No Tears for The General

Langdon Sully’s No Tears for the General (American West Publishing, 1975) is a whitewashed panegyric written by Sully’s [white] grandson. Sully is the smartest, the fastest, the strongest, the bravest, the most noble. . . . The praise is so continuous and so strong, it makes the work almost unbearable. While this is the only biography of Alfred Sully written, it is deeply flawed.

Here is a glaring example of how the record has been cleansed of things apparently Langdon didn’t like: In 1863 (or so), Sully had a relationship (maybe a marriage) with a Yankton woman. They had a daughter, Mary. Mary became the wife of Philip Deloria. Their daughter was Ella Deloria, an extremely important Native scholar, linguist, and author. Ella Deloria is the aunt of Vine Deloria, author of “Custer Died for Your Sins.” Mary and Alfred went their separate ways (I don’t know who left whom) and he married a white woman in 1866.

Langdon does include a clue to this marriage, on pg. 243 (note 13). “Alfred’s second wife, Sophia, was aware of the relationships between soldiers and Indians of the Sioux tribes on the frontier. She refused to let her husband hang the pictures of the Indian girls in her house.” The painting referenced is a depiction of buffalo skins being tanned. Sully says of the two girls in the painting “one near the horse is called Pen-han-lota, or Red Crane, the other Ke-me-mem-bar, or Butterfly.” I do not know the name of the Mary Sully’s mother. Perhaps she one of these women?

While at Ft. Randall, charges were filed by the regional Indian Agent against Sully for “abusing Indians.” While the documentation for the accusations is in the Alfred Sully papers at Yale used by Langdon Sully for research, this is also omitted from the book.

All authors have to pick and choose which details to include and which to omit. A major thesis of the book, however, is that Sully knew the Native Americans better than any white man, and that he was sympathetic to their plight. Arguing that while omitting such details is misleading, at best. Use the book for its primary sources; be very wary of interpretations and portraits.

My point is not that Sully needs to be condemned. He was a complicated and interesting man, and this work does him scant justice. He married a Mexican woman in 1850; she and Sully’s son died in childbirth. He led the massacre at Whitestone Hill. He married and had a child with a Yankton woman. He was accused of ‘abusing Indians.’ He painted romantic pictures of Native American lifestyles. He left his Yankton wife behind and started a new family. How does one person do such seemingly opposite things?

The Hall of Waters

An Art Deco Celebration of Healing Mineral Waters


The Hall of Waters, inspired by the natural springs of the town, was to be a world-class attraction for those seeking healing mineral waters from around the world. Fountains, sunrooms, mineral and swimming pools, and a water bar were provided for those making the pilgrimage.

View The Photos Here

A Brief Exegesis on Writing by Hand


In case you were wondering:  this handwriting is not clear enough for Adobe Acrobat OCR.   Evernote OCR can read it reasonably well, and that will work for now.  Unfortunately (but understandably), Evernote will not export the OCRed text—I am limited to searching in Evernote.  I imagine there is other OCR software that can also read it.  No doubt, however, I need to get my handwriting tuned up a bit.  And finally, outsourcing handwritten documents to be typed is relatively cheap.  

Kite Photography

I’ve had a few requests for details on my kite photography setup, so here are the basics.  This is not a guide to Kite Aerial Photography (KAP).  This is a guide to Richard doing kite photography.    My approach is based on minimalism and simplicity.  There are fancier ways to do this, but after playing around I like simple solutions.  See some links at the bottom for some more comprehensive websites.  If you are like me and have no desire to reinvent the wheel, just go .

Give it a try.  Kite photography is fun.  Well, except for the wind.  And the string. 

IMG_0019Sultan Qaboos Hotel, Oman

The Kite

I use either parafoils or a Fled.  There are many different kites you could use.  I like kites that get up, pull hard, and don’t break.  If you are looking, go to and see the recommendations there. I don’t have enough experience to prefer one parafoil brand over another, but I do know that I don’t like more than 3 bridle lines.  


