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One day in 1872, homesteader Brewster Martin Higley VI—of the Ohio Brewster Martin Higleys, to be sure—sat in front of his sod house and wrote a poem about what he saw and heard. He submitted the poem to the Smith County Pioneer, and it was published under the title "Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam."
Later, Higley's friend Daniel Kelley wrote a little tune to go along with the words, turning Higley's poem, whose actual title was "My Western Home," into the song we know as "Home on the Range."
It's a cute story, really. Two Kansas homesteaders meet in the early 1870s and compose the song that eventually becomes the state song of Kansas. It makes us want to move off to some uncharted territory and start composing. Neither Higley nor Kelley was around to celebrate their honor, though, as Higley moved to Arkansas and then Oklahoma, and Kelley moved to Iowa. But that's an important part of the story as well.
Higley and Kelley came together to write one of America's most elegant tributes to life on the frontier and then went off to explore that frontier even further. As homesteaders, they knew this life—and the hardships that went along with it—firsthand. Their song, and their story, reflects both the beauties and challenges of the pioneer life.
|Artist||Higley IV, Brewster Martin and Kelly, Daniel E.|
|Writer(s)||Brewster Martin Higley VI (words), Daniel E. Kelley (music)|
|Learn to play||Harmonica|
Orchestra and fiddles
David Guion (who did the most famous arrangement)
L. Frank Baum
"My Arizona Home" by William and Mary Goodwin
Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967)
Nash traces American beliefs about nature and wilderness from their European and Biblically-based beginnings through the mid-20th century. Interesting and well-written, the book offers readers a grand overview of an important element within American ideology.
Jason Porterfield, The Homestead Act of 1862: A Primary Source History of the Settlement of the American Heartland in the Late 19th Century (2004)
This collection of primary sources brings the homesteading experience to life. It's not very extensive (only 65 pages), but it would provide a useful tool in the high school classroom.
Brewster Martin Higley VI
His poem "My Western Home" provided the words for "Home on the Range."
Daniel E. Kelley
Kelley wrote the music that turned Higley's poem into a song.
Brewster Higley’s Home on the Range
Higley built this cabin to replace his original sod house. It's uncertain in which he actually wrote the famous poem.
Homesteaders who didn't have access to timber commonly built this sort of sod house.
"Oh, give me the gale of the Solomon vale"
The Solomon River, made famous by Brewster Higley, runs across northern Kansas.
"I love, too, the curlew's wild scream"
Here's a shot of the the noisy shorebird.
The West (1996)
This eight-part PBS series tells the story of the West as a series of biographies. A Ken Burns project, the series combines images, source readings, and interviews with historians. A useful companion site includes source material and teacher lesson plans.
Far and Away (1992)
This tale of an immigrant's experience in late 19th-century America climaxes in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1883, a federal land giveaway rooted in the Homestead Act of 1862. Brewster Higley's experience shared little with Tom Cruise's, though. In fact, few homesteaders had Cruise's luck; two-thirds of all homesteaders failed in the first five years and never received title to their land.
This film's about Wyoming, not Kansas, and it takes place in the early-20th century, not the 19th, but it nicely captures the homesteader experience. The film was partially financed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a team of historians monitored the historical content.
Essays on the Western Experience
History Now, the online journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, devoted an edition to the American West in 2006. One of the essays explores "the myth of the frontier," of which "Home on the Range" is part.
Images of the West
The National Archives has posted a wonderful collection of photos at this site.
Marty Robbins, "Home on the Range"
This stripped-down rendition may be closest to the song composed by Dan Kelley.
Gene Autry, "Home on the Range"
The "singing cowboy" adds a little swing to the country classic.
The Sons of the Pioneers, "Home on the Range"
No one harmonizes like the Sons of the Pioneers.
Neil Young, "Home on the Range"
The legendary musician gives the haunting melody an electric edge.