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A Pioneer Pastor's Journey to Dakota in 1861
By Abraham Jacobson
Translated by J. N. Jacobson (Volume VI: Page 53)


Abraham Jacobson came to America from Norway in 1848, when he was twelve years old. At the age of sixteen he went to study at what was then known as the State University of Illinois, at Springfield, making most of the journey from his home near Decorah, Iowa, on foot. He helped work his way through school by acting first as janitor and then as custodian of the courthouse, where Abraham Lincoln occasionally made political addresses. Later Jacobson served as librarian in the supreme court rooms, where Lincoln and his friends were wont to meet in the evenings to discuss politics and tell stories. A year after the journey described in these reminiscences, Jacobson was sent to the immigrant quarantine station at Quebec, where he was instrumental in improving accommodations for Norwegian immigrants. {1} He spent the winter of 1868 in Minnesota, traveling on snowshoes or skis, holding services and organizing congregations; and for the following ten years he was a pastor in Dane County, Wisconsin. In 1908, at the age of seventy-two -- two years before his death -- Jacobson wrote the present account, which has been turned into English by his nephew. Miss Clara Jacobson surveys Jacobson's career in an article entitled "A Pioneer Pastor Who Knew Lincoln," published in Scandinavia, vol. 1, no. 3, p.38 (March, 1924).


In the vast domain of the Northwest there may still be found places where roads are poor, but the ease and facility of present-day travel cannot be compared with conditions fifty years ago.

In the summer of 1850, when I was a boy of fourteen, my trusty legs carried me across the state of Wisconsin from the vicinity of Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien, a distance of more than two hundred miles. This journey was made in company with a large caravan of emigrants who were to settle in Iowa. The day's journey was short and the roads were good, so the four weeks' trip was an enjoyable one, though it was strenuous enough for many of the older people. In the eleven years that followed, among many varied experiences, I was ordained into the ministry and served a congregation in Chicago. Circumstances so shaped themselves that a journey to the then new Dakota Territory seemed to me a duty from a religious point of view. A keen desire for recreation for both mind and body was also an impelling factor in my determination to undertake the trip. An opportunity for the realization of this wish soon presented itself.

In October, 1861, a small party of eight people in Decorah were in readiness to make the trip westward to Dakota. The company had four yoke of oxen and four wagons. Three of these wagons had just been driven in from Dakota by settlers who came to meet some newly-arrived relatives from Norway. The leading man in the company, and the one with whom I became most closely associated, was Lars Severson. He had resided in Nebraska for a couple of years, but, like nearly all the earliest settlers, had moved across the Missouri River to Vermillion in Dakota Territory. Severson or rather Sigvatson, Rønnestrand, later removed to Decorah and resided there with his family until his death about a year ago (1907). Our wagon was constructed in a practical manner, in true prairie schooner style. The arched bows were covered with canvas and, as an extra precaution, were again covered with oilcloth, so that we were well protected against both wind and rain. We were amply provided with provisions and cooking utensils; and this later proved to have been a wise forethought.

The first event that occurred on our trip, and which yet remains vivid in my memory, happened near Calmar. Along the main highway to McGregor came a man with a yoke of oxen hauling a load of wheat. A little boy, who was a cripple, sat on top of the load. The weather was warm and the road dry and dusty. The poor draft cattle were undoubtedly both tired and thirsty, for their tongues protruded far from their throats. Near the road there was a depression full of water, apparently a little pond, but in reality a so-called "sinkhole," the opening in the bottom of which was partly closed by a deposit of clay which had been washed in from the road. As soon as the oxen saw the water they became entirely unmanageable, and down into the hole they rushed pell-mell, with the wagon and the whole load. The sides of the bank were steep and the heavy load shoved the wagon so far down that the water reached to the boy's waist. Fortunately some of us were near by. We brought the boy back to dry land, unyoked the oxen, and finally helped the poor man to get the wheat and the wagon out of the water. The man, whose home was near St. Ansgar, was on his way to market his wheat and had taken his ailing boy along to consult a doctor. Now they had to spread the wheat upon the ground and let it dry before they could continue their journey.

From Fort Atkinson we set our course to the southwest, past New Hampton and towards Iowa Falls, whence we steered straight west past Webster City and Fort Dodge. The latter was the only town on the whole trip worthy of the title. There had been a military post here, and the fort, which had been constructed of heavy logs, was being used as a hotel. As the government land office was located here, the place was well known and had many visitors. Until a short time before, the Des Moines River had been navigable as far up as Fort Dodge. The government attempted to keep this waterway open as far as Fort Des Moines, but the water continued to decrease, and finally, after enormous expenditures of land and of money had been made, the whole project had to be abandoned.

