The Power of Dirt

From: Ann Dea Hogan

This article is going to be published in the O'Dea clan association newsletter, which goes all over the world. It is not copyrighted and I would be honored if you put it on the website. As I have told everyone, it's not the words that are so interesting but the propaganda from that time is what is fascinating.

Of course, the Midwest would have fewer states and they wouldn't be populated by our hard-working ancestors if the advertisements didn't work. Pretty good for folks who got off the boat in rags, eh?  

For additional reading, try "British to America" or slog through Albion's Seed. Great stuff, but a bit deep sometimes.

Regards and Happy Holidays, Ann Dea Hogan


“It’s the land, Katy Scarlett, it’s the land!”  Anyone who has seen the movie “Gone With The Wind” remembers Scarlett’s father and his obsession with his acreage.  Immigrants to the North American New World began to share this obsession, to escape the shackles of poverty, to become  the landed gentry, for ownership begat power.  The poor and disenfranchised came to North America with a dream, some to escape, some for adventure, but all were driven by the lure of the new land and its untapped riches.  With hard work, all was possible. 

The governments of Canada and of the United States tapped into this lure by offering reduced fees for passage and free land.  Territories in the United States, anxious to achieve statehood, had to increase their populations in order to be eligible.  Pamphlets, advertisements, posters, idealized personal narratives were all broadcast to attract people from other countries.

  Picture is a broadside from about 1872, when state still competed to lure immigrants.  Source:  “Minnesota History,” Summer 1999, p.332. 

The British, anxious to settle Canada or, to be blunt, to get rid of the Irish, offered many people money and free passage across the ocean.  The state of Minnesota, for one example, attempting to reach more potential settlers, issued broadsides that offered fantastic discounts on passage to the new state. 

In “Minnesota Pioneers,” a pamphlet for settlers, came the appeal and the flowery promises:

To laboring men, who earn a livelihood by honest toil; to landless men, who aspire to that dignity and independence which comes from possession in God’s free earth; to all men, Of Moderate Means, and Men of Wealth, Who Will Accept Homes in a Beautiful and Prosperous Country, this Pamphlet, with Its Information and Counsel, is Respectfully Offered by Direction of the Governor and Board of Immigration of the State of Minnesota.

The benefits of immigration are reciprocal.

If it is Well to Exchange the Tyrannies and Thankless Toil of the Old World, for the Freedom and Independence of the New, and to Give the Overcrowded Avocations of the East a Chance to Vent Themselves Upon the Limitless and Fertile Prairies of the New North West, it is also Well for the Hand of Labour to Bring Forth the Rich Treasures Hid in the Bosom of the NEW EARTH.

The Wealth of Minnesota Consists Not in Her Fertile Prairies and Mighty Forests, Her Broad Rivers and Thousand Lakes, But in Those Products Which Fill the Barns with Plenty, and Quicken the Energies of Trade and Commerce.

As if that weren’t enough, there were testimonies from farmers with rich harvests, 469 bushels of wheat on 18 acres, 226 bushels of oats on 5 ½ acres, “all grading No. 1.”  An idyllic agricultural economy was promised:

Farming to wheat exclusively admits of large economies….The grain is threshed and sold immediately after being cut, the hands are paid off, the horses are sold, the machinery is stored, the watchman and his family are left in charge of the property, and only interest and taxes are running against the investment till the recommencement of work. 

