John E. Miller

in June 2018, Professor Emeritus of History John E. Miller, retired after 29 years at SDSU, flips through his new book from Prairie View Press in Brookings, “Democracy and the Informed Citizen: A South Dakota Perspective.” He was in Pierre to attend a meeting of the Capitol Complex Restoration and Beautification Commission.

Miller died at 75 in his home in Brookings on Friday, May 1, 2020.


John E. Miller, professor emeritus of history at South Dakota State University in Brookings, died suddenly in his home there on Friday, May 1. He was 75 and had lived in Brookings since 1974 with his wife “of almost 48 years, Kathy Miller,” according to his obituary.

He served — and taught — in the Army in Vietnam and taught American history at SDSU for 29 years.

“Notable books he wrote included: Looking for History on Highway 14, Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys who Shaped America, three influential books on Laura Ingalls Wilder, and his most recent book, Democracy’s Troubles: Twelve Threats to the American Ideal and How we Can Overcome Them,” according to his obituary.

“Not only was John a well-recognized scholar on these topics, but his writing is engaging, conversational, and uniquely authentic to him,” according to his obituary. “Those of us who miss him will remember his voice fondly when we read his books.”

His survivors include his wife and their two children and four grandchildren. The family held a small memorial service on Saturday and “look forward to planning a full celebration of John’s life when it is safe for family and friends to congregate,” they said in his obituary.

In 2015, Lance Nixon of the Capital Journal wrote about his interview with Miller:

John Edward Miller was attending a one-room parochial grade school in Augusta, Missouri, in the early 1950s when his father, a Lutheran minister, signed him up to receive Landmark books. They arrived once a month, with titles aimed at an elementary school audience: The Pony Express, Sam Houston, The Erie Canal, The Transcontinental Railroad.

It appears it was a good investment.

Miller became a professor of history at South Dakota State University in Brookings, then professor of history emeritus and was honored in 2015 as winner of the annual Frederick Jackson Turner Award for Lifetime Achievement in the field of Midwestern history from the Midwestern History Association.

Miller said it was those elementary books that piqued his interest in history. So did baseball, which Miller discovered between the ages of 9 and 10 in about 1954-1955. He recalls following the St. Louis Cardinals in the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and listening to radio broadcasts of the games by Harry Caray.

“When you get interested in baseball, you immediately become interested in the history of the game,” Miller told fellow Midwestern historian Jon Lauck.

Q: One of your books, the one about U.S. Highway 14, includes Fort Pierre and you told Jon Lauck that Fort Pierre “is the most historic spot in South Dakota.” Obviously some of our readers are interested in hearing what you mean by that.

A: In thinking about the significance of Fort Pierre while writing “Looking for History on Highway 14,” it became pretty obvious to me pretty quickly that that spot of geography had more historic significance in more different ways than any other spot in the state. Even before the white man arrived, Native Americans took note of it as the place where the Bad River emptied into the Missouri. The area around it became a site for villages of Arikaras and other Indians. When the Teton Sioux arrived in the area during the 1700s, the Missouri River became sort of a dividing line between the more nomadic Indian tribes to the west and more sedentary Indians to the east.

The first known Europeans to visit South Dakota, Francois and Louis-Joseph La Verendrye, planted a famous lead plate on top of a hill at Fort Pierre in 1743, a red-letter date in the history of the state. When Lewis and Clark ventured up the river in 1804, they had a memorable confrontation with the Teton Indians there before moving on. The first permanent fur trading post was established there in 1817, later renamed Fort Pierre Chouteau in 1832. The first steamboat to come that far up the river stopped at Fort Pierre, and later boats brought famous artists, explorers, and adventurers from George Catlin to Karl Bodmer and all the rest. The list of important events goes on and on. I think you get the point.

Q: You are a product of the Midwest and have been part of an effort to bring greater attention to the history of the Midwest and how its part of the American experience.

A: I would emphasize the Midwest as a place where different strands of migration from the east converged west and north of the Ohio River, in the first instance, to create a new amalgamation of ethno-cultural practices. Elements from New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and the South converged in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and then recombined as people continued on west into Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and elsewhere. The Midwest in some ways flattened out some of the rough edges; others might say they became more bland and predictable. Beyond that, the Native Americans, who were here first; the blacks, who arrived later; and eventually the Latinos, Chinese, and other groups who continued to arrive further added to the mix.

To get a little less academic, I’d point out a few cultural elements that have an especial Midwestern flavor: country towns (Lake Wobegon and Gopher Prairie); automobiles (Model Ts); stockyards; Land Grant colleges; barbershop quartets; small-town Saturday nights; Chicago; Johnny Appleseed; one-room schools; grain elevators; high school basketball; Carl Sandburg poems; isolationism; front porches; vegetable gardens; county fairs. See, it’s almost impossible to identify things that are not cross-regional.

Q: What are the boundaries of the Midwest? Does it include all of South Dakota, or is the West River country more a part of the West or the Great Plains?

A: The question of what the boundaries of the Midwest are is often the first one people will ask when addressing the subject of the Midwest. Some people would not include Ohio, or Missouri, or the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska in the region. Others would add western Pennsylvania, or Kentucky, etc. While these issues are debatable, interesting, and significant, I have not lost much sleep over them, accepting the definition first put forward by Fredrick Jackson Turner (and adopted by many individuals and groups, including the U.S. Census Bureau, New York Times, multiple, historians, geographers, and others since then): that is, the twelve states from Ohio west to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, including Missouri. To be a little more specific, we usually draw a line between the Midwest and the Great Plains somewhere about a third of the way across the states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas from their eastern borders. This is where rainfall especially drops off, tall-grass prairie shifts to short-grass, and soil types change. It is, however, a vague and constantly shifting borderland.

Q: Why do you say place is so important?

A: The personality and character of any individual are made up of many different aspects and our personal identities take shape and evolve over time taking these all into consideration: race, gender, ethnicity, social class, wealth, occupation, education, family, religion, etc. My case for place as a category to consider is largely to call attention to the fact that the place in which one was born, grew up, and lives is at least equally important in influencing one’s assumptions, ideas, motivations, and behaviors. It just seems to me that over time, while not completely neglecting place, many scholars, especially in the social sciences (including history), have been somewhat slow to acknowledge or to pay attention to place as a major factor in the process. I would include the land as an especially important factor, especially in rural areas. However, I think that city streets and suburban shopping malls and so forth can have equally important impacts on people who derive from those kinds of places.

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