With Determination They Settled a County: Stories of Early Pioneers Reveal Hardships and Struggles They Faced

Gehring, Karlene Hill. "With Determination They Settled a County: Stories of Early Pioneers Reveal Hardships and Struggles They Faced." Hazen Star, 22 September 2005, sec. 2B, 5B & 8B.

They picked and sold buffalo bones to make ends meet. They face fierce winters with barely four walls to protect them from the elements. Food was scare and often meals consisted of bread and milk, maybe a chicken once a month.

But these early pioneers of Mercer County preserved and worked to settle this county that was little more than barren land when they arrived.

No to tribute to agriculture would be complete without remembering and honoring those early pioneers who forged their lives on Mercer County prairies.

Their struggles, tragedies and triumphs serve as reminders of what it means to persevere and work to leave a legacy for the future. It’s a legacy that continues today for everyone who calls Mercer County home.

From 1936 to 1940, many of those early pioneers were interviewed as part of the Historical Data Project. A Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, the purpose of the Historical Data Project was to preserve the rich history of the United States.

Arriving in America, the early pioneers built sod homes in which they faced the North Dakota winters. This sod house belonged to either the Klindworth or Pitts family in the Golden Valley area. Malvin Miller donated the photo to the Hazen Library.

Sponsored by the WPA Division of Women’s and Professional Projects and the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the project involved interviewing early pioneers in an effort to gather their biographical and historical information. While some early pioneers gave only the information needed for a prepared survey sheet, others shared their personal stories of settling Mercer County.

Their stories, which are on microfilm, are available at the North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota, and the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Loni Meyhoff of Hazen went through microfilm and copied the stories and information provided by Mercer County pioneers. This information is now available at the Hazen Public Library as part of its local history section.

The stories told by the pioneers are captivating and humbling as we are reminded of the debt that is owed to the steadfast men and women who settled Mercer County.


The reasons why these pioneers came to Mercer County are as varied as the people themselves. Christian Usselman left his home in Odessa, Russia in September 1885. He was 20 years old when he left Russia because he wanted to get away from the Russian Army.

Christian left behind his three brothers, father and mother.

Discussing his life growing up, Christian said his family had lived in Russia generation after generation for more than 200 years. His family was wealthy but when Christian’s father told him he had to join the Russian army and stay until he was a captain, which would be at least eight years, Christian ran away from home. With very little money, he borrowed 200 rubles from his cousin and started for America.

Also arriving in America from Russia was Jacob Kruckenberg, who immigrated to the United States with his parents Gottlie and Dora in the fall of 1888. He was 17 years old and also left Russia to escape the Russian army.

Jacob said all young men were expected to serve three years in the army with low pay, hard work and long hours.

The trials the pioneers faced just getting to the United States would have been enough to force many people to turn around, but they forged ahead with their journey.

The Kruckenberg family traveled through Austria and Germany and Jacob remembered they were sick through most of the journey, with most of the trip spent in bed, both on land and on the water.

When the family landed in New York, Jacob had an eye disease and came close to being shipped back to Russia, but after undergoing several examinations by different doctors he was given permission to continue the journey.

Christian’s journey was harrowing because he was running away from home. He tried to cross the border into Austria but because he did not have a pass, the officials threatened to send him back to Russia. Christian ran away from the officials and hid in an old building for two days without anything to eat.

He left the building where he was hiding to find something to eat and met a Jewish man who offered to smuggle him across the boarder for $50. Christian paid the fee and that same evening was taken across the border into Austria.

Christian made his way to Germany and traveled through that country for three days. He bought a pass to America but was robbed that same night. He boarded the ship bound for America penniless. He shoveled coal into the boilers, washed dishes and scrubbed the floors for his room and board. He landed in New York City in 1885.


As the pioneers landed on the shores of the United States they began their second leg of their new life as they headed west.

Coming to New York with no money, Christian worked at a railroad round house cleaning passenger cars and as a tool carrier for two months before heading to Enswich, S.D., where his second cousin lived.

