Food Connects us with History

Food can connect us in so many ways...to each other when we grow, prepare, and share food together...to the land as we plant, tend, and harvest our gardens...and to our own history.

After listening to Onika Abraham’s inspiring talk at the Massachusetts Farm and Sea to School Conference where she invited us to tell the stories of our agrarian ancestors, I wanted to know more of my own family’s history of farming, so I set out on a hunt. This led me on a tour of US history and brought me face to face with my own white privilege. This journey is causing me to think more deeply about the roots of injustice and challenge myself to work even harder to transform the systems that have benefited me and other white folks and oppressed so many others.

In a FoodCorps blog post on February 14, 2019, Tiffany McClain shares “3 Hard Truths That Will Help Your Organization Undo Racism.” First on the list is “learn and share whose ancestral lands you are privileged to stand on and—if they are no longer there—learn and share why that is...the first step toward undoing oppression is to name it and make it visible—not tiptoeing around it with words that soften the truth.”

So, here goes!


South Dakota

South Dakota

I grew up hearing about a soybean farm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where my grandfather and his siblings spent time when they were young, but I never knew the details. My aunt asked my grandfather for a family history before he died, and this history, combined with additional research into the historical events of the time, has helped me to piece together parts of the story.

This farm belonged to my great, great grandfather—a man named Thomas Scanlan. It was a 700-acre farm near Sioux Falls, and both soybeans and corn were grown there. Who was Thomas Scanlan, and how did he get so much land?

Tipperary, Ireland

Tipperary, Ireland

Scanlan was born in 1863, one year before the end of the Civil War. He was born to Irish immigrants, refugees who had been farmers in Ireland and came to America from Tipperary in 1848, during the potato famine. I would love to know the details of their story of farming, struggle, and immigration, but unfortunately, I don’t know their names and their stories have been lost. My aunt traveled to Ireland several years ago and tried to find records of our Irish ancestors, but she was unsuccessful in her search because more than 1,000 years of the Irish records were destroyed when a public records office was bombed during the Irish Civil War of 1922.

Illinois-Michigan Canal

Illinois-Michigan Canal

What we do know about my Irish ancestors is that they landed in Boston and immediately headed west to a large Irish immigrant farming community in La Salle, Illinois. This is where Thomas Scanlan was born. La Salle was a boom town at the time of their arrival. 1848 was the year that the Illinois-Michigan Canal was completed, linking the Illinois River in La Salle to Chicago and Lake Michigan. Much of the work building the canal had been done by Irish immigrants working in extremely difficult conditions who settled in the area when the canal was completed, which explains why there was a large Irish community there. At that time, La Salle was described as a place where northern and southern culture met, as shipments from New Orleans and the Caribbean came up the river by steamship and shipments from Chicago and the east coast arrived via the canal.

When Thomas Scanlan was in his teens he left Illinois, traveling over 500 miles west to Dakota Territory to work as a land surveyor. Land surveying was big business in the Dakota Territory at that time—the Homestead Act of 1862 stole millions of acres of native land and gave it away in 160-acre parcels to European settlers. All that stolen land had to be surveyed before the allotments were made.

The narrative in America about people like my great, great grandfather, a first-generation American who made it big, is that anyone in our country can achieve this if they have a dream and work hard enough. I don’t doubt that Scanlan was a hard worker, however, it is clear to me that his whiteness gave him a huge advantage. If instead, my great, great grandfather had been an extremely hard-working and visionary member of the Dakota Sioux, this would be a very different story.

Thomas Scanlan

Thomas Scanlan

At some point, Scanlan switched from land surveying to banking, and he founded the First National Bank of Sioux Falls. It was through his career at the bank that he bought the 700-acre farm. The farm was purchased in what my cousin thinks was a foreclosure auction in the 1920s during the Farm Crisis brought on by the steep drop in agriculture prices after World War I. Scanlan purchased the farm as an investment and, as far as I know, he never lived on the farm or worked that land, in spite of the fact that his parents had been farmers in Ireland and later in Illinois and he had grown up on a farm. That farmland, originally the homeland of the Dakota Sioux that was stolen as part of the Homestead Act, stayed in my family as an investment property until the early 1990s, providing income to all of Scanlan’s descendants for several generations. Managing the farm from afar became too difficult for my grandfather and his sister and they finally sold it, investing the proceeds in the stock market so that future generations, including my own, could continue to benefit.

As I pieced together this history, it left me with many more questions, as well as deep discomfort about my family history and the ways that my family up to the present have benefited at the expense first of native people and then poor white farmers who fell on hard times.

Sioux Chiefs

Sioux Chiefs

What was this land in Sioux Falls like before it was stolen from the Dakota Sioux and turned into farmland for white immigrants? My heart hurts to think of these peoples forced relocation to reservations, the massacre of their community that took place at Wounded Knee, and the cultural genocide that occurred for over one hundred years as thousands of native families were forced to place their children in Indian boarding schools whose goal was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” These are just a few examples of the deep harm that was caused to the original people of this land.

Who were the poor white farmers that lost the land in the 1920s? How did they recover from their loss of land and livelihood? Who were the tenant farmers that actually worked the land while it was under the ownership of my great grandfather and his descendants? How did they manage during the Dust Bowl era? How were they treated by my family? I would like to know the stories of all the other people who were connected to this land.

How would Thomas Scanlan’s life and the legacy my family inherited have been different without the Potato Famine, the Louisiana Purchase, the Homestead Act, and the 1920s Farm Crisis? What debt does my family and other owning-class families owe to native people in this country for the land that we stole?

Onika Abraham encouraged us to share the stories of our ancestors and their relationship with the land because these stories would shine a light on the roots of oppression of our current food system, strengthening our resolve to change the system to make it more equitable and just for all people. To be honest, I hesitated about whether to share this story because it made me uncomfortable to admit publicly that my own family has benefitted from the oppression of others. But as a white person in the US, of course, this is a piece of my story...how could it not be? Debby Irving says in her book Waking Up White that, “No one alive today created this mess, but everyone alive today has the power to work on undoing it.” What am I going to do with my power?

Now that I know more of my own history, I plan to use this heightened awareness of my privilege in my work and my life to transform the very system that has benefitted my family and oppressed so many others. My first step has been to become vulnerable and share my history with all of you, rather than following my first instinct to sweep it under the rug because of my feelings of shame about my privilege. To quote again from Waking Up White,

“I can’t give away my privilege. I’ve got it whether I want it or not. What I can do is use my privilege to create change. I can speak up without fear of bringing down my entire race. I can suggest change with less fear of losing my job. If I lose my job, I have a white husband who can support me because he’s a white man who had access to education and now has access to employment...I believe America is rich with white people clamoring to demonstrate their moral courage and be part of a change that creates the kind of world we can feel good about leaving to our children.”

No matter who you are or what your family’s history of farming is, I invite you to share that story with me and with others. Sharing stories is an important step along the path of our collective healing from the ingrained cultural systems of oppression that are so pervasive. To quote one more time from Tiffany McClain’s blog post, “...There are an increasing number of spiritual leaders and trauma specialists who stress the need for white people to examine and heal their own racial wounds. Something has to happen within one’s psyche in order to participate in, look away from, or become numb to the pain of others—especially pain imposed on entire groups of people...The psychic impact has been passed on from generation to generation just as indigenous people and people of color experience inter-generational trauma.”

For me, sharing this story has helped me take a step away from guilt, shame, and avoidance of the painful story of my ancestors and toward an openness to the truth of our history and a willingness to work together to create a better future. I hope that you will join me!

By: Sheila Humphreys, Farm to School Coordinator