We’ve all heard the stories from our parents and grandparents about having to walk to school with no shoes, uphill (both ways), and there’s certainly an air of humorous exaggeration in many of those tales, but not too much exaggeration. The truth is, daily existence as a pioneer on the prairie was a hard life, and the people who came to the northern plains were taking their lives in their hands and facing dangers we can scarcely imagine today. Yes, we have our own challenges today, but take a moment to imagine living on the frontier when there were no antibiotics, or in a small city when there wasn’t a fire hydrant on every corner. At risk of sounding morbid, examining some of the terrible fates our ancestors so frequently faced helps us understand and appreciate the sacrifices they made so we could have a better life.
The idea for this post came to me as I read “With Affection, Marten” by Richard K. Hofstrand, a partly fictionalized chronicle of his ancestor Marten Hofstrand’s experience as an immigrant from Sweden who became a settler in the area of Brinsmade, North Dakota. The portion of the book dealing with the death of one of the Hofstrand children from tetanus was horrifying. A tightening of the muscles in the back caused the boy to literally bend over backwards, his hands clenched to his chest. His jaw locked, and eventually, respiration stopped. The Hofstrand boy’s only misfortune had been to step on a rusty rail. It was a simple mistake that resulted in an illness that could not be reversed with the technology of the day. It was a terrible fate for a tiny misstep.
The harsh prairie winters on the northern plains claimed victims every year. Animals needed to be tended, and someone had to get water from the well, or get wood from the pile. People did not always have the luxury of simply staying inside until the storm blew over. After a terrible series of blizzards in January of 1888, the Springfield Daily Republic reported on deaths in Dakota Territory. “Near Raymond, Dakota, two sons of WILLIAM DRIVER were frozen to death within a few feet of their barn. CHARLES HEATH is missing, and J. H. CLAPP has been discovered badly frozen, he having been out all night wandering upon the prairie. JAMES SMITH and two sons, aged 15 and 7, started for a load of hay six miles north from Minot, Dakota, on the 11th, and have not since been heard from.”
Sister Jeanne d’ Arc Kilwein, who once taught at the school in Haymarsh, North Dakota, related a story about how she and another sister tied themselves together with rope to avoid getting lost in the snow when they had to go to the well in a snowstorm. They made it back safely and had a good laugh about it, but in truth, going out in a blizzard was a dangerous undertaking that sometimes had to be done, and sometimes people paid with their lives.
In the days before electricity was widespread, fires were commonplace, partly due to the use of candles, oil lamps, and gas lighting, and partly due to the all-wood construction of so many pioneer-era structures. Much of the city of Fargo was destroyed in a fire in 1893, and firefighter W.H. Johnson died soon after from burns he sustained fighting the fire. Bismarck also suffered a devastating fire in 1898.
In 1899, just across the river from Fargo, in Moorhead, Minnesota, a former policeman was killed. The Fargo Forum and Daily Republican reported on February 18th, 1899, “Moorhead is in gloom over the tragic death of Sandy McLean last night. A fire broke out just before midnight at the residence of John Hokstad […] McLean attempted to pass between the burning house and that of Mrs. Nelson when the chimney toppled over and a mass of bricks struck him on the top of the head, causing instant death.”
One of the most tragic examples of death by fire involves the deaths of a schoolteacher and six pupils near Belfield, North Dakota, in 1914. 22 year-old schoolteacher Gladys Hollister and six of her students died when a wind-whipped prairie fire caught them in the open. The Bismarck Daily Tribune reported Hollister and the six students ran from their country school and attempted to reach a plowed field when they saw the fire approaching. They were overtaken by the fire less than seventy feet from safety. In a tragic twist of fate, the thirty mile per hour winds fanned the flames with such force that the fire raced by the school without consuming it. If they had just stayed in the school, they would have survived. The Tribune reported, “Miss HOLLISTER, who was in a most pitiable condition, with 90 percent of the skin of her body burned, was unconscious, but regained consciousness long enough to say that she realized she made a mistake in leaving the school house, but did what she thought was best.”
