Neighbors: Hans' story of settler life in Dakota Territory

Bob Lind, Neighbors columnist. The Forum
Bob Lind, Neighbors columnist. The ForumThe Forum

Hans Hanson emigrated from Hadlenlag, Norway, living first in Kilbourn City, Wis., then moving to Dakota Territory in 1871. He died in the 1920s, but he left behind a transcript of his life in his new country.

Paul Hanson, Mayville, N.D., one of Hans’ eight living grandchildren, sent a copy of that transcript to Neighbors. It was transcribed again for publication in The Forum, using Hans’ exact language to capture the essence.

Hans’ story depicts the trials of the early settlers and highlights their tenacity.

“In my youth,” Paul says, “I was reminded by it of the ordeals they went through. Of course, since I had a warm house and plenty of food, I thought it was fiction and overembellished.”

His grandfather’s story corrects that impression. Here it is, just as Hans told it, and with his spelling. And be warned, some of the terms he uses won’t sit well with some of you:

There were five in the company in which I came (Hans said). I had one yoke of oxen and the others had two apiece.

At LaCross we loaded the cattle, oxen and wagons on a steamboat which took us to St. Paul. From this place we drove across country to Dakota. We went by way of St. Cloud and crossed the Red River near Fort Abercombie. At the later place there were number of soldiers, and bands of Indians roamed about in the woods near the fort.

Ole Strandvold, who lived some distances north of Fargo, had been here a year earlier and he wrote articles in “Faedrelandet og Immigranten” praising the Dakota country. Near Wahpeton we met a Swede, who had just returned from a trip thru the Red River Valley. He directed us to the Goose River Country of which he spoke very highly.

There were no crops the first years and it took a whole month to go to Alexandria, by ox team, where we bought flour. In 1871 we made a trip to that place and when we reached the site of Moorhead we saw a number of tents, which were pitched along the Red River. Some buildings were also under construction and there seemed to be a bustle of life about the place. When we came back from Alexandria the track had been laid to Moorhead.

I worked in 1872 on the Northern Pacific Railroad between Fargo and Bismarck, and was paid thirty-five dollars a month to drive team. We worked at Fargo, Jamestown and Crystal Springs. At the later place we had a contract on two miles. A man with a six shooter was posted to guard the railroad all night for fear of attack by Indians.

Beeves were killed to supply the men in the railroad camps with fresh meat and the Indians used to come and eat the intestines and other wastes. A newcomer who worked with us lost his appetite while watching them eat. When we reached Bismarck we got a reinforcement of three hundred soldiers to guard our camp. There were some five hundred Indians encamped west of us. In the evenings they had their war-dances and some of the men in our gang lifted the side of the tent and fired at them.

Three times that summer we were called upon to assist in hanging offenders. One morning, while working west of Jamestown, we saw a man running west ward. Shortly afterwards two men went after him in a wagon. Presently they returned having the hands of the criminal tied behind him. He was accused of having stolen time checks. They strung him on a telegraph pole by the thumbs until he admitted that he was guilty, and then they let him go.

Kennedy was the name of our contractor. He had a fifty mile grande under construction between Fargo and Jamestown. A three day snowstorm set in while we were waiting for the pay-train. Finally an engine with a single coach arrived, but the officials had no money for us. There were five hundred men waiting for their pay checks and the next day the same thing occurred. Then the men broke the rails so the train could not get back. The contractor locked himself in, and after a while we saw three hundred soldiers who came marching towards us with fixed bayonets. The track was put in order and the next day the train came back with money for us.

When we had finished our contract the men were paid off and a lot of whiskey was drank. The crew was packed into box-cars and shipped to Fargo.

There was a great deal of fighting and carousing and we feared being robbed of our hard earned wages.

Walking to Grand Forks

In the winter of 1871 or 72, together with Hans Johnson, who lived a mile west of my place, and John Anderson, who lived near Hillsboro, I made a trip to Grand Forks to look for work. We walked the whole way, pulling after us a sled on which we had a small food supply. When we came within two miles of Grand Forks, we found a shanty. The door was closed, but we broke in and slept on the earthen floor. There was no work to be had in the new town.

We bought dinner in a lunch room that was kept in a shack there, and then we returned home.

Later I walked to Fargo to try to obtain work, carrying a sack of food over my shoulder. At Elm River I stayed overnight with a half-breed who lived with a squaw. My provisions had given out and I had not money, so I went supperless to bed. In the morning I had a cup of tea and slice of bread.

I told them I had no money, but offered to give my pocket knife for the accommodations but the half-breed refused to accept it.

In 1872 I made a trip to Fargo with a team of oxen and a load of hay. I stayed overnight at the home of an Englishman who had a stage-station by Elm River.

Some time later, together with the Kaldors, I took another trip to Fargo. We drove with oxen. A blizzard overtook us and we sought shelter in the stage-station. The Englishman had abandoned the place and we broke into the hut. We took the oxen into the house and split off the logs on the inside for fuel. There was danger of fire for the hut was covered with a straw roof. During that storm a Dane and a yoke of oxen froze to death, sixteen miles out on the prairie.

The Chippewas from the east and Dakotas from the west passed by our place during the summer months while crossing the country between the rivers. They carried their birch-bark canoes on their heads. A squaw usually had to perform this duty. The Indians always traveled in single file.

A French half-breed told me that it was then fifteen years since the buffaloes had left the Red River country. He told us how the Indians used to shoot the buffaloes when large herds in single file came down to the rivers to drink. When looking for water these beasts never paid any attention to dead buffaloes along the way, but out on the open prairies they would charge the hunters.

Red River carts were often seen going between Fargo and Pembina. There were generally a train of eighteen or twenty of them, one ox being used for each cart. The wooden wheels were not greased properly and they rattled and squeaked so they could be heard for a long distance.

When the first wheat was raised, consisting of one or two little stacks on each farm, was ready to be threshed, the Hudson Bay Company offered to ship up a horse-powered machine and do our threshing.

We agreed to this and later in the fall they came bringing sacks with them. We hauled the wheat to Caledonia where we sold it and returned the sacks.

Here the Hudson Bay Company loaded it on their steamboats. This company had a ferry at Georgetown.

Later we hauled our grain to Fargo. There was a man at the Elm River who placed some poles across the stream and stayed in a tent close by collecting toll from the passers on his bridge.

The grasshoppers were bad the first years.

At one time we were ready to turn back, but we finally decided to stay.

We had open wells without curbing, and the summer I worked on the railroad we often got more grasshoppers than water in the bucket.

I took a trip to Minnesota one winter, looking for work. At that time there was a strong antagonism between the various nationalities. The Scandinavians stayed at Erickson’s Hotel in Moorhead and the Irishmen at the Sherman House in Fargo. I was unfortunate enough to get into the wrong place and after I had paid for my room and gone to bed, a big fat Irishmen came and rolled in with me. He was crowding me out and we got into a quarrel. The whole Irish faction was soon aroused and seemed to be in a frenzy. I grabbed my clothes and ran across to Moorhead, where I was safe from attack among a large number of Swedes.

Thus ends the narrative of Hans Hanson, who spent the last years of his life on a farm on the Goose River between Mayville and Hillsboro.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email