Monument to a Legend
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan spoke to the people of Billings, Montana, on the occasion of their centennial. Arriving at the venue by stagecoach, the president began his speech by hearkening back to frontier history-from Indians to fur traders to cattlemen and so on. “And later came the homesteaders,” he recounted, “who plowed the fields and, according to the Indians, left the sod ‘wrong side up.’” Where did the great communicator get that phrase, “wrong side up”? From New Salem, North Dakota, as it turns out.
In my last piece I recounted how environmentalists of the late twentieth century appropriated the legend of Wrong Side Up for their own purposes. Briefly, again, this is the story I’m talking about. A farmer is plowing the prairie sod when an Indian comes along and observes the process. After a while the Indian crouches down, takes up a piece of inverted sod, and turns it back, grass side on top again. “Wrong side up,” the native says, and then he walks away.
As various environmentalist writers embellished the story, the pioneer plowman is made to wear a black hat and given responsibility for the Dust Bowl and all sorts of environmental problems. Perhaps the most ridiculous version (I’m not saying environmentalism is ridiculous, mind you, I’m just saying some of its spokespeople are insufficiently critical about their sources) comes from Timothy Egan, author of a popular book about the Dust Bowl. He blames the blowout on both the pioneer plowman and on Herbert Hoover, because Hoover allowed high prices for grain during the First World War. Using the phrase “wrong side up,” Egan attributes to a “Paiute Indian who lived out at this grassland that had all been torn to make farms for wheat.” A Paiute?! Exactly how did this Paiute see over the Rocky Mountains to observe the plowing of the plains to the east?
All right, here’s the straight scoop about the legend of Wrong Side Up. In 1883 a German immigrant, John Christiansen, arriving ahead of a larger party, unloaded a plow near New Salem, North Dakota, and began plowing some one-acre plots for himself and his friends to plant potatoes. As he worked, along came an Indian family, generally referred to in the story as Sioux or Dakota, and a man and a boy came over to the plowman.
Christianson, like many Germans, had read about Indians and was interested in them. He wasn’t afraid; he said he had a monkey wrench in his pocket and could defend himself with it, if need be. He gave the man a plug of tobacco, with which the Indian seemed pleased. Then the Indian crouched down by a furrow and, taking up a piece of sod, turned it back over, grass toward the sky. Christiansen asked the boy what this meant, and the boy said, simply, “Wrong side up.”
Pioneers liked to tell Indian stories. Indian stories affirmed them as old settlers who had witnessed the passing of the frontier. John Christiansen liked to tell his Indian story about giving away a plug of tobacco and getting a three-word observation in return. They story had a nice symmetry to it.
Then along came John Shepperd, an animal scientist from North Dakota Agricultural College, who was interested in promoting dairying in North Dakota. He fell in with the farmers of the New Salem Dairy Circuit, keepers of Holsteins and sellers of breeding stock. Shepperd took Christianson’s amusing Indian story and put it into an extension circular as a moral tale. Keep some of your land in grass, Shepperd advised, and keep cows, follow the wisdom of the vanishing native, and you will prosper.
Shepperd got Christiansen and three Indians, I don’t know where he recruited them, to reenact the fateful plowing day for a crowd of a thousand, and a legend, along with a monument at New Salem, was born.