Thus far we had seen, upon the expanse of prairie, dwellings and small farms here and there, usually where there was a stream with some timber along its banks; otherwise the regions were largely uninhabited. Westward to the Missouri River there were large tracts which had still fewer human beings or human habitations to greet the traveler. Sac City, Ida Grove, and Smithland were almost the only inhabited places on our way. About a day's journey west of Fort Dodge we came to Twin Lakes. Between the two lakes lay the road we were to follow; in reality we had to cross a wide swamp, which extended as a watercourse between the lakes. There was water and mud in the swamp three or four feet deep and nearly twenty rods wide, and, worst of all, the bottom was treacherously uneven, with deep holes and bogs in riotous confusion. This was a place to be dreaded; it had quite appropriately been named "Purgatory," the presumption undoubtedly being that he who survived this test was later to be absolved from further misery. We hitched all our oxen to one wagon at a time, placing a driver at each side and a man at each wheel. As this maneuver was repeated four times, it was necessary for us to wade through the morass seven times. We heard later that in the preceding year the water had been so much higher that a company of Norwegians on their way to Dakota had to tighten their wagon boxes and use them as boats for transporting their goods, women, and children across this dreaded place.

The course to the west which we were now to cover consisted of long stretches of naked prairie, with great distances between places where water and fuel could be found. We had to carry these supplies with us in our wagons so that at night we would be sure to have these necessities. Every evening the wagons were placed in a square, the oxen were turned loose to graze, and a fireplace, with a wall of sod encircling it, was spaded out. Here we made our fire. Thus, in the gathering darkness, the light from our camp fire could not be seen by roving bands of Indians or other marauders, who might be sneaking about waiting to steal our animals. Such depredations had taken place earlier during the same summer.

Before we went to rest the oxen were tied to the wagons, and at the earliest break of day they were again let loose so that they might both feed and slake their thirst in the dew-laden grass. In rainy weather we found it advisable to remain in camp; otherwise the chafing of the yokes on the necks of the animals caused sores to develop. As a protection against wind and rain I had provided a small tent under which we could cook and braise to our hearts' content. The varieties of food might not have been many, but, oh, how delicious they were to our keen appetites! The day's journey was short, averaging perhaps fifteen miles. With an umbrella in hand and a book in my pocket I would go ahead of the caravan as an advance guard, and when I was a mile or so in front of it, I would sit down in the shade of my umbrella to read until it caught up with me again. The long evenings of early fall were utilized for reading within the wagon by the light of a stearin candle.

At last we reached Sioux City, near the point of influx of the Big Sioux River into the Missouri. The Big Sioux forms the boundary line between Iowa and Dakota. Across it we were transported by means of a ferry, and although the boat was a primitive one, the passage was very ingeniously accomplished. First a cable was stretched across the river. The fiat-bottomed ferry had a wide keel and at each end of the ferry this was made fast to the cable with a hawser. When the crossing was being made, the hawser at the front was shortened, placing the ferry aslant with the stream, so that the force of the current against the keel moved the craft across. For the return trip it was necessary only to reverse the arrangement of the hawsers. The adjustment of the lengths of the hawsers was all that was needed in the operation, the rest being accomplished by the stream itself.

After a three weeks' journey we arrived at Vermillion, which, by the route we traveled, was approximately three hundred miles from Decorah. I had walked, not ridden, every inch of the way. At that time the Norwegian settlers in Dakota had taken up their abode in three colonies: Elk Point, Vermillion, and the tract between the present location of Gayville and the James River at Yankton. The latter place was the capital of the territory. Vermillion was the largest settlement.

An investigation of church affairs showed me that at least nine-tenths of the population had been members of congregations of the Norwegian Synod in their former homes. As I was connected with the Augustana Synod it did not appear right for me, with a partisan point of view, to encourage any turning over from such an affiliation, nor did I consider it necessary. The few Norwegians who had formerly been members of the Augustana Synod objected to the use of the ritualistic formulas of the Norwegian altar service book in conducting their church services; this view barred the way for me in that direction. Neither was I disposed nor prepared to organize congregations for the Norwegian Synod, a work done later by Pastor Krohn of Chicago. Nevertheless, many divine services were conducted; numerous children, many of whom were nearly three years old, were baptized; and a few marriage vows were solemnized: thus I was the first Lutheran pastor in Dakota among the Norwegians. The territorial authorities had not yet invested any official with the right to issue marriage licenses. The governor, Dr. Jayne, was at Springfield, Illinois, his former home, on a visit. The territorial secretary, Mr. Edmunds, gave me the information that, according to common law, a marriage was entirely legal when the wedding ceremony was performed in the presence of witnesses.

To my surprise I met many here at Yankton who were acquaintances of former days. Dr. Jayne, the first territorial governor, was, as has been stated, from Springfield, Illinois, the home of President Lincoln. It was natural that, in filling important positions in the newly-organized territory, Lincoln should appoint some of his townspeople to office, and that these men, in turn, should follow the same precedent in choosing their assistants. Thus it was that here were gathered a number of people from Springfield, where for several years I, too, had been a resident, while obtaining my education at what was then called Illinois State University.