Apparently, everyone went to their Florida estate for the winter.  The hard reality was the harshness of the winters, with temperatures plummeting from 35 to 50 below zero, and snow up past your bum, as Brian Dea describes it.  (His bum must be higher than mine, because I remember something about armpits, which explains the exterior doors on the second floor of farmhouses.)  These facts were glossed over in the advertising, which stated the yearly mean temperature as 44.6 degrees.  Of course, an average is affected by extremes, such as the 100 degree days in summer.  The winter average of 16 degrees was explained away because “the dry atmosphere of winter in Minnesota is less cold to the sense than the warmer yet damp climate of States several degrees  further south.”  (Anyone who has lived in Minnesota can tell you the air is dry because it’s coming straight from the North Pole and the winters are six to seven months long.)  Add to this the travails of trying to tame a wilderness. 

dirt.h3.jpg (64929 bytes)Other examples of false advertising existed.  A popular pamphlet in the 1850s made its rounds in Britain.  The engravings showed a penurious, barefoot hut dweller heading off to make his fortune.  Years later, he is comfortably ensconced in the lap of luxury, surrounded by his well-fed and well-dressed family. Source of pictures:  “Britain to America,” William E Van Vugt

Unfortunately, even by the 1880s in Minnesota, the immigrant was frequently living in a sod house, eking out a meager existence and a hardscrabble life.  My maternal grandparents lived among the Native Americans in such a hut, or dugout as it was called.  They hunted buffalo, giving the meat to the Indians and trading buffalo hides, eventually founding a town in western Minnesota. Source of picture: “Bring Warm Clothes,” Peg Meier

Irish Catholics were recruited to move to Minnesota from their work in the woolen and cotton mills in New England.  According to Patricia Condon Johnston in “Minnesota’s Irish,” “As bishop of the St. Paul diocese in St. Paul, John Ireland undertook a mammoth colonization program which enabled thousands of Irish Catholic families to acquire farmsteads of their own in southwestern Minnesota.  Many of the descendants remain in the communities he established.” 

In 1877, there were an estimated 2.5 million acres unsold in the state and only 675,000 people, 25,000 of whom were Irish..  Because of the Homestead Act of 1862, land could be had for little or nothing, and whole sections could be homesteaded.  Eighty to 160 acres were offered.  The requirements were that a water source was to be established and a house must be built.  Settlement had to begin within 6 months and continue for five years.  Crops had to be planted to awake “the idle richness slumbering in [the state’s] black soil

Mighty conquerors have often divided the conquered territory amongst their favorite chieftains, but America requires territory by purchase, and distributes in among the landless of all nations.” 

The pamphlet exhorted “nearly half of the land…of the entire state” was available “for the landless and poor of all nations of the earth to enter in and possess.”  In further “get ‘em while they’re hot” prose, the pamphlet exhorted “Land is now cheap, abundant, convenient, and it is rapidly being taken up” and “this privilege of obtaining free farms under the homestead law is shared by women, whether widows of unmarried ladies, equally with men.” 

My paternal great-grandfather and his family, from County Mayo, crossed in 1863.  According to family legend, Michael Tigue had stolen a turnip during a famine, a capital offense.  Fleeing for his life, he changed his last name to travel incognito.  (In the 1980s, his great-grandson legally changed his name back to the original, assuming the statute of limitations had expired on the turnip.)  After working in the mills in Massachusetts, Michael settled in Anoka County.  He farmed with his 11 children until he died in 1926. 

My other paternal great-grandfather Edward M. Dea, of the O’Deas of Burlington, Ontario, and his brother Patrick, emigrated to Minnesota around 1862, working as farm laborers outside Minneapolis.  After earning money for several years and applying for American citizenship, Edward returned to Ontario, married in 1870 and had four children. 

In the 1890s, the family moved to Minnesota after the death of their eldest child at the age of 17.  Edward achieved his citizenship in 1894 and unfortunately died at the age of 50 the next year.  His remaining family settled in south Minneapolis, where they built a house around the turn of the 20th century.  It is still occupied by the family. 

As a character in “Raisin in the Sun” stated, there’s something good about owning the floor beneath your feet. 

There is a delicious irony today in having enough money to fly back in comfort to visit the Auld Sod.  Once there, we can all lift a pint in agreement with starving Scarlett O’Hara, who, after scratching a lonely turnip from the soil, began to eat it, dirt and all.  Disgusted with what she had been reduced to, she vowed to the heavens, “God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”