Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte- A Pioneer for Native Americans and Female Physicians

The Omaha Indian Reservation in 1865 was a place caught between two worlds: the modern, White world, and the traditional world its residents had lived in for hundreds of years. In a log cabin on the Northwest side of the reservation, a place more conservative Omahas called “Village of the Make-Believe White Men”, an 8-year-old girl named Susan was tasked with watching over a sickly elderly neighbor while messengers went to find the white agency doctor. The woman was in agonizing pain, but the doctor ignored all four messages pleading for his help, and young Susan watched the woman eventually succumb to her illness. It was then that Susan realized that for her people, something was going to have to change.

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born on June 17th, 1865, on the Omaha Indian Reservation. She was the youngest of four daughters born to Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eyes) and Mary Gale (One Woman). Both of her parents were mixed Omaha and white, and so Suan grew up caught between two worlds. As a young child she was educated in a mission school on the reservation. She later received education at the Hampton Institute, one of the first universities for people of color. During her time at the Hampton Institute, Susan was advised by a mentor to attend medical school. With this mentor’s help, Susan secured a scholarship from the U.S Office of Indian Affairs, making her the first person to attend college on a federal grant. Susan graduated from the Pennsylvania Woman’s Medical College at the top of her class, becoming the first Native American Female physician in the country.

Susan returned to the reservation she was born on, medical degree in hand. On the reservation, she was responsible for some 1,200 people and was on call 24 hours a day. As one of the few female doctors and the only Native American one in the country, Susan faced discrimination and hostility from some of her patients. Nevertheless, she threw everything she had into their care. Susan was paid ten times less than an Army or Navy doctor with the same amount of patients, yet she was still forced to pay for her own supplies when the Indian Affairs Office ran out, which was often. She was sole doctor within a 1,350 mile radius, and was often forced to walk several miles to reach her patients. Beyond her capacity as a physician, Susan often found herself acting as a parent, lawyer, advocate, and teacher. SusanLaFlesche

Through all of this, Susan’s dream remained opening a hospital on the Omaha reservation. While she worked on that, she also advocated tirelessly for hygiene and disease prevention standards to be raised on the reservation, and for the rights of Native Americans to be recognized as legal citizens. In 1894, she married a Sioux man named Henry Picotte, and the two moved to Bancroft, Nebraska. Susan opened a private practice there, treating both white and native patients, while also raising two children. Her husband Henry suffered from severe alcoholism, and Susan was often forced to care for him alongside her patients until his death in 1905 from tuberculosis. This experience sparked a lifelong passion in Susan for the American Temperance Movement. She was considered controversial for her condemnation of the scourge of alcohol available on reservations across the country.

As a Native American woman, Susan knew well what it was like to have her knowledge and experience discounted right off the bat. Even as a child, her goal was to help her people. “It has always been a desire of mine to study medicine ever since I was a small girl,” she wrote years later, “for even then I saw the need of my people for a good physician.” In 1913, Susan finally achieved her lifelong dream of opening a modern hospital on the Omaha Reservation. She would end up passing away just two years later from what was believed to be bone cancer. Her tireless work on behalf of the Omaha people led to a legacy of activism. She was at the forefront of many causes of Native Americans and is considered a trailblazer of the women’s movement in the United States. The hospital she worked to open remained open until the late 1940’s, at which point it became a museum dedicated to Susan La Flesche Picotte and to the history of the Omaha people.

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Book Recommendation- Hattie Big Sky

Author: Kirby Larson

For readers like me who are interested in reading more about the life of Homesteaders in the American West, there is a Newbery Medal-winning book that is perfect for us. The hero of Hattie Big Sky, Hattie Brooks, is a 16-year-old girl living with an aunt and uncle in Iowa during WWI. She has been moved from relative to relative since she was orphaned at the age of five, and she’s tired of never having anywhere to put down roots. When a distant uncle dies and leaves her his unproven homestead in Montana, Hattie jumps at the chance to make her own home. As a sixteen-year-old solo homesteader, Hattie faces more than her share of struggles. With the help of her kind neighbors and her own inner strength, Hattie proves to herself and everyone else that she is capable of anything. Hattie Big Sky and its sequel, Hattie Ever After, are stories about one courageous, resilient girl, and the opportunities she took advantage of in the West.

