it and I was let down. Then father got a basket filled with hay and lowered it down by a rope, and I fed the animals. Snow also completely filled our open dug well one winter and we were without water until it was hauled out.
In summer snakes invaded our dug-out. I remember when one of them got into a neighbor’s bed. One of the boys cried incessantly. When his parents began to investigate and threw the covers back, they found the reptile, which had bitten the child. This boy was the son of George Nagengast.
When one travelled over the prairies by night, one was never sure of reaching his destination, for there were no roads or anything else to guide him, unless it was a starlit night, or the horses knew the way. One dark night I lost my way, so I unhitched the team, straddled one of the horses, trusting to his common sense and we all reached home, leaving the wagon behind. There were some provisions in it and as a light rain came on, my parents did not like to have them spoiled. I knew the way had been short and felt I could surely retrace my steps, but we could not find it. The next morning I discovered the wagon in an opposite direction. Had it not been for the natural instinct of the animals which led them home, I would have been obliged to camp out or wander over the prairies. Had I not stopped and unhitched where I did (on top of a hill) we would have rolled down, wrecked the wagon and perhaps been killed.
When we went to town with products or for provisions, it required a day and a half, that is half the night, and our food supply, while on the way, was a piece of bread and some hay for the horses. If we were obliged to stay in town overnight, we looked up some acquaintance or friend for lodging, for we did not have the means to stop in the hotel. During the first two years there was so little food that we could not supply our needs. I recall an incident in connection with our neighbor, Mrs. Kopač. Her husband, like other homesteaders, was away working in town, to buy supplies for his family. It was in the fall of the year, her provisions were gone, nothing was available but the melon-patch. The poor woman lived on it during the whole melon season. She had a small baby to take care of, and grew so weak she could scarcely walk. She knew that all her neighbors were short of rations, so she did not even let them know of her condition, hoping for the arrival of her husband.
In summer we all went barefoot. In winter men and boys wore boots with rags wrapped about their feet, in place of socks. The women and girls managed to knit stockings for themselves and later made them for the male folk. When the men were out driving on cold days, or afoot too, they wrapped gunny sacks over their boots, to keep from freezing. For light at night we used old-fashioned tape soaked in a plate of grease, or an oil lamp, if we happened to have oil. However, we seldom had light for illuminating purposes. It was early to bed and early to rise, very little artificial light was wasted on us.
Finally those who had put in three or four years on claims began to get some income, so that a dollar or two could be spared for social purposes. Granaries and barns began to appear and these, whether the owner wished it or not, had to be dedicated. The boys and girls knew as soon as one of these buildings was going up that something would be doing and spruced up for the occasion. Dancing of course was the chief attraction, and my, how we did go to it! You know, a Czech would rather dance than eat, especially if there are any liquid refreshments. As soon as the accordion player struck the first note, the festivities were on and kept on until day-break. If by chance the musician wore out, there were plenty of others to take his place. Those were happy days for young and old. As time advanced, more room and more means provided other social functions. At all these gatherings and entertainments which I attended, from the first to the last, I have never known of a quarrel or disturbance to mar the harmony. The assembled company always included singing in the program and closed with the Bohemian national hymn, ‘Where is my home?’
The redeeming feature of those hard times was the mutual helpfulness and sympathy evinced by those homesteaders for each other. It mattered not what their nationality or religion, a common need made brothers of all and sisters of the women. They were all like one family. If one was in need or trouble, the others even sacrificed to help.
In 1886, just fourteen years after we made entry and moved on our claim, the Northwestern Railroad built its branch from Scribner by way of Albion to Oakdale, connecting there with its main line. It cut across my land and the town of Howell was laid out a mile and a half east of my farm. By this time father owned a 320 acre farm and I had one of 160 acres. Compared with others, we were quite well off and living on a much different scale than in our homestead days, although not flying sky-high as many have done during the recent war period and then falling flat. We learned by hard work and stinting to preserve what we had, so that now we can ride in an auto which is not encumbered with a mortgage. We have helped to build schools and churches and bring transportation close to home, so that our children need not go through the hardship we endured, and they may enjoy the advantages we were in such sore need of but could not have. We are glad now that we were pioneers in all this. I have sold my farm and retired to West Point, where I once lived and where I expect to spend the remainder of my life.”
Indeed, Frank Čejda lived out his life in West Point, dying in 1932 at the age of 69. He is buried in St. Michael Cemetery.
Another story from Rose Rosicky’s book: As far as is known, there are on record three instances of Czechs perishing by prairie fires in Nebraska and one of these tragedies occurred in Colfax County. Joseph Krenek, a pioneer still living, describes the catastrophe thus:
“My father and mother (Martin and Rosalie Krenek), my father’s sister, my two sisters and I came to Nebraska in 1872, from our old home in Kardasova Recice, County Vesely, Bohemia. Father and I each bought 80 acres of railroad land, at $5.00 per acre, ten years’ time to pay at six percent interest. This land was situated nine miles north east of Schuyler. The family of Frank Polak came with us, from the same town. Besides his wife, Marie, there were two small children and Mr. Polak’s parents. They bought land on the same terms and were our neighbors.
On October 14, 1878, when I had been married two years, a fierce prairie fire raged. Mr. Beneš (I have forgotten his first name), who lived a mile west of us, set fire to the grass around his home at the close of day, after the wind had subsided. However, it arose again, swept the fire over the plowed fire-break and the flames passed beyond control. Driven by a southwest wind, the fire fairly flew directly to the home of Mr. Polak, destroying all the buildings, a colt in the barn and the threshed grain. Mr. Polak was not at home, and the few neighbors then living nearby also were absent. All were away earning a little money, and the women could do nothing to keep back the fire. Old Mr. Polak was herding cattle. Blinded by smoke, he sought refuge, but the flames leaped upon him not thirty feet away from the plowed strip, where he ran for safety. In vain! He perished and his wife, the grandmother, was badly burned. We had some grain in stacks. That year the crop was good, so we had four stacks left, all else was lost. Mr. Polak’s family, however, was in dire straits. The fruits of a whole year’s labor annihilated and a human life lost. The neighbors each donated a bushel or two. We were all poor in those days, but gave of our small means and hoped for better times. Mr. Polak built new buildings and set to work again. From 1873 to 1879 we suffered much from grasshoppers. However, we toiled hard and kept up our courage and now, when we have comfort and plenty, the past seems like a bad dream.”
A sod house in the Richland Precinct, Colfax County, Nebraska
Finally, in the Clarkson Diamond Jubilee book Charles J. Novotny wrote a story titled “Among the Earliest Settlers.” He related similar stories of hardships, encounters with Native Americans, prairie fires, and locusts that were told by his ancestors (possibly the same deer-slaying Novotny Brothers mentioned by Frank Čejda above). His story is too long to reproduce here, but I thought his final paragraph was a nice conclusion to this post:
We all have “Survivor” stories that our parents and grandparents told us. As always, if you have any that you would like to share, send them to me and I’ll be happy to post them.
Novotny, Charles, J. 1961. Among the Earliest Settlers. Clarkson Diamond Jubilee 1886-1961. Pages 85-89.
Rosicky, Rose. 1929. A History of the Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska. Czech Historical Society of Nebraska. The NEGenWeb Project. Electronic copy presented by special permission of Margie Sobotka. Edited and proofed by Sandy Benak and Connie Snyder. Web design by Connie Snyder. http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ne/topic/ethnic/czechs/czechs.html