Cover image for Happy as a big sunflower : adventures in the West, 1876-1880
Happy as a big sunflower : adventures in the West, 1876-1880
Johnson, Rolf, 1856-1922.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, in association with the Nebraska State Historical Society, [2000]

Physical Description:
xxxii, 270 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm
General Note:
"Bison books"--Page preceding t.p.
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F672.P5 J64 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



In 1876 Rolf Johnson and his family left Illinois for Phelps County, Nebraska. There they faced the challenges of pioneering on the Great Plains: digging wells, building sod houses, plowing and planting crops, and fighting prairie fires. Johnson's diary goes beyond individual conquest, however, and provides insight into the great cooperative endeavor of plains settlement. Rolf's Swedish family and neighbors worked and socialized with other Swedes just as nearby Danish settlers remained in close physical and cultural contact with other Danish immigrants. A very eligible ninetten-year-old bachelor, Rolf also offers touching vignettes on the rituals of courting.

Abruptly, with no explanation in his diary, and with no itinerary or prospects, Rolf left home in 1879 "with the intention of going west for a season." His departure may have been sparked by the marital fervor exhibited by a female suitor. Rolf felt he was "not quite prepared to leave the state of single blessedness for that of double misery." In Sidney, Nebraska, he ran with the "sporting" element, who showed him photographs of "fast women of the town stark naked." He found employment with a wagon freighter headed for the Black Hills, where he saw Calamity Jane in action. Rolf's education continued until the diaries end in Cubero, New Mexico, in 1880. He returned to Phelps County in 1882 and remained there for most of his life. Rolf's lively diaries offer an entertaining eyewitness account of pioneer life and an unmatched resource for historians.

Author Notes

Richard E. Jensen is a research anthropologist with the Nebraska State Historical Society

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

This diary is in many ways as charming as its title. With the enthusiasm and innocence of young adulthood, Johnson records several years of his life as a first-generation Swedish American farmer in Nebraska and the greater Plains region. His entries vividly depict the scenes and people of the late 1870s and early 1880s, ranging from farming to the girls he courted and the various accidents, fights, and other events common to frontier life. His ethnic identity as a Swede is not a prominent part of the story, although he mentions reading a "Danish" book and makes reference to other Swedish pioneers. Editor Jensen, an anthropologist with the Nebraska State Historical Society, could have done a better job in the introduction of relating the bigger picture of Swedish immigration into the Plains, but he does give much detail about Johnson's life and family. This title will be of great interest to regional libraries, but outside the region it will be most appropriate for larger Western historical collections.√ĄCharlie Cowling, Information Svcs., SUNY at Brockport (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This remarkably rich and lively diary was kept by a perceptive, articulate young Swedish American in the late 1870s. Meticulously edited, with an excellent introduction, this highly personal and detailed diary was kept over a five-year period by adventuresome Rolf Johnson, beginning in his 19th year. Johnson grew up in a pioneering immigrant community in central Nebraska and then traveled, observed, took odd jobs, and experienced the "Old West" firsthand on the raw frontiers of the Black Hills, Colorado, and eventually in New Mexico. Many old diaries and travel accounts are in historical repositories across America, but this one is a unique gem, well-deserving of publication. Not only is it entertainingly readable, it is also an instructive account of these times and places, with truthful intimacy that no narrative history can hope to match. This beautifully executed publication, with maps, photographs, explanatory notes, and a full index, is highly recommended for college libraries as well as any others with collecting interests in the history of the trans-Mississippi West in the post-Civil War period. K. Smemo; Moorhead State University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introductionp. xiii
Note on the Diariesp. xxxi
1 Illinois Homelandp. 1
2 The Trip to Nebraskap. 9
3 Phelps County, Nebraskap. 12
4 Summer Rambles in Eastern Nebraskap. 24
5 Back to Phelps Countyp. 29
6 The Buffalo Huntp. 52
7 Home Again, Politics and Romancesp. 75
8 The Harvest Circuitp. 102
9 More Politics and Romances at Homep. 109
10 The Execution of Stephen D. Richardsp. 138
11 The Black Hills and the Southwestp. 158
List of People Mentioned in Rolf Johnson's Diariesp. 217
Notesp. 227
Bibliographyp. 257
Indexp. 265