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“Dakota Land”

It was the song of those days, heard more often than Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay. My aunt Grace, a jolly big girl, often sang it, sometimes my mother did, and nearly all the time you could hear some man or boy whistling it… — On the Way Home, introduction by Rose Wilder Lane

Music to “Dakota Land” (often “O Dakota Land” or “Sweet Dakota Land”) was based on the 1876 hymn, “Beulah Land” – music by John Sweney. John Robson Sweney (1837-1899) was a Pennsylvania musician and music teacher. During the Civil War, Sweney conducted the band of the Third Delaware Regiment. Following the war, he took a position at Pennsylvania Military Academy in West Chester, Pennsylvania, as Professor of Music, where he taught for over 25 years. During his life, Sweney composed more than a thousand hymn tunes and collaborated on a number of hymn collections.

The words to the hymn “Beulah Land” were written by E.P. Stites. Edgar Page Stites (1836-1921) was a New Jersey native who became a riverboat pilot on the Delaware River. He was a member of First Methodist Church of Cape May, New Jersey for sixty years. For a while, he was a Home Missionary in Dakota Territory, a position also held by Little House characters Edwin H. Alden and Stuart Sheldon (Rev. Stuart in By the Shores of Silver Lake, Chapter 23, “On the Pilgrim Way”).

While “Beulah Land” is a celebratory hymn, “Dakota Land” is a parody and direct contrast to the original lyrics. It expresses the frustration of the Dakota pioneers who found homesteading to be a much more difficult undertaking than it was advertised as being. There are many variations of the lyrics found in folk songs: about Kansas, Oregon, and all points west. Charles Ingalls may have been thinking about the song when he wrote the following lines in Martha Carpenter’s autograph album in 1892:

     Just think of me when far away
     Out on Dakota’s plain
     Where the wind blows every day
     And still it never rains


1. We’ve reached the land of desert sweet,
Where nothing grows for man to eat,
The wind it blows with feverish heat
Across the plains so hard to beat.

[chorus] O Dakota land, sweet Dakota land,
As on thy fiery soil I stand,
I look across the plains,
And wonder why it never rains,
Till Gabriel blows his trumpet sound,
And says the rain’s just gone around.

2. We’ve reached the land of hills and stones
Where all is strewn with buffalo bones.
O buffalo bones, bleached buffalo bones,
I seem to hear your sighs and moans.

3. We have no wheat, we have no oats,
We have no corn to feed our shoats;
Our chickens are so poor
They beg for crumbs outside the door.

4. Our horses are of bronco race;
Starvation stares them in the face.
We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away.

(from On the Way Home)

O Dakota land, sweet Dakota land,
As on thy burning soil I stand
And look away across the plains
I wonder why it never rains,
Till Gabriel blows his trumpet sound
And says the rain has gone around.
We don’t live here, we only stay
‘Cause we’re too poor to get away.

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“Dakota Land” (OTWH, introduction)
     “O Dakota land, sweet Dakota land”