Early Days of South Dakota, Part I
Opp, Danial D. "Early Days of South Dakota, Part I." Prairies 8, no. 7: February 1985, 12-20.
It was in the year 1884 when the great immigration took place
from South Russia to the Dakota Territory in the wholly unknown,
faraway North America.
In the beginning of September, 27 families from the colony of Gluckstal
shook the Russian dust from their feet, and began
their epic journey to free America. Among them were
our parents. I was a boy of 12 when we left the place
where my cradle had stood, a place which will always
remain dear to my memory. I have had no more education
since that long ago time, and any deficiency in my
writing must be attributed to that fact.
Our journey progressed nicely, so that after 21 days, we arrived
at our destination, namely Menno, Dakota Territory. From there the
immigrants scattered in all directions. Some remained at Menno.
Others went to relatives and friends in nearby settlements named
Scotland and Tyndall. We, and our neighbor, John Nies, were received
into the home of my father’s cousin, Andrew Mettler, at Menno.
But we stayed there only for the short duration of two weeks, because
it soon developed that there were no more free homesteads to be
taken up in that part of the Territory.
For that reason, the families of Valentine Mettler, George G. Neuharth,
George Hieb, John Knapp, Henry Schnabel, and others had gone up
from Menno in the spring of 1884, and had already settled by May
1884 in what is now McPherson County in the northern part of South
Dakota. Mettler and Neuharth were evidently the first German Russians
to set foot in McPherson County. The others came a little later.
There were 15 families, who, in the summer of 1884, had settled
in western McPherson County. When our father and J. Nies heard of
that new settlement, they would no longer be detained. They bought
a couple of oxen, a cow, wagon, a breaking plow, and some provisions.
All was loaded into a car and we were on our way to Frederick, which
at that time was the nearest railroad station to McPherson County.
On arriving at Frederick, everything was unloaded as quickly as
possible, and the wagon was set up and loaded with goods. While
all of that was underway, we boys herded the oxen, and when we looked
about, we noticed that not far from us were three wagons, to which
oxen had been hitched. We also noticed by the people’s language
that they were some of our kinsmen! So we reported our startling
information to our parents. And what did we discover? They were
acquaintances from our old home in Russia and during the summer
had settled 60 miles west of Frederick. Naturally we were greatly
elated to find acquaintances in a strange land, new friends who
could show us the way to the new settlement.
In the meantime, evening had approached. But regardless
of that, we decided to go as far as the Elm River,
six miles distant, where the other three teams had
agreed to overtake us that night, which they did.
Having arrived at the Elm River, we made camp. It
was our first night that we arranged our night quarters
on the wild prairie under the clear heavens. All went
well, because it was not cold. The next morning, we
continue our journey, always toward the unknown west.
Since we were heavily loaded, we could cover only about 26 miles
a day. That time we remained over night at Koto, six miles north
from Leola. There we found a store, a post office, and several other
At that time, the weather had been nice. The land was level, but
it had all been taken up.
The next morning, after breakfast, we started out again. But, alas,
one of our neighbor’s oxen had gone lame. Consequently, we
could proceed only slowly, and some of our acquaintances left us.
Five miles west of Koto the hills began. We drove all day without
seeing any living being. There was nothing to look at but dismal
hills, covered with stones and bones. Who would have believed it
at the time that any human beings would live in such a desert, a
place forsaken not only by Indians but also by the wild animals!
That the wild animals had once inhabited that place was evidenced
by the many untimely bleached bones scattered about the prairie
grass. But where were they now?
In the meantime, night had descended again. The time had arrived
once more to prepare our night quarters on the wild prairie under
We had a little hay left, but we needed that for food for our cattle.
Nothing was left for us but the bare ground, which was sufficiently
large for us. After we had earned our evening meal, we were supposed
to go to sleep. We, the 12 children of the two families, lay in
the middle, and our parents on both sides of us. After the customary
evening blessings, which the mothers invoked upon their wards, we
normally would have been quickly overcome by sleep. But there on
the empty, open prairie, sleep was quite another matter.
It was a cold, frosty October night. We noticed that our mothers,
more in a sitting than in a reclining position, watched over us,
asking now this, now that child, if he or she were cold, which we
older children constantly denied. We could see clearly by the bright
moonlight how the tears, like pearly dew drops, rolled down the
cheeks of our mothers.
