Early Days of South Dakota, Part I

Opp, Daniel D. "Early Days of South Dakota, Part I." Prairies 8, no. 7: February 1985, 12-20.

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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 small buildings.

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 the stars.

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 next morning.

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 4th, 1884.
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 oxen.)

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 respected.

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 be sold.

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 be described.

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.

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