8 Terrible Fates Our Ancestors Faced

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.


W.H. Johnson

The final resting place of W.H. Johnson

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.”


San Haven

San Haven Sanatorium

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.


The Wolf Farm on the day of the funerals.

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.

Original content copyright © Sonic Tremor Media

13 thoughts on “8 Terrible Fates Our Ancestors Faced

  1. The Wolf murders were north of Turtle Lake, about ten miles from the farm where I grew up. That topic has been covered extensively as another topic in this website.

    My paternal grandfather may have faced a terrible fate and given in just in time : He built a sod house in 1903 when he homesteaded the family farm. Then he married my grandmother in 1905 and she lived in that sod house for 12 years and birthed three children there before he built a frame house. Possibly right before grandma was ready to do something drastic….

    When my mother was in Township School west of Hope in (about 1941, about 11) her uncle (a teenager himself at the time) heard on the radio that a blizzard was coming. He was alone on my Maternal Grandparent’s farm. He walked a mile to the school. Got my mother and two aunts (about 6 and 8) and started back to the farm. They got about half way there and the blizzard hit. They struggled blinded by the snow and almost suffocating until they walked right into the wall of the house. If they hadn’t literally hit the wall, they might have died. Many people did in that blizzard.


    1. Wow! I was 5 years old in 1941 and lived 5 miles north of Hope, so would have experienced that same blizzard. Who was your mother? I may have known her.


      1. My Mother’s name was Marie Matthiesen. Born 1930. Eldest in the family.

        Her parents were Herb and Zelda, her sisters May and Marilyn and she had a brother – probably just your age name Charles. My Mother and Charles are still alive. Mother is living with my sister and husband at their ranch north of Cooperstown and Charles is in Barstow, Ca.

        The Uncle was Leo Labelle, I believe he was born in ’26. In those days, High School was optional…

        My Grandfather Herb first farmed North of Hope, then sometime before the war, moved to a farm 4 miles straight west of Hope. When my mother told me this story she wasn’t entirely sure of the year, but ’41 would have been close by a year either way. I also think she said the storm was in the spring.

        And boy, do I remember some spring storms myself….


  2. TB was bad enough in its day – but small pox epidemics were more common and resulted in many deaths. I’ve been studying the Pembina County Commissioners Proceedings for the time period 1882-1889 and the pages are full of entries in reference to small pox outbreaks. Not only were houses put under quarantine, but guards were hired to prevent people from entering or leaving places were small pox cases resided, others were paid to deliver food and medicine to the victims. In the old court records I found a case where a “guard” was charged with abandoning his post.

    Prairie wild fires were also a topic of discussion, the Commissioners posting a $100 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible for setting a fire that killed several family members in the Pembina area.


  3. One of the children who died in the prairie fire south of Belfield was my mother’s brother. Some of his siblings helped to rescue some of the other children.

    No death certificates were filed for any of the children or teacher, as I discovered when I began working in Vital Records; with the help of news articles and another of my uncles, affidavits were signed and death certificates filed.


  4. The story we got as kids was that my great grandfather would walk from Maza to Devils Lake (in the winter time) to buy provisions in the winter because they couldnt afford to risk the life of a horse. I dont know if its true or not but it has become quite the piece of family lore.


  5. Suicide, alcoholism and venereal disease were other all too common and terrible fates. Many immigrants couldn’t handle the cultural changes and freedoms (which required decision-making skills not required, encouraged or learned in the rural old country) and resulted in inability to cope or learn to overcome natural naivety. Many bachelors and not a few married men who’d left families behind fell prey to the temptations presented to them in Hull and Liverpool, New York and Montreal, on their way to their Shangri La. Loneliness was a huge factor in their lives, having left the traditional support of family and neighbors behind. Many tried to stick together but this wasn’t always economically possible and heretofore unknown competition for land and dollars complicated even good-intentioned attempts at community. There were a lot more bad outcomes they had to face but this blog does a good job at showing some of the more prevalent. It was not an easy time and we owe so much to the perseverance of our forbearers in this exciting but very dangerous New World.


    1. I guess I should point out that venereal disease was almost always fatal and easily passed along to marriage partners as well as other types of liaisons. It was hushed up as much as possible and along with alcoholism, accounted for many one-way trips to “Hospitals for the Insane”.


  6. Great article. Reading this and the book “The Schoolhouse Blizzard” has given me new insights on how hard life was out on the prairie. My great grandparents came fro Norway and Sweden in 1880 stopping to do mining work on the U.P. of Michigan for 2 years. Great Grandma thought that too dangerous so they arrived 1.5 miles west of Leeds, ND in 1885. The sod shack housed them and 5 kids until they built the wood house in 1889. Had a son who was at Dunseith for awhile, and died during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Tough lives, tough people, easy to take pride in our forebearers.


  7. My father was born in 1913. He remembers both the Wolf Murders and the “Spanish Flu”. He said that he didn’t know of anyone in the Turtle Lake area (McLean county) that died from that epidemic.


  8. When I was in Township school, our teacher read to us from the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And I’m sure that most folks remember the TV series. Mary Ingalls was blind and the assumption has been that the cause was Scarlet Fever.

    Now, some research suggest that the source could actually have been Meningitis. See http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/03/health/mary-ingalls-blind-little-house-on-prairie/?iid=ob_lockedrail_topeditorial&iref=obnetwork

    I recall my father had meningitis when I was a little kid. It is believed that he caught it from his draft horses. Just another wrinkle in the roughness of the past. Fortunately he recovered and lived ’til 2011.

    And I must amend my previous reply about the Spanish Flu in Turtle Lake area: from a book I’m reading about the area, there was at least one person from Turtle Lake who died, but was in the service and not in the area….


    1. Many of the death certificates for 1918-1919 did not show influenza as the immediate cause of death. My grandmother’s death certificate shows endocarditis as the immediate cause of death, but the endocarditis was caused by the flu. It’s quite likely that someone whose death certificate shows pneumonia as the cause acquired the pneumonia because of influenza. (The things I learned because of coding death certificates!)


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