Yes, those were the pioneer days.
That we were on our feet early the next morning, the dear reader
may well imagine, because the black prairie was covered with frost.
In reality, it looked as though we had had a light snow during the
night. The lake, near which we camped, was frozen so hard that we
could hardly water our cattle. We had neither wood nor any other
kind of fuel with which to build a fire to warm ourselves.
In all haste, we devoured our bread with tears, and then continued
into the blackened hills. But then, finally, at noon, after a long
and seemingly endless trek, excitement mounted: from the golden
hills surrounding Long Lake, we could look west into our promised
land, which we reached at about three o’clock in the afternoon.
We had reached our destination.
Having safely arrived, we discovered that the people already settled
there were, with few exceptions, mostly young and poor. At that
time, every head of a family could take up three claims: a pre-emption,
a tree claim, and a homestead. Each consisted of 160 acres.
The pre-emption, after residing on it for six months, could be
“proven up,” and on paying $1.25 per acre, title was
given to it.
The land, however, was not surveyed until the fall of 1884. That
caused serious problems. People hardly knew where to locate their
homes. Consequently, only sod huts were built, mostly 12 by 14 feet
as a temporary home for the coming winter.
In reality, the land had not yet been opened up for filing, and
I think it was the last day of October when, unexpectedly, Karl
Schuchardt and a Mr. Spittler arrived toward evening from Koto with
the information that the land would be opened up for filing the
That, indeed, was an important message for us immigrants. It brought
new life into the homes. We boys had to be the foot racers to inform
the neighbors, south and west, of the good tidings. They, in turn,
informed their neighbors. In less than three hours, all had assembled
at the Valentine Mettler home.
From the Mettlers, horses were hitched to several wagons and the
men departed for Westport, some 58 miles distant. The teams were
then left at Westport, from where the eager immigrants rode the
train to Aberdeen, where the government land office was located.
The next morning, without delay, pre-emption and timber claims
were taken up. Those were proved up after six months. After that,
the homestead claim was taken up on which, however, buildings had
to be erected.
In the meantime, cold weather had set in. It was no longer possible
to construct sod huts. As a result, our father, Daniel Opp, drove
to Frederick to get lumber, with which we hastily built a shanty,
12 by 14 feet, to serve as our first Dakota home.
It was our intention to cover up our new board hut with sod, but
we did not quite accomplish that goal because the ground froze up
too hard. Like it or not, we had a home for the winter. For fuel,
we used reeds, which Daniel Bittner cut for us. We burned the reeds
in an old cook stove. And in order to keep our home warm, someone
had to always stand beside the stove and feed it with reeds.
Now I want to mention also about the first election on November
Valentine Bittner’s home was the voting place. It was the
only voting place for the entire western part of McPherson County.
The Democratic Candidate, Grover Cleveland was elected president
of the United States with 219 electoral votes. He defeated his opponent,
James G. Blaine, who received 182 electoral votes. It was a rare
novelty for the pioneers to be able to participate in the selection
of the nation’s highest leaders.
At that same election, the county seat for McPherson County was
voted on. Leola won over Koto.
During that autumn of 1884, new immigrants constantly came from
Russia. Many hoped to take up land so that they might acquire possession
in the spring. But the severe winter that year put a stop to those
forays. Quite a few disappointed immigrants had to return again
to Freeman and other towns in the southern parts of the Territory
without accomplishing anything.
Christmas soon came. If it had not been for the “pretzel”
which our mothers baked for us, we would not have known it was Christmas.
Also, the injunction, “Be fruitful and multiply” went
into effect on the 12th of January in two families, when in the
home of the Valentine Mettlers the first child, a son, and in the
home of the George C. Neuharths, a daughter, were born.
Despite these momentous births, the first winter was a long one.
At that time we had no newspapers to read as we have at present.
Mutual visits were seldom made. The monotony of life was occasionally
relieved by a straggler who came from the southern part of the Territory,
in order to look for land. At one time, a man by the name of J.
Herrmann braved the intense cold and came up north. But when he
reached our house, he had frozen his feet so badly that he could
hardly walk. Fortunately we were able to save his feet.
We seldom received mail. We were literally cut off from the outside
world. People could only get together when the weather was nice,
or on a Sunday when they would talk about their mutual griefs.
