Pioneers who rolled across the Midwestern Prairies during the 19th century came with big hopes and dreams. But they had to survive the dangers of the wilderness first.
They needed food and water, but they also needed shelter. Pioneers absolutely needed a place where they could stay safe from the harsh winters and raging thunderstorms. Weather on the plains was often unpredictable, and a storm could appear and then be gone in a flash.
Pioneers would utilize whatever materials they had available to them, and all kinds of different types of houses were built across the prairie. For people who settled in Nebraska, that material was often dirt.
Settlers would make bricks out of the sod, held together by the thick root system of native prairie grass. These were then stacked together into sod houses. These soddies, the cute nickname given to sod houses, became perhaps the most famous dwelling type on the prairie.
However, many settlers who had hills on their properties used dugouts. Essentially caves dug into hillsides, these shelters would typically have a wooden framed door and wooden window frames. They generally had one room, and were not the most comfortable – or cleanest- places to live in.
Because of this and other reasons, both types of dwellings had a limited-shelf life. Most people quickly moved on to building wooden frame houses that could have multiple rooms. The soddies and the dugouts rapidly began to disappear, vanishing as quickly as the weather that they were designed to protect against.
Paxton, a small town on the western edge of the state, was no exception.
In late 1894, John Harris and his wife moved into a dugout seven miles outside of town. John was one of the nineteen children of Samuel Harris, a Virginia native who had moved west and settled in Nebraska. Somewhere along the way, the 25-year-old John had met and married Ida Zook, a young woman about six years younger than himself.
In early January, a local man came to visit the couple. When he arrived at their farm, all was quiet. After looking around for a bit, he discovered why. Horrified by what he’d found, he immediately went home and told his father that the Harris’ were dead. His father, Edward Lind, telegraphed the awful news to the sheriff.
Keith County, where Paxton was located, didn’t have a coroner of its own. Instead, the sheriff, Zeph Camp, would be doing double duty as both the coroner and the chief investigator. This also meant that as he looked into the deaths, he would simultaneously be doing a coroner’s inquest to determine the official cause of death.
Ida Harris was found half-dressed on the bed. She had been pregnant, and her throat had been cut from ear to ear. John was found by the door, also with his throat cut.
Camp and his companions started to look through the Harris’ home. It was obvious that the couple were very, very poor. There was barely any food, and no preparations had been made for the baby, either. It soon became apparent that the Harris’ were on the verge of starving to death.
Things became even darker when they found a note left by John. It was a letter to his parents, explaining that he and Ida had decided to commit suicide together. Both of them had used the same straight razor for the deed.
What the sheriff concluded was that Ida had gone first. After she cut her throat, she died on the bed. John had then picked up the razor and done the same to himself. However, he had lived. He had fallen to his knees, and then crawled around the house, blood pumping from his mortal wound. He had even gone outside, and then come back in.
John had finally died by the door, trying in his last moments to reach out and grasp the handle.
Camp conducted interviews with everyone who had seen the crime scene that day, including the Lind’s. No one doubted that the Harris’ had, facing starvation and in the throes of despair, decided to commit suicide. The family came and collected John and Ida’s remains. They were later interred in Riverside Cemetery in Hershey, Nebraska.
No one ever knew what made the Harris’ commit last deeds. They theorized that it was the impending starvation that had spurred it on because it made the most sense. But, at the end of the whole thing, the definitive reason died with the Harris’.
Like many settlers who came through Nebraska, our knowledge of John and Ida Harris is limited. We don’t know how they met and fell in love, or why they decided to move to Paxton. Outside of a few details here and there, we are ultimately left knowing more about how they died than how they lived.
Many pioneers and settlers who came to the prairie were much the same way. We know a few things about them -just enough to prove that they actually existed- but after that, virtually nothing. Like the sod houses that they built, these men and women have mostly vanished from the world. And yet, their legacy lives on.
These individuals dared to brave the unknown and make a new life for themselves. While many won, others, like the Harris’, lost. But, whether through triumph or tragedy, their lives are deeply interwoven with the fabric of American History.
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Cut Their Throats. The Nebraska State Journal, 1/15/1895
Sad Nebraska Suicide. Fremont Tri-Weekly Tribune, 1/17/1895