Russ Gifford
Connecting Regional History with National History... by Telling the Stories of Individuals

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Welcome to summer -- at this moment, I have no talks planned until August, though that will likely change. In future weeks, I will add the write-ups for the fall classes - they are largely settled now. But below is something different.

My latest project is something that I am working on to tide me over until fall. Mind you this is a draft. If it were in ink, it would not yet be dry. But it should give you the direction I am heading. 

A Crossroads in Time  


Overlooking the Big Sioux river, views exist where you can see the bluffs as the earliest viewers saw them. Tall, steep-sloped giants with rounded corners and long grass waving with the wind. If you are near where the Missouri and the Big Sioux rivers collide, you can look across at the bluffs on the other side, seeing these distant guardians standing shoulder to shoulder. Between your vantage point and those far bluffs rests the wide river plain, the result of a river that twisted and turned as it chewed into the soft soil of the riverbank, creating a new path between those bluffs. Before the lower Missouri was channeled near the dawn of the 1960s, the whole path of the Missouri river from Montana to Missouri performed this repetitious dance. For centuries, these rivers churned between the bluffs, always seeking a shortcut to the gulf a thousand miles away – and never finding it. The riverbed was constantly changing, yet the view today remains much the same from century to century. The rivers, bordered by the bluffs and touching the sky at the far horizons. While roads and highways, fence lines and farms, rails and railroads all cross our view and interfere, the foundation remains the same - the rivers, bordered by the bluffs, with the high blue sky above.

It is a snapshot of a crossroads in time.

People stood on these bluffs 100 years ago and watched a railroad chugging along the shoreline, bringing goods and people to the region. Fifty years prior, they saw the valiant riverboats struggle up the Missouri, spewing smoke as they fought past the mouth of the Big Sioux. Years before that, natives might be the watchers, noting a crew of men bending their backs to pull a barge up that same river. They may have noticed this crew burying a man on these bluffs the night before.    

The view 500 years before that would not seem all that much different. Cottonwood canoes might be the only be boats plying the river then, while locals collected chokecherries and other berries from the bushes. Others might be tending a crop of maize in large earthen pots with fancy handles. Nearby on the bottomland not far from the banks of the Big Sioux, we might see a group of some 25 to 40 mud huts, with smoke rising from their chimneys if it were Fall. Or depending on the year, perhaps they are raising a wooden stockade to surround the waddle and daub homes - something they had not felt they needed in the century before that. But there were more people in the region by 1200 CE, and as some groups transitioned from only hunting to harvesting, others groups of hunter-gatherers only wanted the food, not the work of tending crops.  

While this area was never densely populated, it was always a center of activity. While circumstances have changed, the land remains a constant between then and now.

How did they live? What did they do? How did they cope with the weather? They could not twist the thermostat to a higher setting when the cold winds blew out of the north, nor could they tune into a radio or the internet to see what the weather held for them. Heat and prairie fires were a constant concern until the last 75 years, and the annual floods have only been tamed in our lifetimes – mostly.  And what of food? Fast food to these folks would mean fleet-footed deer.  What did they use to hunt game? How did earlier people survive these realities?

Within the following pages we will visit these eras to experience life in those times: to see passersby drop from heatstroke while awaiting a passenger on the noon train station in Sioux City; to feel the bite of the wind in below-freezing temps plucking your hat from your head on your wagon ride across the frozen Missouri river – and realize you have miles to go before you will reach a warm fire. To see how stagecoaches fared in the mud, the rain, and the snow. Weather, food, friends, and foes – these are the stories in this book. And there is no air-conditioned train depot waiting, no forced-air gas furnace to warm your frostbitten ears at the end of the wagon ride, and no wrecker to call for the stagecoach stuck in the mud at the bottom of the hill.  

The goal of these stories is to help you see the world these people knew intimately. To see the issues, and perhaps to better understand the choices they made. A further goal is to see beyond the headline story, and realize while these stories are regional, they are also national stories. Local events generated national reactions, and the laws passed promoted further local events across the country. This process is a continuous circle, and each drives the other. That, too, has not changed in the past centuries, and will continue far into the future. As one famous writer put it, history isn’t dead. It isn’t even past. Meaning, the memories of the results of past choices continues to affect our decisions today.  

This book is your ticket to that crossroads in time. We will see the region surrounding this river plain across the centuries, and the decades, as the inhabitants saw it. Not only will we meet the locals but also people who were ‘just passing through.’ We will see how people lived and their actions when they were center stage at this crossroads of two rivers, meeting at the center of a nation as it expands from sea to shining sea.

I hope you'll join me on this journey.

          ---Russ Gifford          

(c) 2022, Russ Gifford

Below are the anticipated additions. We will see if we can make these happen.

Prologue – added May 28, above.

Chapter 1: In the Beginning – From Prehistory – Who was here when? From the beginning, but focus on 900 to 1100 AD. Will cover to 1600 – 1700 roughly.

Chapter 2: The French Connection – the early foundations of the area, and specifically, on to the start of Sioux City 1650s to 1850s. 

Chapter 3: The Steamboats and Sioux City – The land rush, the riverboats and the coming of the Rail to River boom.  1850s to 1870.

Chapter 4: Weathering Passage  – Travel by Wagon, Coach, or Horse, in the Heat, the Rain, and the Snow 1850s to 1880s.

Chapter 5: Visitors and Visions -- Susan B Anthony Visits, 1871- 1877.

Chapter 6: Bad Medicine and the Bottom Line  – Rev Haddock’s Murder and the Result – 1880s – 1890.

Chapter 7: End of the Steam Boat Era – 1881 to 1900.

Watch for these chapters biweekly through the summer!


       “His ratings were the highest for our entire season of 12 workshops, and far eclipsed those for the previous season. He created a fantastic class, and people left feeling empowered.” -- Dr. Lynn Barteck, Tri State Graduate Center

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