My Flow Form 16 and rig in Action—Courtesy John Holmgren

My workhorse is Sutton Flow Form 16.  This is a simple parafoil that measures 3.5ft x 4.5ft.  I find it works in winds from 8 mph and up.   I’m pretty careful about going high with this kite.  If winds are 10mph on the ground, they can be much stronger at 500ft.   I’ve had this up in 20 and 30mph winds; it’s not easy and one must be very careful.  Generally speaking, up is easy, down is hard with this kite.  Crosswinds play havoc.  More than once this kite has done some spectacular maneuvers as it has passed through wind layers.  One thing I really like about this kite:  if the wind drops, I can haul it in fast and it has the lift to keep my camera from crashing.  Parafoils are not very maneuverable, and once inverted, recovery is difficult.   I’ve never worked out the details, but I am convinced that there is a maximum gust this can handle.  High gusts just whip it out of control.    Each and every camera I have broken has been a low altitude crosswind gust smacking this kite into the ground.  The good news is there is now way to recover from that, so they are guilt free crashes.

My favorite is a Sutton Flow Form 8.  This is a simple parafoil that measures 2.5ft x 3.5ft.  This works best with winds above 12 mph or so.  This is my favorite kite because with a good wind I know I can send it to 1500ft and get it back down without too many problems.  I don’t use it all that often.  You would be surprised how frequently the wind on the Northern Plains is below 10mph, so I usually have to default to the Flow Form 16.  Like the Flow Form 16, if the wind dies, I can haul this in fast and keep a camera aloft (more or less).  Most of my crashes (non-fatal) are trying to get this kite up with a load in light wind.   

My backup is the Fled.  This is a big beautiful kite (60” x 80”) that can get my camera aloft in winds as low as 4-5mph.  It’s great fun to fly on days when no ones thinks you could possible fly a kite.  I don’t use it for photos all that much for one simple reason—I like high altitude shots.  I assume that if I put this kite up high into high winds, it is doomed; I’ve never done it.   I do use this for low altitude shots when I have no other options. 

Winders, String and Gloves are essentials.  I use braided dacron (usually black), 200lb or 300lb test.  I also use a 100lb braided dacron white line—the white color reminds me to be careful, both with load and cutting through my gloves.  There are fancier and more expensive lines; price and safety keep me with braided dacron.  I tend to treat string as a cuttable and disposable. This makes flying under bad conditions much more tolerable, as I can focus on getting the shot and recovering the gear.  If the string is a tangled disaster, I just cut the tangle and toss it.  I use the blood knot for splicing, half-blood, larks-head or bowline + stop knot for attaching things .  Other essential knots can be found at   Also lots of snap-swivels; get the right kind.  If it can tangle, I put a snap-swivel on it to make the untangling quicker. 

Tight fitting leather gloves, double palm (I have found that if there are any loose parts on my gloves, the string will snag).   I use halo hoop winders.  I’ve tried other winders and solutions, and have broken them all.  The hoops take a beating.   Retrieving a big kite can be a workout, but I never had any trouble walking a kite down.   I tend to fly next to my truck and use the hitch as a tie off point.   People use pulleys and other things, but I’m happy with my gloves.

Knife.  Big kites, strong line, Northern Great Plains.  It’s just common sense.  I’ve never cut loose and lost a rig.  I have been put in uncomfortable situations where the wind came up fast and I had to cut loose to change a tie off from me to an inanimate object.  (Why is the kite tied to me?  Because I am walking transects over the area I want to photograph.) 

Devils Lake, ND

The Camera

This is the simplest equipment issue.  I use an inexpensive Canon and the Canon Hackers Development Kit (CHDK).  The Wiki taught me all I needed to know, and supplied an intervalometer.  The intervalometer allows me to set the camera to take a photo at a set interval.     I generally go with 2 or 3 second; an 8gb card is more than enough for a flight.  Start the camera, launch kite, retrieve kite. It’s that simple.  I always check exposures and adjust as necessary before launch.   Sometimes CHDK can get my camera working at its maximum shutter speed.  This can be a bit it or miss depending on the model.  The two important things to know if you want to try  CHDK—it can’t break your camera, and it looks much harder than it really is.  

The camera I currently am using is a PowerShot A3300.  Why that model?  Because I got it on sale for $86.  I bought two, and broke one within two weeks of having it.  When shopping I look for two things—is there a CHDK written for the model, and does it zoom out to 28mm equivalent or similar.  As an aside, I long ago decided to only use Canon; I find it has been hugely beneficial to really know my camera operations, and all Canons are more or less the same. I am, of course, not happy when I break a $96 camera, but I guess more than half the time I fly in conditions where I simply couldn’t risk putting my G10 into the air.  I break about 2 cameras a year, which is cheaper than a G10 replacement.  The fatal crashes are always the same—shatters the lens extension mechanisms.   


caraher--the crash
The Recent Fatal Crash—courtesy William Caraher

This is an idiosyncratic solution for my situation. I tend to fly in places in the middle of nowhere that I will never visit again, no matter what the weather.   I’ve crashed enough now that I’ve got some ideas about how to put my G10 up and keep it alive.  My “art” is now being limited by the lack of easily used exposure controls and the limited shutter speeds of the cheaper models.  I’ll update once the G10 starts flying.

