Home on the Range
by Brewster Martin Higley VI and Daniel E. Kelley
Brewster Higley wrote the poem that would become “Home on the Range” in his Smith County, Kansas, sod house in 1872. He provided a couple geographical markers (Beaver Creek, the Solomon River), and he referenced the climate and wildlife of the region (zephyrs, curlews, deer and antelope/pronghorns). The song, therefore, has a very precise setting: Kansas, 1872.
The 20 years that preceded the writing of the song were tumultuous ones in Kansas. Initially, the territory had been set aside for Native Americans, but by the end of the 1840s, white settlers were pouring into the region, leading American policy makers to force the Indians further south and west.
Removing the Native Americans, however, did not bring peace to the region. The new white residents were quickly embroiled in a debate over the status of slavery in their territory. The federal government did little to resolve this debate. In fact, under the terms of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, they allowed these two territories to decide for themselves if they would be free or slave. It was a terrible decision. Previously, the federal government had drawn lines separating free from slave territory. But now they tossed the decision to the local residents, much like tossing two fighting dogs into the same room. The result was that the Civil War came early to Kansas. Battles between pro-and anti-slavery residents earned the territory the label “Bleeding Kansas.”
The violence did not end until Kansas applied for admission to the Union as a state. This forced Congress to re-enter the picture and decide what sort of state constitution to approve. When Congress approved an anti-slavery constitution in 1859, most of the violence ceased. But not for long. The Civil War started two years later, and Kansas was hit by several Confederate raids. The most deadly of these was launched against Lawrence in 1863. By the time Brewster Higley moved to Kansas in 1871, the region was ready for some peace and quiet. It’s no wonder that a little wind and a few screaming curlews did not bother him.