A Good Long Walk, Pioneer Style. Plus, an Announcement

Picking up where we left off last week, our caravan of Norwegians traveling from Decorah, Iowa, into the Dakota territories in 1861, had little in the way of drama on their trip. Nothing worthy of a movie. No Donner party mishap to report.

Shame, that.

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And yet this next part of the tale is without a doubt my favorite, for it gives us the picture of old Great-Grandpa ambling ahead of the ox-pulled wagon, reading a book under the shade of an umbrella.

I can’t remember how old I was when my dad told me about it, but I remember the warm feeling it gave me. It gave me an awareness – an explanation for who I was. These are your people, the story said. This man who walks in solitude and brings a book to bide his time? Yes. It explains everything.

Along with this we hear of more practical matters, such as how they parked their wagons for the night, and later crossed the Sioux River on a ferry. You read this tale long enough, and you’ll have all the instructions you need to make the trip yourself.

Here it is in his own words (as published in 1907):

The course to the west which we were now to cover consisted of long stretches of naked prairie, with great distances between places where water and fuel could be found. We had to carry these supplies with us in our wagons so that at night we would be sure to have these necessities. Every evening the wagons were placed in a square, the oxen were turned loose to graze, and a fireplace, with a wall encircling it, was spaded out. Here we made our fire.

Before we went to rest the oxen were tied to the wagons, and at the earliest break of day they were again let loose so that they might both feed and slake their thirst in the dew-laden grass. In rainy weather we found it advisable to remain in camp; otherwise the chafing of the yokes on the necks of the animals caused sores to develop.

As a protection against wind and rain, I had provided a small tent under which we could cook and braise to our heart’s content. The varieties of food might not have been many, but oh, how delicious they were to our keen appetites!

The day’s journey was short, averaging perhaps fifteen miles. With an umbrella in hand and a book in my pocket, I would go ahead of the caravan as a advance guard, and when I was a mile or so in front of it, I would sit down in the shade of my umbrella to read until it (the caravan) caught up with me again. The long evenings of early fall were utilized for reading within the wagon by light of a stearin candle.

At last we reached Sioux City, near the point of influx of the Big Sioux River into the Missouri. The Big Sioux forms the boundary line between Iowa and Dakota. Across it we were transported by means of a ferry, and although the boat was a primitive one, the passage was very ingeniously accomplished.

First a cable was stretched across the river. The flat-bottomed ferry had a wide keel and at each end of the ferry this was made fast to the cable with a hawser. When the crossing was being made, the hawser at the front was shortened, placing the ferry aslant with the stream, so that the force of the current against the keel moved the craft across. For the return trip it was necessary only to reverse the arrangement of the hawsers. The adjustment of the lengths of the hawsers was all that was needed in the operation, the rest being accomplished by the stream itself.

After a three weeks’ journey we arrived at Vermillion, which, by the route we traveled, was approximately three hundred miles from Decorah. I had walked, not ridden, every inch of the way.

I hope you’ve been enjoying these last few weeks of my Great-Grandpa’s tale. I may from time to time present a few more interesting nuggets, as the mood strikes me or the need arises.

For now though, I have an announcement to make: We’re moving. As in, Husband and I are packing our belongings, selling the homestead, trekking across country to a new locale. (Though unlike Great-Grandpa, we’ll be driving.)

This is why I’ve been so busy lately, and why I’ve been so dreadfully behind in responding to comments on this blog or keeping up with my fellow bloggers.

Again, terribly sorry.

It seems packing up 17 years of living and laughing and loving doesn’t happen overnight. We had to tell family and friends, break it to the kiddos (they’re staying in Phoenix), get the house ready to sell, and sort through our own complicated emotions. Emotions containing fear, sadness, excitement, longing… everything all at once.

Yet whatever fear or sadness we felt were never outmatched by the overwhelming sense that this move is right. However nuts it may sound to anyone else, we believe we’re on the right path.

Where are we moving, you ask? Believe it or not, Minnesota!

From extreme heat to extreme cold. No half measures for us.

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I’ll let you in on more details in the weeks to come, as we still have to sort out moving details, as well as a place to rent until we (hopefully) find a home of our own.

In the meantime, through all of this, I’ll think of a man walking in solitude, biding his time by reading a book. Did he experience fear or sadness on his trip? Possibly. Mostly, I think he felt his path was right.