Frequently, we would sing songs, but mostly all had the same tune:
“I long to go home again, the land of sunshine I would see.”
(Obviously we did not know at that time that we already lived in
the sunshine state.”)
When you consider we resided 60 miles from town, it was no wonder
that we felt isolated.
Often, one was without flour; the other without light, coffee,
or sugar. But the worst for many years was when we were without
tobacco. Usually, two drove to town together to get the necessities.
The pilgrimage usually took from four to five days. Those who had
been without tobacco could hardly await their return.
Thus it was, from one day to another, until the latter part of
March. Then the ferocious weather moderated a little.
One afternoon, my brother, Jacob, and I ascended the highest snowdrift
in the yard in order to take a view of our surroundings.
The snowbank was high. We stood above the farm huts, and from such
a lofty viewpoint we noticed dark objects moving approximately four
miles to the northeast. In our minds, those dark objects could be
nothing else but buffaloes, since no other living being were to
be seen or expected. Hastily, we informed our parents and Valentine
Mettler, who shared our opinion. They sent us on horseback north
and west to our neighbors to inform them of our discovery.
(It may be noted here that the young people who had come up from
Menno during the last year had brought teams of horses as well as
All the immediate neighbors on horseback quickly assembled, each
rider with a shooting iron. No one doubted that what we saw were
buffalo. Ramrods were drawn and the guns loaded with heavy shot.
After a short and rapid consultation, Val Mettler was chosen as
the captain of the expedition. Once a decision was made, Mettler
immediately straddled his horse (which was a good runner) and galloped
away with the intention of getting up to the buffalo from the other
side. We assumed an attitude of watchful waiting until such time
as had been agreed upon when Val would signal us to attack.
Of course, everyone’s mouth watered in great expectation
because we had heard that buffalo roast was a delicacy. The opportunity
for such a delicious feasting was right under our noses.
Unfortunately, our joy was of brief duration.
About half an hour later, Mettler raced back on his horse and declared
an armistice. He informed us that he had found no buffalo, but seven
men from the southern part of the Territory. They had come by train
as far as Westport, and from there they had come by sled to the
Valentine Bittner place. They had walked the rest of the ten miles
to our place.
So there they were: Russian fur coats tied on their backs, bread
sacks with frozen provisions under their arms. The weary travelers
slowly dragged themselves through the deep snow, more dead than
alive. Wholly exhausted, they sank down before the first huts.
Toward the evening, when the men had to some extent regained their
strength, they were divided among the neighbors. Naturally, we were
pleasantly entertained during the evening, talking and laughing.
After many weeks during which we had had no information whatsoever
from the outside world, we were now informed about things of which
we had not the slightest idea.
On account of the deep snow, those men went back to Freeman, Menno,
and other southern villages without transacting any business. But
they returned in the spring and settled five miles north and east
of where Eureka is now located.
Those men have all died by now, of course, but they were the fathers
and grandfathers of the people who now live near Eureka. That was
the beginning of the pioneers of 1885. But more important events
were to follow.
Finally, the warm sun made the snow depart, changing it to water.
The long hoped for spring broke forth in all its force, gladdening
not only man but also the animals. The ascending sun brought not
only warmth and life into the dead wilderness, it also brought new
hope for the future.
Easter was on the 4th of April. There were no Easter eggs, but
the weather was beautiful. Old and young rejoiced. Everyone was
happy that we could again come together for divine worship.
Our joy was not to be long, however. The prairie
surrounding the settlers’ crude buildings had
not been burned off in the fall, and now, in some
unexplainable manner, a raging fire suddenly broke
out. It was the first time we made acquaintance with
that fierce enemy, the prairie fire. But the hard
way, we quickly learned he was someone to be carefully
We fought hard against that first fire, fearfully beating out the
flames and plowing up the land to encircle the conflagration, and
thereby contain it. We hoped to save not only ourselves, but some
pasture for our cattle. It was a bitter struggle, but we conquered
the foe. Blackened with smoke and sweat, we all prayed that we would
not have to confront such a terrible adversary for a long time.
After Easter, we started the field work. The few acres, which had
been broken up the year before, were seeded—by hand, of course.
It was no easy matter to work the wheat and oats into the hard sod
with oxen and harrow. But because it had to be, it was accomplished.