Sometimes referred to as consumption in the early days, tuberculosis was a real danger in the pioneer era, before antibiotics made the disease manageable. The disease affected the lungs and was typified by an infectious cough that spread the bacteria easily through the air. Treatment often involved fresh air and quarantine at tuberculosis sanatoriums, and North Dakota was home to just such a facility, San Haven Sanatorium, near Dunseith, in the Turtle Mountains. More barbaric treatments, like intentionally collapsing a lung, were sometimes ordered. Photos taken by Nora Thingvold, a nurse who worked at San Haven in the 30s, and the first person account of Mary, a ten year old girl who was a patient in the 1960s, tell the tale better than I can.
Vigilante justice was a reality on the prairie, and lynchings happened. Deserved or not, Charles Bannon was lynched on a cold January night in 1931, in the tiny town of Schafer. When the Haven family stopped picking up their mail, and debts went unpaid, McKenzie County Sheriff C. A. Jacobson went to the Haven homestead to investigate. There he found Bannon living in their home, and claiming to have dropped them off at the train station, where they had left for Oregon. The Haven’s bodies were later discovered on the farm and Bannon charged with the crime. On January 29th, 1931, a lynch mob, fearing that Bannon would be taken from McKenzie County and escape justice, broke down the door on his tiny Schafer jail cell, and took him to the bridge over Cherry Creek. In 2005, the Bismarck Tribune reported, “They tied Bannon’s hands behind his back, tied the hangman’s noose around his neck and the other end to the bridge railing. The men lifted him to the railing and yelled at him to jump. Charles Bannon’s last words, it’s said, were ‘You boys started this, you will have to finish this.'” He was found at 2:30 am by the Watford City Police Chief, still hanging from the bridge. He was the last recorded person to be strung up by vigilantes in North Dakota.
Although we like to remember “the old days” as a simpler time, where things were “better” and people more good-natured, the truth is, there were still evildoers, just like today. One such bad guy was responsible for the death of seven members of the Jacob Wolf family, and a chore boy, Jacob Hofer, on April 22nd, 1920. All the victims were killed with shotgun blasts, except the youngest Wolf girl who was murdered with a hatchet. Baby Emma Wolf was the only survivor. All told, it is considered the worst mass-murder in North Dakota history. The Wolf’s neighbor, Henry Layer, was tried, convicted, and died in prison, but many believe the police, and politicians eager to further their careers with a conviction, condemned the wrong man.
Death by Horse
I consulted our friend Derek Dahlsad, who runs the excellent Dakota Death Trip blog [Facebook here], and he reminded me that simply living in the age of horse and wagon forced our ancestors to risk death every day, simply by riding in a wagon or tending to the horses. “The driver falling out of a moving vehicle and being run over by it happened a lot — and seeing that these are horse drawn vehicles, it’s not like a car accident, where the car goes off the road and crashes when the driver is gone, but when you’ve got horses running the machine then they’re just going to continue on to wherever they’re headed towards; likely the dead body is found on open prairie and the horses are at home, or the horses and plow are waiting at the end of the field for instructions on how to turn around and the body is in the furrows.” In one gruesome example, a White Rock, South Dakota man died in 1906 when he was dragged by a horse-drawn wagon. In another more common circumstance, a Fort Rice, North Dakota man died after he was kicked by a horse.
After horses, trains were the primary means of transportation for nearly fifty years for settlers on the prairie, and trains also posed a danger to their passengers. The Williston Graphic reported in April 18th, 1907, “The Great Northern palatial coast train, Oriental Limited No. 1, running at a rate of thirty five miles an hour, was ditched at 1:23 a.m. three quarters of a mile east of Bartlett, N.D., and eleven passengers were killed and twelve seriously injured as a result. With the exception of the Pullman sleeper and the observation car, the entire train consisting of eight coaches was completely destroyed by fire which was started immediately after the passenger train left the track. The ten unknown passengers killed were burned to death in the wreckage before their bodies could be rescued.”
Have you heard stories about the dangers your family faced in life as settlers on the prairie? Please leave a comment.
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