Thoughts on the Simple Life and the Good Old Days of Bad Roads

Hate to say it, but I’m running behind. I’m behind in my to-do list, behind in my reading list, both books and blogs (sorry, blogging buddies). I’m even behind in my listening (You should see the number of podcasts backed up in the queue).

This is unusual for me, I need you to know that. Normally my to-do lists end their days with nary a check missing.

Despite this busyness, however, I’m still finding time to read through my family’s Pioneer Memoirs and I remain dedicated to bringing you snippets now and then. Partly because my invented deadline of Wednesdays for my blog posting has seeped into my brain with such ferocity that if I should be 98 and on my deathbed, I dearly hope it’s a Tuesday.

Along with that, reading these Pioneer Memoirs reminds me that however busy my life is at the moment, when all is said and done, I’ve got it pretty good.

On a previous post, one of the comments made mention of how wonderful it was to hear of those simpler times. I agreed at first, but then got to thinking. I wonder if it’s true? What I mean is, did they think their life was simple?

Somehow I doubt it.

Consider when Thoreau moaned on and on about all those men living desperate lives, yada, yada, yada.  That was pre-Civil War! No freeways, no rush hour traffic, no commercial television or Russians in your Facebook.

Makes you wonder what old Henry had to complain about, am I right?

Following this logic, perhaps one day people will look back on 2018 as a simpler time. Just as I might look back on this time and think, “Eh, I wasn’t so busy.”

In any case, the last two weeks I brought you tales spun by my Great-Aunt Clara. Today’s story comes from her father, my Great-Grandfather, Abraham Jacobson.

Old Abe came to the United States in 1848, when he was 12 years old. As you’ll see below, he and his “trusty legs” were rarely idle. He graduated from college, became a Lutheran minister, traveled to Quebec to help newly arrived immigrants, served churches in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, found some time for farming, and eventually ran for public office.

This particular tale tells us of when he traveled from Decorah, Iowa (in the northeastern part of the State), into the newly formed Dakota territories… by foot. It was a story my dad used to tell us kids, as it was a bit of family pride that our relation was the first Lutheran minister in the Dakotas. (If that should ever come up in a trivia contest, now you know.)

The following was written in 1908, two years before he passed away at the age of 74. I hope you find it a pleasant diversion from your busy day…

In the vast domain of the Northwest there may still be found places where roads are poor, but the ease and facility of present-day travel cannot be compared with conditions fifty years ago.

In the summer of 1850, when I was a boy of fourteen, my trusty legs carried me across the state of Wisconsin from the vicinity of Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien, a distance of more than two hundred miles. This journey was made in company with a large caravan of emigrants who were to settle in Iowa. The day’s journey was short and the roads were good, so the four week trip was an enjoyable one, though it was strenuous enough for many of the older people.

In the eleven years that followed, among many varied experiences, I was ordained into the ministry and served a congregation in Chicago. Circumstances so shaped themselves that a journey to the then new Dakota Territory seemed to me a duty, from a religious point of view. A keen desire for recreation for both mind and body was also an impelling factor in my determination to undertake the trip. An opportunity for the realization of this wish soon presented itself.

In October, 1861, a small party of eight people in Decorah were in readiness to make the trip westward to Dakota. The company had four yoke of oxen and four wagons. Three of these wagons had just been driven in from Dakota by settlers who came to meet some newly-arrived relatives from Norway.

Our wagon was constructed in a practical manner, in true prairie schooner style. The arched bows were covered with canvas and, as an extra precaution, were again covered with oilcloth, so that we were well protected against both wind and rain. We were amply provided with provisions and cooking utensils, and this later proved to have been a wise forethought.

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The first event that occurred on our trip, and which yet remains vivid in my memory, happened near Calmar. Along the main highway to McGregor came a man with a yoke of oxen hauling a load of wheat. A little boy, who was a cripple, sat on top of the load. The weather was warm and the road dry and dusty. The poor draft cattle were undoubtedly both tired and thirsty,  for their tongues protruded far from their throats.

Near the road there was a depression full of water, apparently a little pond, but in reality a so-called “sinkhole,” the opening in the bottom of which was partly closed by a deposit of clay which had been washed in from the road. As soon as the oxen saw the water they became entirely unmanageable, and down into the hole they rushed pell-mell, with the wagon and the whole load. The sides of the bank were steep and the heavy load shoved the wagon so far down that the water reached to the boy’s waist. Fortunately some of us were nearby.

We brought the boy back to dry land, unyoked the oxen, and finally helped the poor man to get the wheat and the wagon out of the water. The man, whose home was near St. Ansgar, was on his way to market his wheat and had taken his ailing boy along to consult a doctor. Now they had to spread the wheat upon the ground and let it dry before they could continue their journey.

