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What was life REALLY like?

The truth is no stranger to fiction

I love fiction, not just as an escape from ordinary life, but also as a window on the deeper truth of life. Often, fiction can delve into truth in a way that facts cannot. When we relate to a fictional character, we can live their life and understand their perspective, even though they may represent a culture and time far removed from our own.

However, good fiction, particularly historical fiction, has to be grounded in truth, in painstaking research, and in real-life descriptions. First-hand accounts are always fascinating to read, and if you love Western fiction, you’ll probably enjoy these first-hand accounts that have helped me develop my characters and stories.

Number One – Percy G. Ebbutt: This story is worth reading just for his name! He came to Kansas as a ten-year-old boy with his father, older brother, and three friends. They’d left his mother in northern England (a fact he never explains), and claimed a homestead in north-central Kansas. His diary describes their adventures as he grows up on the wild prairies. He seems to have thrived in the freedom, fresh air and hard work, and his tale is full of youthful enthusiasm. He glosses over the hardships – snow storms, lost harvests, illnesses, lack of hygiene and home-cooked meals in a male-only household – and is knocked back only by the death of a neighbor. For some reason, the family decide to return to England after ten years. A delightful read! Link: An Emigrant Life in Kansas

Number Two – Kansas Memory Podcasts: This wonderful website lets you listen to people as they tell their stories. Some of them are eminent citizens who contributed to historic moments in Kansas’ past. But some are ordinary people who tell of settling on homesteads a couple of generations ago. Some are readings of diaries, and some are elderly people reminiscing. There’s even Wild Bill Hicock’s own story, and the diary of a member of General Armstrong Custer’s cavalry. The podcasts include musical clips from the era. Link: Kansas Memory Podcasts.

Number Three – Elam Bartholomew’s Diary: This is a wonderful find, and full of the detail of an ordinary homesteader’s life. Elam described almost every day of 1879 as he eked out a living on a farm near Stockton, Kansas. Some days are summed up in a few terse words. At other times, Elam waxes philosophical, as at the end of the year, “Many things have transpired that we can rejoice over, while other things have occurred that cause regret. And thus we ever find it – the gold and the dross are never perfectly separated.” Link: Elam Bartholomew’s Diary

Number Four – The Oblinger Letters: Uriah and Mattie Oblinger were homesteaders in Nebraska in the 1870s. Like many pioneers in the times before the telephone and internet, they wrote copious letters to family back east. Their letters have been preserved and transcribed, and provide a wonderful insight into pioneer life. Mattie’s letters in particular detail the daily life of a homesteading wife: the early hours, the strenuous work, the monotony, but also the joys of forging your own life and being self-sufficient. She is cheerful through hardships and detailed in her characterizations of the neighbors. She explains the right times to plant vegetables, various home remedies for ailments, and the ups and downs of wheat and corn prices. Tragically, she died in 1880, but Uriah’s second wife, Laura, picks up the narrative. Link: The Oblinger Letters.




    These sound like great finds & good reading that should give us an idea of the hard work of generations past – people without so much of what we consider necessities (cars, telephones, dishwashers, electricity & so much more).

    1. Yes, they were tough back then!

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