Plains Folk

Landscape of Remembrance


A hundred yards up the causeway, a whoop went up. I was casting for pike in Alkaline Lake, southern Kidder County, and not having much luck. Two older couples – I mean, older than me – were within earshot, and one of the old guys, having tied into a heavy fish, was hollering for a net.


Observing the joy among my fellow fishermen, I thought, what a great day this is, and what a great place. Over the years I have come to love the middle landscape of North Dakota, the Missouri Coteau—its grassy hills, its gleaming lakes, or sloughs, if you prefer, and its stolid residents. I do like to cast for pike, and I love to walk the pastures for sharptails, but most of my time in the Coteau is spent looking for history.


There is a little-known agricultural history here, where cattle culture and field crops come together in a mosaic landscape. There are interesting human cultures here, too, going back to the Yanktonais who held the land before the onset of European settlers, including most prominently the Germans from Russia, but also many others—Ukrainians, Dutch, Norwegians.


One of the attractive aspects of the Coteau country is that it is wide open. Twenty-first century humankind is spread thin on the land. Do not be fooled by this, however, for the Coteau is, too, a landscape of remembrance, full of stories and spirits.


Some of the remembrances are intentional and obvious. Spending a few days in the Coteau recently, I made a point of pausing at such places as the Wall of Memory, a veteran’s memorial in Dawson, and the little war memorial tucked between two buildings in Hague. Remembrance, intentional and obvious.


In particular I came looking for another object of remembrance, one referred to by the few people who know of it as Sully’s Rock. The story is that in 1863, troops marching with Brigadier General Alfred Sully, on their way to strike the Indians encamped at Whitestone Hill, lingered alongside a boulder of sandstone and carved their names. In what they considered a god-forsaken wilderness, they wanted for their passage to be remembered.


To find the rock I recruited a local guide, who I will just call Gerald, so that he will not be pestered by other seekers of antiquities; anyway, I’m still thinking about whether I should reveal the location of the rock or not. I found it, sure enough, and in days ahead, I will be matching names from it against rosters.


Successful in the initial quest, I said to Gerald, What do you know about this round barn that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Abell round barn? Can you take me to it?


Gerald said sure, but it would take some figuring, as many of the old section roads are flooded, obliterated by our historically humid hydrological cycle. We made our way to the place, though, and only had to open one gate. It’s a lovely building, about which I will write later.


Here’s what is most memorable to me about that afternoon, however. We drove around a lot, us two old guys, and Gerald talked a lot, because he had a lot to say. About the monster perch he pulled from this particular slough, about the two old bachelors that lived on this other place, about people trying to make a go of the cattle business still, but mostly about ones who are gone, and whose homesteads ghost the landscape.
I know that I will never be able to see this landscape alive the way it is in Gerald’s memory, but I want him to know that I would like to, that I love hearing about it and almost seeing it with him, and that I hold this landscape, and his memory of it, in my heart.

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