Fort Abercrombie, ND

The Gimble

The gimble is the support system that allows you to suspend the camera from the kite (or more properly the kite line).  They are many options out there.  I am quite happy (no surprise) with the minimalist Brooxes Simplex Kit.   (Using the CHDK means I don’t need a shutter trigger).   The picavet cross system is brilliant and easy.   It’s simple. bombproof, and doesn’t tangle.  To attach to the kite string, I use  Brooxes Hangups  (or KAPS-Klips™). These hold tight; the camera regularly does 360s around the kite string, and on occasion the kite does 360s.   The KAPs-Klips can slide a bit.

The gimble allows you to set the angle of the camera.  I tend to go 10-20 degrees off of horizontal.  This almost always gives me total coverage of whatever site or scene I am trying to capture.  Going purely horizontal lessons the chance of capturing everything. I also have found that photos without a horizon line are boring and tend to make orientation and scale difficult to judge.  Tilt can be toward or away from me, depending on where I am and the wind direction.

I have a Brooxes Electric Autokap Kit that will rotate the camera 360 degrees around a vertical axis.  This works great at home and at the park, but I haven’t had much success under difficult field conditions.  That’s mostly a matter of user-error and lack of patience.   The need for the 360 degrees rotation is much greater for low altitude shots, scenery shots, and shots that include buildings. 


A mosaic of kite photos done in the summer of 2012 as part of the UND Man Camp study. Music is Kona in Tioga by Timothy Pasch and William Caraher. Bonus info: the kite did not one but two 360 degree loops during the photo sessions. Try and spot ’em (they make me cringe).

Some Websites

Notes on Kite Aerial Photography


KAP Summary Table of Contents

Project Data Files, Evernote and the Cloud

I’m incrementally moving my project data and files into Evernote.  The transition is taking a bit of time, in part because I am old and can’t shake the old habit of folders and subfolders and more subfolders.  Evernote is okay for filing documents and graphics, but can’t cut it for the endless data files (plus I don’t want to fill up my allotted space).  I have been using a parallel file folder system to Evernote, but it has been a pain to maintain; project names have a tendency to change, project go dormant than reappear a few years later, and so on.

I also want to move my data into a structure where it is automatically mirrored in the cloud (at least for active projects).  Online backup of everything won’t work: I have almost a TB of data, and I am frequently in a spot with very slow upload speeds.  As part of this transition, I am breaking the habit of saving everything forever.  For example, digital aerial photos used to be hard to get.  Now (in the US at least) they are a piece of cake. I Instead of putting this data in project folders, it is going in a “Data I can Delete” folder.  When I’m done with the aerials, they get tossed.  If I tossed them too early, no problem; I can get them again.  This “Data I Can Delete” folder is now out of my mirrored files routine, making that a much simpler creature.

So here is what I am doing.  Data files go in a cloud folder (Google Docs, Dropbox etc.).  I have this set to mirror on my local drive—that’s important as I am often in the field with marginal or nonexistent internet access.    In Evernote, I create a note called “Files”
for each project.  In that note goes a shortcut to the appropriate cloud folder.  Problem solved. 

Because I am paranoid, I also do this:  my cloud folders are backed up nightly into an incremental backup that is not in the cloud.  Mirroring files is not a total backup solution.  Inadvertently delete a folder, and a few minutes later, it has disappeared from Google Docs.   When I figure out 10 days later that I deleted a folder by accident (right after I empty my Windows Trash to free up some space), I am toast.  But wait, no I’m not—it’s in the incremental backup.  My incremental backup cycle is driven by hard drive space, but it goes about 6-8 months.   That’s good enough for everything except baby photos.

Prairie Churches








Preservation North Dakota recently published the results of a multi-year statewide project: Prairie Churches.  I love this project (and learned some critical lessons).  Get your copy here:  Here is a quick, stream-of-consciousness review. 