The Kruckenberg family arrived in New Salem in the late fall of 1888. There was about eight inches of snow on the ground and it was bitter cold. The family stayed in New Salem where they constantly asked people about a good location to homestead.

Shortly before New Year’s Day, Ludwig Werner Sr., a Mercer County farmer, came to New Salem to buy his winter supply of groceries and flour. He met the Kruckenbergs and invited the family to come with him and stay at his home until they found a location to homestead.

They accepted the invitation and arrived in Mercer County with a little cash and a few pieces of clothing.

“That winter Mr. (Gottlie) Kruckenberg walked all over the nearby county in snow up to his knees looking for a nice level piece of land.”

He filed on a piece of land two miles west of the Wagner farm.

It took Christian longer to make his way to Mercer County. He lived in South Dakota until 1901, marrying his wife Anna, in 1890. Finally in the spring of 1901, Christian decided to start farming for himself and set out with traveling companions, Jacob Hipfner, Franz Hoffarts and Joseph Hoffarts.

Leaving their families in New Salem, the four men started by team across the country for suitable land to homestead. They drove for two days and decided to locate in Mercer County.

The four men worked together, ate together and slept together until all four houses were built.

Christian said in his interview that of the four men, he was the cook because none of them had ever cooked before. “The first few meals that Usselman cooked were not fit to eat, but there was no choice, either eat or go home hungry, the rest of the men were angry over his cooking but that did not help matters as they all took a chance cooking and none could do any better.”

By May 1901 the four houses were built and the men returned to New Salem for their families.


The years were not easy for the pioneers as they worked to build life in Mercer County.

Christian, along with his four neighbors, put in a crop that spring. However, it was the beginning of three dry years and from 1901 to 1903, none of the settlers in Township 145 threshed one bushel.

In his interview Christian said, “Their money was all gone and they already owed more money than they were worth, their credit was exhausted and no work was to be gotten.”

In an effort to make money, Usselman, his neighbors and their families picked buffalo bones. The bones were hauled to New Salem where they were sold for $6 per ton. The money was used to buy food and clothing.

Christian remembered that in the winter of 1903 he went with out overshoes or mittens. Food was scarce and all the family ate was milk, coffee and bread.

“There was lots of wild game but the settlers could not afford to buy guns and shells to shoot with.”

The first year the Kruckenberg family lived in Mercer County they stayed with the Werner family. Jacob headed to western North Dakota and worked on a cattle ranch that was owned by Theodore Roosevelt. Working at the ranch near Medora for three years, Jacob told of running as high as 3,000 head of cattle and 800 horses.

In the spring of 1892, Jacob returned to Mercer County and helped his father on the farm.

“They had two oxen and a hand plow they had bought from Mr. Werner. This was all they had to farm with, the seeding those days was all done by hand and the cutting was done by hand.”

The first crop raised by Gottlie Kruckenberg was in 1889, which was a good year, but it was the only crop raised up to 1895 due to the drought. Jacob remembers that the family was very, very poor and in 1890 they did not have one taste of meat for more than 10 months.

“All they had to eat was milk, bread and a few eggs about once a month. That was the hardest year they experienced. They were hungry…and there was no money to be made no matter how hard they tried.”

Like the other settlers, the Kruckenbergs picked buffalo bones, which were hauled to New Salem, a trip that took 10 days.

Jacob said in his interview, “Those were days that will never be forgotten by the old settlers. The settlers those days also knew the value of a dollar. They did not spend one cent for luxury. What little money they had was spent for clothing and money. When they had more money than what they needed for food and clothing, it was saved to build a new lumber house or barn as the women did not like to live in the sod shanties without a floor in them or a piece of furniture.”

In 1895, Jacob filed his own claim and built a one-room sod shanty. He had no furniture and slept on the floor on old sacks and rags. He married Emilia Wegerle of Mannhaven in 1898. The bride wore a blue dress with a white waist, while the groom wore an everyday blue work shirt and a new pair of common blue trousers.