To be continued…

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Here’s Abraham with his wife, Nicolina, and their 11 children.
Talk about busy!

Letters From Dad

Dad was never a big letter writer.

Then later in life, after he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had a few serious illnesses, Dad realized he didn’t have a lot of time left. He began to “get his affairs in order” as they say. He made sure everything was in good standing for Mom. He sorted through his belongings, finished projects, made things for grandkids.

And he wrote letters. Lots and lots of letters.

He wrote to cousins he hadn’t seen since he was a kid, he wrote to his brothers and their wives, his nieces and nephews. He even wrote letters to his grown children who lived in the same city as he did. It wasn’t at all unusual that when you visited and it was time to go, he’d put a envelope in your hands, your name written in a shaky script on the front. It would be another letter telling some bit of family history, or a chart showing our ancestry, some copies of black-and-white photos of our grim-looking relatives.

My recent post on handwriting led me to read them again. Below is one of those letters. 

First, a note: As I was typing, I realized I was editing and somehow that seemed dishonest. In the end, I decided to keep things pretty much as they were, grammatical errors and all. The only thing I changed was to break up his paragraphs a bit, as his thoughts occasionally jump from one story to the next, then back again.
One other note: When he says they provided all the milk for Bruce — that’s a small town in South Dakota.

Dad with siblings
My dad is on the bottom step next to his little sister, Margaret. His oldest brother, John, is in between the twins. Dad was born in ’23, so I’m guessing this photo was taken around 1928.
A Letter From My Dad…

This letter is about things that happened over 80 years ago.

Mother was having a hard time raising her twin boys. She said she prayed every nite for help. Then Mother found she was pregnant again. She thought the Lord was going to punish her with this new baby. The twins would be 2 in August and I came along the 1st of May. The twins were still in diapers. The conditions were rather primitive on the farm back then, no running water, you did things the hard way.

Mother told me when I was an older kid what a good baby I was. At the time I never wanted to hear about it, it made me sound like a sissy. Mother said I never cryed only whimpered when something was wrong. The relatives said something is wrong with that baby, that baby don’t cry – all babys cry. Mother said I was ok and a happy kid and was an answer to the prayers to the Lord. She also said she could sit me down any place & I would be ok.

Then one day when I learned to crawl Mother heard a loud cry & found the twins stomping on my fingers & were proud of them selfs that they got me to cry. Mother thought they had ruined me & I would cry all the time, but I went back to the way I was.

The good that come from it was the twins were better behaved & watched over me & never let any thing bad happen to me. This has been true all our lives. They have always protected me. We never had any fights with them, altho they were always fighting with each other.

*****

Roger & Rolf were always very fair & kind with me except when work was involved. They would divide the jobs in 3 equal parts, they was kind enough to give me the choice of the jobs, that went along quite well. Now the milking of the cows was another thing.

We always had 20 or so cows to milk. The cows were divide in 3 parts of 7 or so cows. I again got to choose the bunch I wanted. This was the evening milking in the summer as Dad & John could stay out in the field until dark. I was never very fast with the milking. I would have 2 or so left to milk when they were done. The fact that I was 10 years old & they were 12 had nothing to do with it so they would watch me finish. The reason we had so many cows was that we had to furnish most of Bruce with milk.

*****

Bro. John was always to blame if any thing went wrong. When I was about 3 I was breaking the ice in the stock tank & fell in. I was in quite a long time when John found me floating under the ice, he was blamed for me falling in & not (praised?) for pulling me out.

Another time when I was about 3 Dad came home from town & found me layed out on the township road. He brought me to the house & looked for bruises. Then I woke up, I was just sleeping in the middle of the road. Bro. John was blamed for letting me sleep on the road.

*****

They got a very good whipping for stomping on my fingers. I wound up with a deformed finger nail & at the time it got infected and got a swelling under my arm. I was brought to a Doctor & he lanced it. This did cause me trouble later in life.

Merry Christmas
Love, Dad

Dad with brothers
Left to right, Dad, John, Roger and Rolf. We could always tell our twin uncles apart because Rolf was the one who glowered. You might think they’re all glowering, but Rolf glowered best. By the way, they were all extremely kind, gentle men. But yeah… glowering.

Dad passed away 12 years ago. I often think of the stories he told, and the way he told them. He was great storyteller.

Thanks for the letters, Dad.