Ida B. Wells- Pioneer for Black Female Activists

In May of 1884, a young woman named Ida was traveling home to Memphis from Nashville on a first-class train ticket. She was on break from Fisk University, where she was continuing her studies after taking a break to be a teacher. About halfway through her trip, Ida was approached by a porter who asked her to move to the back of the train, where African American passengers were required to ride. Ida, who had paid for her ticket to sit in first class, refused. When the porter returned with another man to threaten her into action, she still refused. When the two men attempted to physically remove her from the train, she fought back and bit one of them on the hand. Ida was eventually forced off the train. Rather than simply accepting what had happened to her, Ida let the incident fuel a fight in her that would someday take her to the White House and beyond.

Ida Bell Wells was born the oldest child of slaves on July 16, 1882 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Six months after her birth the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, but life for African Americans in the South was still rife with racism and discrimination. Ida’s parents were active in the Republican Party during the years of Reconstruction, and her father James helped found Shaw College, a school for freed slaves. Ida would eventually receive her early schooling there, but she was forced to abandon her studies in 1879, when both of her parents died in a yellow fever epidemic. Sixteen-year-old Ida suddenly found herself the sole caregiver of her five siblings. To keep her family together, Ida convinced a country school administrator that she was 18 in order to start teaching school. Her resourcefulness got her family through until they were able to stay with an aunt in Memphis, where Ida was able to continue going to school at Fisk University, a historically black college. At Fisk, Ida quickly gained a reputation as an outspoken supporter for women’s rights.

It was on one of her trips back and forth to school that Ida found herself forced off the train. Outraged, she hired a black lawyer in Memphis and sued the railroad company for $500. She won her case, but it was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court. In response, Ida began writing. She published several articles in black-owned newspapers detailing the racial discrimination she and other African Americans faced in the South. She was a pioneer for black female journalists during a time when outspoken women, particularly outspoken black women, were not encouraged.

In 1889, Ida was devastated by the death of her friend, Thomas Moss, in Memphis. Moss owned a successful grocery store, and after an altercation with a mob Moss and two other black men were lynched. In response, Ida began an anti-lynching campaign. She conducted research into the causes of lynching cases and the ways they were justified. Ida published her findings in a pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases.” Her writing incensed many members of the white community in Memphis; soon after her articles began appearing in the anti-segregation publication Free Speech and Headlight, she received death threats and the newspaper office was trashed. None of this deterred her. Ida traveled the country and eventually to Europe, giving speeches and talks exposing the horror of lynching practices in the American South. She helped organized protests in Washington D.C, urging President Woodrow Wilson to pass stronger laws to protect for black people in the U.S. She spoke out out against the mistreatment of black people in the justice system, the disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, and discrimination faced by women.

During her long, distinguished career in journalism, Ida wrote about the world as she ida-b-wells---civil-rights-pioneersaw it, without shying away from harsher details. Her legacy inspired generations of activism and investigations into the practice of lynching in the South. As she wrote herself, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them”, and she embodied that practice her entire life.

Book Recommendation- Sarah, Plain and Tall

Author: Patricia MacLachlen

Laura’s stories inspired a new interest in the stories of the pioneer life for children. These stories often emphasized the importance of family, hard work, and perseverance. They could also be incredibly descriptive, bringing the beautiful world of the prairie alive for many readers. One of the most charming and well-loved examples of this is a short book entitled Sarah, Plain and Tall. The book is the first in a series centered around the Witting family, living in the American Midwest during the late 19th century. The children, Anna and Caleb, are dealing with the death of the mother, and the fact that their tired papa doesn’t sing anymore. One day, their father announces that he has placed an order in the newspaper for a new wife, and he has received an answer from a woman named Sarah. Sarah comes all the way from Maine, bringing a collection of sea shells, a cat named Seal, and laughter and excitement to Anna and Caleb’s lives. The children and their father anxiously wait all summer, hoping that Sarah will not miss the sea and her family too much to stay with them. I finished this little book over an afternoon, making it the perfect length for a school-aged child or  someone looking for a quick read. Deceptively simple, Sarah Plain and Tall is full of rich descriptions of the prairie and heartwarming family ties

Nellie Bly- Pioneer for Women in Journalism

On Thursday morning, November 14th, 1889, a 26-year-old woman was getting ready to board a steamship to London. She had gotten little sleep the night before, instead tossing and turning before rising with the sun to go to the docks. Her suitcase, carefully packed and full to bursting, only measured 16×7 inches. The woman’s name was Elizabeth Cochrane, and she was hours away from starting an attempt to travel some 28,000 miles 1L._V397387554_in seventy-five days. Elizabeth, better known by her moniker Nellie Bly, was born on May 5th, 1864, two years before Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was born in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, a town named for her father, a prominent landowner, judge, and businessman. Her early life was charmed with wealth and status, but it all came to a crashing halt when Nellie was six, and her father passed away without leaving a will. Nellie and her family were suddenly forced to leave their home and move to Pittsburgh, where Nellie’s mother remarried. Nellie’s stepfather was an alcoholic and he abused her mother; at their divorce trial, Nellie testified that her stepfather had “been generally drunk since he married [her] mother. When drunk he is very cross and cross when sober.”

