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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.1 (2001) 52-61

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The Significance of Wheat in the Dakota Territory, Human Evolution, Civilization, and Degenerative Diseases

Kilmer S. McCully *

Wheat Cultivation in Dakota Territory, 1888

When Judah Litwinenco arrived with his wife and three young children at the end of the railroad line in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory, in 1888, no towns or human settlements existed between Aberdeen and the Missouri River. Ten years previously, Chief Sitting Bull and his chiefs and warriors had been defeated by the U.S. Army, and the Sioux tribe was forcibly encamped west of the Missouri River in an arid plain that would later became an Indian reservation. The cavalry and patrols of the U.S. Army kept the Sioux warriors from occupying the more fertile land east of the Missouri River, while the Homestead Act of 1864 permitted settlers to occupy and own a section of this fertile land after residence was established, and to receive title to the property at the end of 10 years. [End Page 52]

Judah and Marie Litwinenco became the first white European settlers to occupy any of the fertile land between Aberdeen and the Missouri River, in what later became northern South Dakota. Judah had worked as a hod carrier in New York City, after his arrival in Ellis Island from Odessa, Ukraine. With what remained of the money he had earned, he purchased a horse and wagon. As Judah, Marie, and their children rode their horse and buggy westward, all that could be seen from horizon to horizon was chest-high prairie grass waving in the wind under the bright blue sky. In this vast expanse of the Dakota wilderness, only a few trees were found, along small creeks, along the Missouri River, or adjacent to small ponds. The immense herds of buffalo previously found in this territory had been slaughtered in previous decades by explorers and adventurers, leaving the Native American tribes with little choice but to subsist on the reservations assigned by the territorial authorities. Abundant small game, birds, and occasional deer, badgers, foxes, and other animals lived in this wild paradise. No fields, roads, fences, houses, telephone poles, or other signs of civilization were to be found.

Judah had been told by his Ukrainian acquaintances that the climate in the Dakota Territory and the adjacent lands of Alberta and Manitoba seemed to be favorable for cultivation of the hard spring wheat of the Ukraine, so-called durum wheat (Triticum durum), or as he called it, "macaroni wheat." Small supplies of this precious commodity were hidden in the pockets of his overcoat from customs inspectors in New York. In this way, Judah and his fellow immigrants brought durum wheat to cultivate in the wild lands of the Dakota Territory and Canada. The sod of the wild prairie grass was so thick and matted together that special plows were needed to open the fields for cultivation. When these giant plows, called sodbusters, turned over the thick layer of roots, the deep, underlying layer of deep brown black humus was found to be one to two feet in thickness. Sod houses were the first shelters used by immigrant farmers in Dakota, because trees, stones, and bricks were not available. Wooden houses were not built in this area until 1905, after the railroad was extended to the Missouri River.

Planting of durum wheat in the rich Dakota soil occurred in the spring, after the newly plowed fields were solid enough to support the hooves of horses or later the wheels of tractors. In the intense warm sunshine of spring and early summer, the wheat germinated and grew rapidly, reaching two to three feet in height. In a good year enough rain and showers fell to produce a thick crop that ripened during the first two weeks of August. When the wheat was harvested with a scythe, a horse-drawn binder, or in later years by either tractor-drawn or self-propelled combines, the crop yielded 20 to 30 bushels per acre of...


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