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  • Diary Notes from a TeenagerInsights into Life on the Great Plains in the Late 1870s
  • Scott Scheuerell (bio)
Key Words

drought, homesteading, Kansas, Texas, Timber Culture Act

The US American West is often referred to as "the geography of hope."1 Many people came to the Great Plains looking toward a better future for themselves and their children. Among these was a thirteen-year-old boy named John Talcott Norton, who moved from Mason City, Illinois, to Larned, Kansas, in 1877. Much can be learned from the insights he shared about the past. He provided a firsthand account of his journey from Illinois to Kansas and of his day-to-day experience living on the frontier. To one reading the words of this young man today, it is remarkable how many of the themes that emerge from his diary connect to contemporary life on the Plains, and, ultimately, to how topics such as social studies are best taught in schools today. Few other topics in today's curriculum can be more important than social studies, since it draws on so many areas of inquiry, for example, anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, and on various aspects of the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. This article takes the view that connecting the accounts from the writings of young people such as John Norton will significantly enhance the teaching of the story of westward settlement. Our pedagogy can be improved and our students can experience a life that is both very different from, yet remarkably similar to, their own. In other words, there really is much that can be learned from a teenager.

To encourage western settlement, the federal government passed both the Homestead Act, in 1862, and the Timber Culture Act, in 1873. The Homestead Act gave a settler 160 acres of land if he or she lived there for five years and improved the land by cultivating it. The Timber Culture Act gave a settler 160 acres of land if he or she planted trees, and for ten years maintained them.2 [End Page 311]

It was the Timber Culture Act that inspired John Talcott Norton's family to leave Illinois for Kansas in 1877.3 Fortunately for the sake of posterity, he was motivated to capture in his diary what he did, what he saw, and what he was thinking while growing up on the prairie in the 1870s.

John Talcott Norton provides social studies students today with unique insights that arguably cannot be replicated with any lecture or reading from the traditional American history textbook. Students learn how he worked tirelessly on the farm, how he enjoyed spending his spare time, what it was like living next to a federal fort in the American West, and many other issues that we frequently overlook when thinking about life on the Great Plains during this era. In the pages that follow, the reader will be able to capture these insights and consider how John Talcott Norton's diary might be used in classrooms today. Students can find the diary online in "Kansas Memory," a collection hosted by the Kansas Historical Society.4

The Journey West: "Pa Has Got a Claim of 88 Acres"

In the spring of 1877, John Talcott Norton's family made a life-changing decision to take advantage of the Timber Culture Act and move to Kansas. In his diary entry dated May 8, 1877, he shared how his family left Mason City, Illinois, and moved to Larned, Kansas, by crossing the Mississippi River at St. Louis and then traveling by railroad car to Kansas City. In Kansas City, John Talcott Norton saw firsthand the stockyards that contributed to the great growth that the city experienced during the late 1800s:

We got to Kansas City at 8 o'clock in the night. We staid all night at the Leland house. The window to our car was smashed; we thought someone had broken it but there was a car load of telegraph poles behind us, some had got loose and battered it down. We started out that evening. Kansas City is in Missouri. The stock yards, depots, packing houses, and...


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pp. 311-322
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