Suffering with a miserable cold, one that has left more than one family in our area coughing for two weeks, watching television was one of the few things I felt like doing. Many evenings were spent watching on Netflix the 1996 PBS series, Ken Burns: The West.
Because I've written 12 historical romances, based in Oregon and Arizona, I had done a lot of historic research. I thought I knew much of what I would see. It taught me a few new things, while film clips gave the history a surprising reality.
It's very well done, great music, many stories personalized; but by the time we got the Episode 7, I felt disillusioned with the ways some had brutalized others. Again and again, there were stories of Euro-Americans taking from Mexicans, Chinese, Native Americans, African Americans, and even Mormons. This was often done using a sizeable military after the Civil War and the weight of laws made-- supposedly for the good of all... Watching it was depressing, yet I stayed with it hoping to find a brighter day ahead.
As a program to educate Americans as to what the West was like for many, it does the job. I just believe it was one side. There was more to it than the sad stories of violence, theft, and battles against nature. The photos were amazing, but the stories were as often of disappointment as of glory-- especially for the Native Americans.
Where I found it especially interesting, on a personal level, involved the Dakotas. My great-grandfather, with a growing family, arrived in the Black Hills to become a hard-rock miner.
My grandfather, born in 1880, was their third child. The story goes that he was the first white baby born illegally in the Black Hills after the gold had been discovered.
Their children, of which there would be ten to survive to adulthood, were born in what would be South Dakota as well as Nebraska (already a state). Great grandfather was still working at 65 when he died in Deadwood in 1921. My great grandmother, Martha, died in 1942 living out her life in the homes of her children. Both are buried in Hill City, where many of my ancestors are.
Life wasn't easy for the ones who came west without money, carrying with them a dream of a better life. They moved where the jobs were. They were as often forced out as had been the Native Americans. Still, they had fun and enjoyed their times together.
My family stories were much on my mind while watching the documentary-- as they had been when I wrote the last four of the Arizona historicals knowing that I had begun writing a time not that distant from my family's stories.
In terms of the romance, there was really only one in the documentary, a personal story of love, hard work, and loyalty.
That story of the Love family went through the last two episodes. Despite all they endured, it was the bright lining I had wanted. My family, despite the tough times, had those stories. Although when my father was a boy, they left South Dakota for Oregon, South Dakota stayed in their hearts. When I was a girl, the annual South Dakota picnic at a nearby amusement park was a regular part of family life. I didn't understand then what that meant. I do now.
Photos are from my family and in South Dakota.