Then a more difficult task awaited us. The sod had to be broken
up. For that mammoth obstacle, we only had a pair of oxen, and they
were so weak that we had to hitch up our only cow with them.
But because it had to be, it was accomplished.
I hired out to Valentine Mettler for $40 a year. Mettler had two
ox teams and also a team of horses. I had to break sod with the
oxen, while Mettler used the horses most of the time in transporting
land seekers to our community. He was a busy man.
George G. Neuharth and John Becker were also employed in this manner.
They were familiar with the numbers and signs of section lines.
It must be remembered that people from the southern part of the
Territory were flocking north in great numbers to take up land.
Most of the settlers wanted their three claims conjointly, and many
were successful in securing them. The best land however was soon
to be taken up.
A few claims were still to be had. But since quite often half a
dozen men came at the same time, those who wanted their claims conjointly
had to drive from 20 to 30 miles further to find something suitable.
It was for that reason that the settlement was extended west to
Campbell County toward the Missouri River and toward the north to
North Dakota where Zee land and Strasburg are now located.
Thus it was, from one day to another. It might be easily imagined
that even nights were used for the migration of people.
All those who had a little money on hand and wanted to buy horses
and cattle for breeding stock were advised to buy whatever they
wanted in the southern part of the Dakota Territory. In the north,
they were told, nothing could be secured, not even feed for cattle.
That advice was true. There was very little to spare which could
They were also told it would not be advisable for anyone with a
family to come up here before May, but that they should instead
wait until the scorched prairie would again be covered with grass
for the stock. That was good advice, too.
Fortunately, April was a very nice month. The fields were soon
like a green carpet adorned with beautiful spring flowers, which
strongly reminded us of the old home where we picked flowers singing:
Happy is youth in time of gladness,
Happy is youth, which returns no more.
The days are o’er, the years bring sadness
The aged are relieved of the burdens of yore.
The memory of our happy youthful days,
When Mother led us by her hand,
We rejoice as the mind portrays
The bounties of the old home land.
In the month of May, the colonization of this region was set in
full motion. Immigrants now came by train to Ipswich, which was
ten miles closer to us than Frederick. The multitudes kept on coming,
one after the other, mostly with covered or open wagons, drawn by
ox teams. It was very seldom that a wagon with horses was seen.
Those courageous pioneers drove on the far and bare prairie, where
often in pouring rains, not even a shelter was available against
the inclemency of the weather.
From the 6th to the 7th of May, 1885, we received four inches of
snow, which remained on the ground for three days. That snow caused
a lot of misery.
Many of the new arrivals had to remain under the blue sky with
their families, and crowded in a corner of the wagons, little children
clung crying to their mothers in order to find some protection against
the cold, while the fathers sat there with feelings which cannot
And what made the situation all the more painful was that the parents
could not give expression to their feelings, but suppressed them
in the presence of their children.
The adults tried not to be discouraged. Full of confidence, they
directed their vision through the dark night and heavy rain clouds
to the heavens, from which sharp lightening flashed and rolling
thunders descended, as if they would say: “Fear not. I am
the Lord thy God. I have brought you this far, and I will lead you
to your destination.”
In that faith, and under sunshine, the journey was continued the
next morning. After several days, they finally reached their journey’s
end. Once arrived, the first thing they did was build a sod hut
for shelter. Everyone lent a helping hand to put in some flax. The
fathers were out in the fields before daylight to break up land
for flax. During the noon hour, when it was too hot to work with
the oxen, cellars or walls were dug. When it was cooler again, they
continued to work with the oxen.
That spring I broke up 90 acres of land. Forty acres were seeded
to flax, and the rest was used for corn and summer fallow.
The crop was a good one in 1885. Everything entrusted to the virgin
soil did well because the weather was so favorable. From the 20th
of May to the middle of June, it rained every night. During the
day we had the nicest kind of weather. They gave us new settlers
constantly more courage.
The rapid growth of the various crops proved that if the weather
was favorable, the soil was fertile. The plains were not a desert.
But it was quite a long time until the new harvest. There were
many poor people who had nothing to eat. For them, nothing remained
but to gather buffalo bones on the prairie and haul them to town.
A load of bones brought almost as much money as a load of wheat
at the present time!!! On account of the long distance to town –
from 70 to 80 miles – many oxen went lame. But the bones saved
many families from dreaded starvation.