Like Many Others. . . . South Dakota

21 December 2018

Part of my job as an associate editor for the South Dakota Historical Society Press is to review and find images to illustrate our publications. To keep up with newly digitized items, I will browse my favorite online archival collections, ranging from the South Dakota State Archives to the New York Public Library. Occasionally, a photograph catches my eye. Most recently, it was an image of a lone, seemingly disgruntled, woman that grabbed my attention. She stands under an archway of vines, perhaps in front of her milk barn given the canister in the left-hand corner. Although the frown on her face and her distant stare speak volumes, what drew me in was the file label. It reads: “10. Like many others on the Great Plains from Scandinavia, she homesteaded where her son now farms. South Dakota.” The photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1939, comes from the New York Public Library’s American Country Woman Series. As you may have guessed, it is the tenth image in the series, which depicts rural domestic life.

283938_647025818324_4374134_n.jpgThe phrase “like many others” made me think about those countless Scandinavians that immigrated to the Northern Great Plains in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, namely my own great-grandparents who came from Sweden in the early 1900s. The image of the unknown woman makes me wish that my great-grandmother, Helen Sundstrom, had kept a diary or even posed regularly for photographs. The closest thing to an image of her to my knowledge is a picture of her husband and twelve children taken after her funeral. Perhaps Helen had had the same experience as Ingeborg Bergeim who immigrated from Norway in 1880. As historian Lori Ann Lahlum details, Bergeim stopped writing in her diary because “everything was changed and looked strange. I did not know where to turn my thought[s].”[1]

Perhaps the newness of America also left Helen little time to stop and frown for the camera.

Jennifer McIntyre

 


[1] Lahlum, Lori Ann, “Everything was changed and looked strange’: Norwegian Women in South Dakota,” South Dakota History 35 (Fall 2005) p. 189.

 

The top image is from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.