Saturday, October 7, 2017

The History of Wells County, A Book Review

The History of Wells County, A Book Review
Book Offers Insight To Place Names, Stuff
By Dakota Wind
Spokesfield, Walter. The History of Wells County, North Dakota and Its Pioneers, with a sketch of North Dakota History and the Origin of Place Names. Jamestown, ND: North Dakota, 1929. 804 pages. Index, illustrations, maps, and photos.

The History of Wells County is heavy reading. There are some images scattered throughout, but it’s the kind of book that expects its reader to read, but it’s also the kind of book that is easy to get through once you become familiar with its layout. It also helps to know that the index is at the end of the book.

Google is an impressive search engine, and its book search shares excerpts of many books and features many books online, but this isn’t one of them. There’s something satisfying about going to the North Dakota State Library and finding something that isn’t online yet, and it’s there where I found this dusty tome. It was equal parts dusty, dry, and delicate, and frankly, I was surprised that I was allowed to take it home. I swear the book was almost grateful that I checked it out.

The subject of site names, and origin of place names is what piqued my interest, and this book has it. Spokesfield put more into this book regarding this subject than one could think possible. It is certainly more edifying than Mary Anne Barnes Williams’ 1966 effort: Origins of North Dakota Place Names.

Spokesfield research on North Dakota’s place names doesn’t have the finesse of works like contemporary place name historians like Mr. Louie Garcia, but then Mr. Garcia has the advantage of insight by marrying into the Dakhóta people. Spokesfield has something, however, neither Williams nor Garcia has, and that’s the sheer size of his work. Spokesfield has not just place names, but alternatives in names and narrative.

An example of rediscovering a place for me is “Hawksnest,” found in section 26 of the Hawksnest township, located about a mile south of Sykstown, ND. Spokesfield writes of this location as Huyawayapaahdi, written in what’s called “Mission Dakota,” which is how priests and missionaries wrote the Dakhóta language. Spokesfield’s “Huyawayapaahdi” means nothing to me, until I read his narrative: the Dakhóta saw an eagle (or hawk) carrying a bit of meat in its beak as it took to the sky. Suddenly, I can deconstruct Spokesfield’s word and pronounce it. Using the new Lakota Language Consortium’s standard of writing the language, I would write Spokesfield’s word as: Ȟuyá Wayápȟa Akdí (Eagle [archaic] To-Hold-Things-In-The-Mouth To-Return-Bringing-Something).

Hawknest was an overnight campsite when Dakhóta went west to the Missouri River, and for when the Lakȟóta went east to Spirit Lake.

History is also a collection, a who’s who of pioneers, but he also acknowledges explorers and the indigenous. Many of the narratives of people and places, at least in the first half of the book, are written in the first person. One narrative is outstanding for its concise information regarding horse thieves in 1896 operating between Spirit Lake and the Missouri River. The Wells County sheriff and deputy captured four horse thieves, but failed to secure one of them properly which resulted in the escape of one. The others were later released for lack of evidence. Eventually, the sheriff married one of the supposed horse thieves’ sister.

Another eye-catching narrative is about the “Teton Okandandas.” When I see a word that looks “native” I try to pronounce it several ways, with different accent placement, and with glottal pronunciations until the word comes to me. This is another “Mission Dakota” word. In this case, this is an archaic word in Dakhóta for “They Scatter Their Own.”

Spokesfield probably never intended his written word to be powerful or emotive, but his work is certainly inspiring. Near the end of his work, I found myself unexpectedly moved: The Indians were grossly misunderstood and long cheated and abused. They objected to the intrusion of the white men because it interfered with their roamings and their hunting grounds and fought only for their lands and their homes, which were often wrested from them through force and intrigue.

Spokesfield gives all the people of North Dakota their due. Names of First Nations leaders appear along with prominent pioneers and settlers. Histories of early explorers get mentioned. The Corps is included, and Spokesfield coverage of them is not overdone. General Custer, the 7th Cavalry, and the Little Bighorn Campaign are included, neatly and concisely in Spokesfield’s writing, not aggrandized, but certainly more is written of than contemporary North Dakota Studies.

This book deserves to be in all North Dakota city, county, college, and university libraries. It probably is. Go check it out. 

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.