With every turn of a page in “Prairie Mosaic,” the reader will delve into the rich ethnic history of North Dakota. The Rev. William C. Sherman labored for many years to reveal an astonishing level of detail, down to the township level, and to tell the story of the state’s inhabitants.
“Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota,” originally published in 1983, has been published by the North Dakota State University Press in a fine second edition (2017, 151 pages, photographs, maps, tables, index), with an insightful new introduction by Dr. Thomas D. Isern of NDSU.
“In 1983 the Institute for Regional Studies, a little-known academic publisher headquartered at North Dakota State University, issued the title, “Prairie Mosaic: An Ethnic Atlas of Rural North Dakota,” by a little-known prairie scholar, William C. Sherman. Distribution was limited … Evident at the time was the dedication of the scholar behind the book, Father Bill Sherman, and the enormous amount of work that must have gone into the completion of the meticulous local complications and cartographic depictions of ethnic immigrant settlements on the northern Plains, as well as the author’s affectionate familiarity with the landscape and its people. Evident in hindsight, however, is how Sherman’s study took place — in the belated development of ethnic studies on the Plains, becoming a touchstone for a rising generation of scholars uncovering the region’s immigrant past.” (Isern, pg. ix of the Introduction)
The maps and their accompanying descriptions are the compilation of an enormous amount of detailed and tedious work entailing “the determination and proper placement of some 50,000 bits and pieces of data.” (Sherman, pg. 118) This landmark work takes the reader back to the settlement days and reveals the customs and traditions of these sturdy folk. The strongest undercurrent was the role of the various churches in forming community ties and perpetuating culture.
When I was growing up in Slope County, I would hear folks remark, “He is a Bohunk,” and it was explained to me that this was a slur for people of Bohemian origins, but I hadn’t since then given it much thought, until reading “Prairie Mosaic.” In Sherman’s book, a reader can see just where the people of different ethnic origin settled, including those of Native American origins. I was quite surprised to learn that a group of Japanese homesteaders laid claim to land in western Montrail County. I was also surprised to note that the valley of the Little Missouri River was predominantly inhabited by Anglo-Americans. There are dozens of these nuggets of information on every page of this book.
My only criticism would be that it is a shame that some of the photographs are without captions. Readers who are interested in this topic should also look at the excellent website Digital Horizons, housed at NDSU, “an online treasure house of thousands of images, documents, video and oral histories depicting life on the northern Plains from the late 1800s to today. Here you’ll find a fascinating snapshot of the lives, culture, and history of the people who shaped life on the prairies.”
Ron Vossler writes of “Prairie Mosaic”:
“To borrow an idea from anthropology, we can theorize (and hope) that just as ancient Asian trade centers flourished where different cultures rubbed together, places where caravans stopped and variegated races intermingled, so now in North Dakota, now that the spring mud and winter snow are no longer the impassable obstacles they once were, and the little Norways and little Germanys are no longer so isolated, and with people like William Sherman giving us research and ideas in volumes like this one, the same flowering will occure here: a transfer of the well-known work ethic to solving social problems, and encouraging intellectual endeavors and social relationships — carrying as great a load in our minds and our hearts as those early settlers once did on their backs.” (Book Review of “Prairie Mosaic” by Ron Vossler in North Dakota Quarterly, Spring, 1983)
The rich heritage of North Dakota holds much to be proud of, and everyone will delve deeper into this heritage by reading this book. To my mind, this book’s enjoyment would be increased by tucking it into a bag and taking it on a North Dakota road trip, stopping along the way frequently to read the stories of the earliest inhabitants from its pages. Add to the bag, the books “North Dakota Place Names” by Douglas A. Wick (Sweetgrass Communications, 1988) and “A Traveler’s Companion to North Dakota State Historic Sites” (third ed. SHSND 2014), along with a good atlas and experience a multilayered expedition, rather than an ordinary road trip. Oh, and be sure to sample authentic food along the way.
North Dakota’s landscape is a quilt of many colors that enriches all of our lives.