The day after the wedding the couple went to their homestead shanty and lived there. They slept on the floor, ate their meals on the wooden block the same as before Jacob was married. About a month later they bought lumber and made a bedstead, a table and two small benches.

In 1910, Jacob and Emilia had their son, Ernest, who went as far as the sixth grade in a country school near the homestead. The family’s food was bought at Expansion, North Dakota from the Bohrer Mercantile Company.

The closest railroad towns the early settlers had were New Salem and Hebron, which was a distance of 65 miles. Jacob remembers there were no roads.

“The whole wide prairie was one big road for them all.”

After working on a riverboat for three years, Jacob went back to farming and raising cattle. According to Jacob’s interview, “He done fairly good, made a little money, built up a nice herd of cattle, bought five or six sections of land along the river for pasture, along in the late 1920s when the crisis came on, he made, he lost all his cattle, machinery and the land along the river.”

In 1936 when he was interviewed for the Historical Data Project, Jacob still had his homestead and a house in Hazen, where he was living.

After living through three years of drought, Christian realized a good crop in 1904. All the grain was taken to Mannhaven and sold to the John Young Grain Company. Many times that fall, Christian arrived at Mannhaven with a load before noon and there were so many teams ahead of him that he couldn’t unload until 10 that night.

It was 1905 when Krem was established only 10 miles from the Usselman farm. The first year the small community saw a flourmill started by Samuel and William Richter. F.G. Klein also opened a bank, called the Krem State Bank. Gust Wiest and Paul Goetz opened a general store, with Steve Huber opening a beer parlor with Julius Froeschle a blacksmith shop. John Bohrer was the first postmaster in Krem in 1905.

David Richter started an underground coalmine one mile west of Krem. The mine was 60 feet underground and the output per day was from 50 to 80 tons. Coal at that time sold for 50 cents per ton and it was a very good grade of lignite coal. The mine operated for more than 20 years.

In the spring of 1906, a prairie fire started along the Knife River where Beulah is now located. The fire swept across the country from the Knife River to the Missouri, a stretch of 30 miles. From straw stacks to cattle, horses and homes, Christian said the settlers suffered heavy losses.

Christian and his wife had eight children, John, Margareta, Egina, Peter, Frank, Engelina, Pius and Eagda. At the time of Christian’s interview, all of his children were living in and around Hazen

According to Christian, in 1914 the railroad was built from Stanton to Killdeer and the town of Hazen was started, which was only nine miles from the Usselman farm.


Although life was hard as they settled on the prairie, the early pioneers, who were in their 60s and 70s when they were interviewed in the mid-1930s, never spoke with regret about their decision to come to Mercer County.

By 1901, when boats started to run on the Missouri River from Bismarck to Expansion, all the necessities for the settlers were shipped by boat to Expansion.

“Lumber, machinery, clothing, flour, groceries, everything was cheap and grain had a fair price. They all got along well and were glad they came to America,” Jacob said.

Christian expressed the same thoughts when he was interviewed, saying, “Even though there were many a hardship, he is still thankful to God that he came to America, for in 1914 when the World War (I) broke out in Europe, all the property that belonged to his father and to his brothers was taken from them, buildings were burned to the ground…and everything was taken away from them. They were driven into boxcars like a bunch of cattle and shipped to northern Siberia where they were starved to death. His (Christian’s) three brothers and their families, his father, and mother were killed.”

The interviewer wrote of Christian. “Mr. Usselman is thankful today that he did not like to go to school and did run away from home because he did not want to go training in the Russian army. He is 72 years old now and is enjoying good health. He is glad that he was poor most of his life and above all he is glad that he is living in America and is an American citizen.”

Through hard work, perseverance and determination, these pioneers forged an agricultural tradition that continues today—more than 100 years later.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Jacob Kruckenberg and Christian Usselman are only two of many Mercer County pioneers who settled this area. Other stories can be found at the Hazen Public Library. The stories used in this article are curtsey of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the entity that owns the Historical Data Collection.)

Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller