In 1876 Rolf Johnson and his family left Illinois for Phelps County, Nebraska. There they faced the challenges of pioneering on the Great Plains: digging wells, building sod houses, plowing and planting crops, and fighting prairie fires. Johnson's diary goes beyond individual conquest, however, and provides insight into the great cooperative endeavor of plains settlement. Rolf's Swedish family and neighbors worked and socialized with other Swedes just as nearby Danish settlers remained in close physical and cultural contact with other Danish immigrants. A very eligible 19-year-old bachelor, Rolf also offers touching vignettes on the rituals of courting.
"Sat for my picture in broadbrimmed hat, long hair, California suit, and blue woolen shirt with silk necktie. Then I went to a barber's shop and had my hair cut short." Rolf Johnson's diary entry, March 31, 1880. (Photo courtesy of Cora Chamberlin).
Abruptly, with no explanation in his diary, and with no itinerary or prospects, Rolf left home in 1879 "with the intention of going west for a season." His departure may have been sparked by the marital fervor exhibited by a female suitor. Rolf felt he was "not quite prepared to leave the state of single blessedness for that of double misery." In Sidney, Nebraska, he ran with the "sporting" element, who showed him photographs of "fast women, of the town stark naked." He found employment with a wagon freighter headed for the Black Hills, where he saw Calamity Jane in action. Rolf's education continued until the diaries end in Cubero, New Mexico, in 1880. He returned to Phelps County 1882 and in 1887 he and his bride moved to Dawson County, Nebraska and remained there for the rest of his life. Rolf's lively diaries offer an entertaining eyewitness account of pioneer life and an unmatched resource for historians.
Richard E. Jensen is a research anthropologist with the Nebraska State Historical Society. He is coeditor of Eyewitness at Wounded Knee (Nebraska 1992) and author of numerous articles for Nebraska History magazine.
University of Nebraska Press, 2000, 240 pp., 9 photographs, 5 maps, index, paper.
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