The Prairie Gospel of Moby-Dick

It was a June day in 1887 when members of my family were murdered in a Dakota field.

My great-great-grandfather, Earnest, went to break ground on a disputed plot of land with his two sisters, nephew, and a neighbor.  They were met by Simon Neilson (a former County Commissioner and accused speculator), who thought the land to be rightfully his, and opened fire with his Winchester. “Wholesale Murder!” cried The Daily Huronite.  “Fearful Tragedy in Dakota…” exclaimed The Chicago Tribune. “His Rifle Fatal To Five,” proclaimed New York’s The National Police Gazette. “There’s three less of them,” Neilson is said to have declared before reportedly shooting himself … in the back of the head.  Earnest was the only survivor.

This series, The Prairie Gospel of Moby Dick, is inspired by – and the works take their titles from – Melville’s book. In Moby-Dick, pages spout pages of descriptions and measurements of whales, as the immeasurable — a relation — is sought within the measurable — a thing.   That most famous of all whales is like the claim-shack, like the quarter-section of land.

My great-grandmother’s eyes were tear-filled as she gazed out a car window upon the Wyoming prairie; in 1885, she had been born into a Nebraskan log cabin, which was built by her grandfather in 1856.  On the prairie stood an unpainted, dilapidated, little farmhouse. 

“What’s the matter?” my mother asked. 

Grandma, still in thought, answered, “The amount of work, hardship, and heartache that went into keeping up a place like that.”