Orsamus Charles Dake: Nebraska’s First Published Poet
by Stephen Behrendt, GEORGE HOLMES DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR
In the extensive history of published poetry from and about Nebraska (as considered separately from poetry belonging to an oral tradition), curiously little attention has ever been paid to the work of Orsamus Charles Dake (1832 – 1875). Although a long and diverse tradition of oral poetry existed among Native peoples well before Nebraska became a state in 1867, Dake may legitimately be called Nebraska’s first published poet. No mere occasional versifier, Dake published two substantial collections, Nebraska Legends and Poems (1871) and Midland Poems (1873). Taken together, the two volumes include nearly 350 pages of original poetry. That poetry is varied in both style and substance, and while it naturally exhibits many recognizably dated characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century American poetic style, it nevertheless reveals a creative poet who is actively engaged with the topography, history, and culture of Nebraska – the state which he declared to be the home he would never leave willingly – in the 1860s and 1870s. Too long neglected, Dake’s poetry deserves to be better known, both for its intellectual and aesthetic qualities and for its distinctive engagement with the subject matter of Nebraska in particular and the Great Plains in general.
Like many of his contemporaries, Dake came to Nebraska from elsewhere. A native New Yorker (he was born in Portage, in western New York), he graduated in 1849 from Madison University (which became Colgate University in 1890). Following his graduation he left New York for the St. Louis area, settling across the Mississippi River in Edwardsville, Illinois, where he found work as a lawyer and as a professor. His principal duty, though, was as editor of the Madison County Advertiser. Dake’s political liberalism views soon earned him an invitation to edit the pro-Lincoln abolitionist newspaper, the Herald – located, appropriately, in Lincoln, Illinois. By 1860 he was a member of Abraham Lincoln’s circle, joining the future president on at least one occasion, in 1860, during his presidential campaign. Through the influence of friends among the Lincoln circle Dake was subsequently offered a job at the Census Bureau in Washington, where he met some of the major players in the Lincoln administration during his brief time in the capital.
Meanwhile, in 1853 Dake had married Amanda Catherine Eaton, the daughter of a prominent Edwardsville judge with whom Dake exchanged many detailed and revealing letters over the next two decades. These letters trace Dake’s struggle to establish a secure career, including the process that resulted in his ordination as an Episcopal minister, which occurred finally in Omaha in 1862. Ordained there by Bishop Joseph Talbot, Dake took up concurrent rectorships in Omaha and Bellevue and was instrumental in establishing Brownell Hall, forerunner to today’s Brownell-Talbot School. By 1865 Dake found himself in charge of founding St. James Episcopal Church in Fremont, where he moved his family. During their time in Fremont two of the Dakes’ daughters drowned in the Elkhorn River, together with three children of their friends, in an accident on the flood-swollen river.
Soon after Nebraska was granted statehood in 1867 plans were laid to establish a state university, and in 1871 Dake was appointed as one of the five original faculty members of the new University of Nebraska. As Professor of English Literature and Rhetoric he taught a wide range of courses, and in later years his former students remembered him fondly as an energetic and personable teacher who was generous with his time and attention. They testify to the wide range of his reading and erudition, and many credit him with kindling their interest in literature and the arts generally. Nor were his students only men, though they were by far the majority. Some half a century after studying with him, Nellie Keefer recalled Dake’s personal interest in some of the original poetry that she shared with him, recollecting that he commented helpfully on it and even shared with her some of the manuscript poems that would appear in his books. Unfortunately, Dake died unexpectedly in 1875, of an apparent brain hemorrhage, at the young age of 43 and while his wife was pregnant with their seventh child. Amanda Dake and the surviving children returned to Illinois, where she died in 1929 at the age of 93.
As a writer, Dake achieved considerable visibility during his brief time in Nebraska. His poems appeared widely in newspapers and periodicals, both religious and secular; he kept copies of many of these in a ledger book, subsequently marking up many of them to prepare them for their appearance in his two books. Dake was also a prose essayist, writing on religious subjects but also on literary, cultural and philosophical topics. Like his poetry, his prose is often rhetorically ornate, even artificial, but both his subject matter and his approaches to it are inherently interesting, enlightened, and intellectually acute.
Nebraska Legends and Poems and Midland Poems are both available in print and online. No collection of Dake’s prose exists, although a few brief essays (like those he published in the University of Nebraska student newspaper, the Hesperian Student) may be found in various Nebraska newspaper archives. Among the items in the Dake archive held by the Nebraska State Historical Society (Collection Number RG0830) are two small memo books and two large ledger books containing much of Dake’s draft material and a variety of autobiographical writings, particularly from Dake’s earlier years. There are also manuscript copies of some of his prose essays, both religious and secular, as well as a substantial number of letters, most of them addressed to his father-in-law, Judge Eaton. Taken together with his two books, these materials offer an excellent introduction to Orsamus Charles Dake, Nebraska’s first published poet.
Behrendt, Stephen C., “Orsamus Charles Dake: Nebraska’s First Published Poet.” Great Plains Quarterly 37.1 (Winter 2017): 15-36.
Dake, Orsamus Charles. Nebraska Legends and Poems. New York: Pott and Amery, 1871.
Dake, Orsamus Charles. Midland Poems. Lincoln: State Journal Co., 1873
Howard, George Elliott. “Early Faculty and Equipment.” The University of Nebraska, 1869-1919. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1919. Pp. 24-29.
[Sheldon, Addison E.]. “Beginnings of Nebraska Literature, 1854-1871.” Nebraska History and Record of Pioneer Days 6.2 (April-June 1923): 41 – 72.
Nebraska State Historical Society. Collection Number RG0830. “Orsamus Charles Dake, 1832 – 1875”. Nebraska State Historical Society.