Even at an early age, Nellie desired to be a fierce advocate for justice, especially for women. At the age of eighteen, she read a letter in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, claiming that women joining the workforce was a “monstrosity”. Nellie, who had grown up witnessing the lives of working women in industrial Pittsburgh, including herself and her mother, took offense to this letter and penned a fiery response to the paper. Her letter impressed those working at the Dispatch; she was offered a job as a writer in 1885. Nellie wrote pieces on the lives of working women, the unfairness of Pennsylvania divorce laws, and political corruption in Mexico, but she continued to be relegated to writing about “feminine” topics like fashion and flower shows. Frustrated with the lack of opportunity for her at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie quit and moved to New York.

In 1887, Nellie landed a job with the New York World, under editor Joseph Pulitzer. Her first assignment, to report on conditions at New York’s Blackwell’s Island mental institution, would be the one to secure her countrywide fame. In order to give the most accurate report possible, Nellie came up with a plan to have herself admitted as a patient. As a 23-year-old woman, she put on a show of “delusions and undoubtable insanity” and got herself committed to Blackwell Island, alone and without backup. She emerged after ten days with a series of damning accusations about the treatment she witnessed and experienced, including neglect, beatings, ice cold baths, and forced feedings. The report was a sensation, helping to craft new laws against mistreatment of mentally ill individuals in the state of New York. Nellie had launched a new frontier in investigative journalism, and she followed up this massive success with reports on lobbyists, inadequate medical care given to the poor, and posed as a prisoner in order to expose the treatment of female inmates by police.

Three years later, Nellie was boarding a steamship to London. She had proposed to her editor at the New York World that she could beat the record set by Phileas Fogg in the popular Jules Verne novel Around the World in Eighty Days. At first her editor resisted, claiming that a woman would require a chaperone, and that the “dozen trunks” she would likely pack would slow her down. Nellie replied in the feisty way she was known for. “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.” Her editor acquiesced. Later that week she set off, armed with one suitcase and a lot of determination. She had her itinerary memorized: New York to London, followed by stops in Calais, Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, and finally San Francisco, ending with a hopefully triumphant return to New York by train. Her trip was a nail-biting puzzle; any misstep or delay could cost her the record. In the end, Bly managed her trip in 72 days, six hours, and 11 minutes, completely smashing the fictional Fogg’s record. She arrived in Jersey City, the official finish line, to massive crowds of people cheering her on. For the duration of her trip, Nellie Bly was the most famous person in America.

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The map of Nellie’s journey, as published in the New York World.


After a long career in journalism and business, Nellie Bly would eventually pass away in 1922 at the age of 58 from pneumonia. Her legacy, however, continues to live on in the rich American tradition of trailblazing female reporters. Her work brought attention to places that people rarely ventured too, from the slums of New York to women’s prisons to mental asylums. Her whirlwind journey across the globe exemplified her free spirit and restless intelligence, but her heart remained in New York, where her work was. Arriving at the train station in Jersey City to ecstatic crowds, Nellie wrote “I took off my cap and wanted to yell with the crowd, not because I had gone around the world in seventy-two days, but because I was home again.”

Book Recommendation – The Birchbark House Series

Author: Louise Erdrich

Through each of her Little House books, Laura paints a comprehensive and incredibly detailed picture of pioneer life, making readers all over the world feel like they are living it along with her. However, Laura’s experiences only make up half of the frontier story. For readers interested in the experiences of the Native Americans living on the prairie, there is a series similar to Laura’s in its scope and descriptive powers. The Birchbark House series tells the story of Omakayas, an Ojibwa girl living in the southern Ontario Lakes region. Omakayas, which means “Little Frog”, grows up with an adoptive family on Madeline Island. She lives the life of a typical 7-year-old, and readers who delight in Laura’s descriptions of everyday pioneer chores will find much to love as they watch Omakayas learn to cook, tan moose hides, and pick berries. Omakayas experiences her own frontier journey, moving further and further west escaping smallpox epidemics, encroachment by white settlers, and many other dangers and difficulties before finally settling on the plains of Dakota Territory. There are five books in this series, following Omakayas and her family as they grow and travel. If you’re looking for a new series about the American West to devour, The Birchbark House should be first on your list.