Prairie Churches is an enjoyable read, filled with useful detail.   The book is also something much more, as it is the culmination of several years work by Preservation North Dakota staff and volunteers.  Prairie Churches documents an unparalleled effort to save the historic church structures of North Dakota, and that effort is particularly notable as it was based in the local communities (the reason, I am sure, it was so successful).  While not addressed head-on in the book, the lesson of the project is one for preservationists to mind:  local interest and effort, and a handful of dedicated and tireless individuals makes for preservation success.   While I never participated, I watched from the sidelines.  The PND staff did an excellent job of pulling this all together at a statewide level.  In sum, the PND Prairie Churches project is one of those things that happened because the right people (working together), were in the right place(s) at the right time. 

On a more egghead note, the book does an excellent job of showing just how vital these churches were small, proud ethnic communities.  Isern’s foreword and epilogue are perhaps the most succinct and relevant summaries of ND (and Northern Plains) Euroamerican history you will find; he clearly has been pondering these issues for many years. The old saw is that the churches were overbuilt based on unrealistic expectations, and thus were doomed from the beginning.  Prairie Churches opens the door so we can see that many (perhaps most) were deliberately built by proud communities who knew darn well what they were doing.  Toso’s photos are wonderful, and Donovan did a nice job of making a coherent whole out of many projects and many voices.

That’s No Failed Homestead, or Finding the Voices of Those Who Left

Tom Isern, University Distinguished Professor at North Dakota State University, recently spoke about the Ashley Jewish Cemetery in McIntosh County (ND), and challenged one of the prevailing myths of abandoned homesteads—the homesteaders failed. You can read or listen to the piece here:  We hear again and again that they couldn’t handle the winters, couldn’t farm, got too lonely, or otherwise lacked the character necessary to make it.  This is a nice (and flattering) version of history for folks who currently live in these difficult places, but I’m pretty sure Prof. Isern is right.  Some of these folks had bigger plans and never intended to stay, and others jumped at new opportunities when they came along.

The conundrum for historians is we rarely have the words of those who left. In some places where there is a strong tradition of speaking few words, we barely know the stories of those who stayed.  I once was surveying for a wind farm in south-central North Dakota.  I was standing on top of a hill when a young rancher came burning up on his ATV and asked me “where’s your gun?”  Not having one, I asked, “do I need one?”  Turns out he thought I was poaching (Minnesotans have a bad reputation in the Dakotas).  When he found out I was surveying for a wind farm he said: “Good.  When are they going to build that?  I want the money so I can get out of this god-forsaken town!.”  I asked him why he stayed if he hated it so much, and he gave the obvious answer—the family’s money was tied up in great-grandpa’s land.  So I asked why great-grandpa picked this particularly rocky and windy hill to homestead.  The answer:  “I don’t know.  He never talked much.  Probably a wagon wheel broke and they just gave up.  Dad thinks it’s because he was a mean-old cuss.  When he saw all the rocks, he thought ‘Good.  That’ll keep the good-for-nothing children busy rock-picking.’”

Prof. Isern’s points holds true for some similar abandoned “homesteads’ I’ve studied in Sara Markoe-Hanson (Intern 1998)Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.  One of my best graduate students, Sara-Markoe Hanson, now executive director of the White Bear Lake Historical Society, wrote a spectacular thesis “Homesteads and land evolution at Mille Lacs Kathio.”  Sara did what almost never gets done, she identified what families owned which abandoned properties, tracked them down, brought them back home, and asked what life was like and why they left.  The stories were, no surprise, complicated.  None of them were a simple “too many rocks to farm,” or “winters were too cold.”  Instead, we found that the area was inhabited by people in transition.  They stayed for awhile, while preparing for bigger plans.  Some weathered the depression there, living a reasonably comfortable diversified subsistence lifestyle—a little work, a little fish, some wild rice, and some cranberries.   ‘Failure’ is not a word that can be used to describe what happened and why they moved on.


hankasmus asmusfamily

Hank Asmus was a child when his family lived in what was to become the Mille Lacs Kathio State Park.  Sara Markoe-Hanson found him, took him to the cellar depression that was once his home, and interviewed.  He passed away shortly after Sara finished her thesis.

We are entering a new era of homestead research that is going to be very interesting.  Courtesy of electronic communications, census databases, and very-busy genealogists, we can track down those who moved on so much more easily.   Want to find why the Jewish settlers of Ashley moved on?  Go the cemetery, get the names, track down the families, visit the historical societies of where they went, and I bet you can find some interesting stories, few of which will be stories of failure.   Twenty years ago such a task would have taken forever and required significant funding.  That’s no longer the case.  The next  few decades are going to see local histories rewritten.  I’m pretty sure of this, because Prof. Isern is right now training young historians to do this very thing.