There was perhaps a peculiar reason, not generally known, for the appointment of Dr. Jayne. The circumstances are said to be as follows: a young woman, Miss Slator, had written an article in the Illinois State Journal, -- a Whig periodical edited by Simion Francis -- which ridiculed a Democratic politician, General Shields, who was Lincoln's opponent. Shields was a congressman, Irish, hot-tempered, but of small stature. He felt convinced that Lincoln was the author of the article, considered it a gross personal insult, and challenged the supposed author to meet him on the field of honor. Sir Francis would not reveal the name of the young lady, nor would Lincoln, true knight that he was, betray her by disclosing the secret. Consequently he accepted the challenge on the condition that the duel should take place on Bloody Island in the Mississippi River, near St. Louis. The weapons were to be broadswords, and a plank fence, six feet high, was to be between the combatants. As might be expected, considering the fact that Lincoln was well towards seven feet tall, the duel resulted only in merriment and laughter. The young lady was an intimate friend of Mrs. Lincoln, and later became Dr. Jayne's wife; unquestionably these circumstances were a determining factor in the appointment of Dr. Jayne as governor. At various times General Shields represented the states of Illinois and Missouri, and Minnesota Territory, at Washington.

During this visit I learned to know Newton Edmunds, whom I mentioned above, very well. President Lincoln appointed him territorial governor to succeed Dr. Jayne. Edmunds was originally from Michigan; he entertained great expectations for the future of Dakota as an agricultural state. He was the first to introduce sheep into Dakota, as well as tame grasses, clover, and timothy, and certain varieties of trees. He was for a long time a prominent man in Dakota, always honored and highly esteemed, and died at Yankton on February 12, 1908, at the age of eighty-eight.

In Dakota, as in the entire country, these were stirring times in political circles. For years the regions along the upper course of the Missouri River had been settled largely by people from the South; it was only recently that people from the northern states of the East had pushed into these domains. Since the time of President Buchanan, many important government offices had been filled by men who were in sympathy with the South and were anxious to retain the upper hand. This state of affairs obtained particularly in matters relating to the Indians. The question as to which party should now assume leadership in every matter became the source of violent contention. The controversy at first concerned the local officials of the legislature that was soon to convene and later involved territorial representation at Washington. The Norwegian voters' influence became a matter of the greatest importance, for they helped lay a foundation upon which an exemplary state constitution could later be built. Two periodicals, representing opposing factions, vied with each other in their efforts to enlist the Norwegians, by arranging for the publication of a few articles in the Norwegian language. From a linguistic point of view, these articles were undoubtedly faulty when they were written, and after the type had been set by an inexperienced typographer who knew nothing of the Norwegian language, and had then suffered further mutilation at the hands of an equally ignorant proof reader, it is not surprising that the result was a remarkable literary product, the like of which one might seek in vain. As curiosities these newspapers would now have great value.

At that time many thousand Indians lived in Dakota, many of them residing along the river not far from Fort Randall. They roamed up and down along the Missouri River in large groups, fishing and hunting, but they were peaceful, engaging in barter with the settlers. Among the latter were many Norwegians who had learned their language. Horses, cattle, and many swine were lost by some of the Norwegians, and there was every indication that the Indians had stolen and devoured them. The Indians were subject to government supervision, and when the grievances of the settlers could be proved satisfactorily, the claims of the owners were paid. The government official took the money for so doing out of the funds from which annuities for the Indians were to be paid. In this way they themselves were forced to keep watchful eyes on members of their tribe who were guilty of such stealing, so that the innocent would not be made to suffer with the guilty. The chief of the tribe punished such rascals severely when they were found out; as a tribe they were peaceful and wanted to do what was right.

The Norwegian settlers mingled with the Indians quite freely and found interesting diversion in looking into their tents. The Norwegians not only learned the Indian language, but appropriated it to such a degree that it became part of their own speech. Some examples are: tipee, meaning tent or dwelling; hau hau kodda, how do you do, white man; ote vaste uta, much good food; vaste, good; vastedo, very good; sicke, poor, wretched; sickedo, very poor; and hampa, ox. Thus every day one would hear a great number of Indian words used among the Norwegian people. Murder and other crimes which took place here in the fall of 1862 were almost entirely committed by marauding Sioux tribes from Minnesota.

Near Vermillion a prairie fire occurred which cost the Norwegian settlers deplorable losses. Most of them had, they thought, done everything necessary to prevent a catastrophe of this kind. Two furrows had been plowed around each house: first, one large circle, then, some distance farther out, another circle, so that they might safely burn off the grass between the two circles, making a wide belt free of grass. This was the common method for protection against prairie fires, and usually it was sufficient, but in this case it proved for many to be inadequate. Someone had carelessly started a fire, and a raging windstorm arose at the same time. I have witnessed prairie fires both in Iowa and in Minnesota, but I have never seen anything that would compare with this ocean of flame, which seemed about to swallow everything in its way. Large bunches of grass burned loose from the roots and were whirled high in the air, only to be hurled far ahead as flaming torches, kindling new fires where they fell. In the dry grass, where "buffalo chips" were burning, the burning pieces were carried long distances, spreading the fire with a rapidity that was unbelievable.

All who were able-bodied were out to help confine the fire as much as possible. To quench it was out of the question, but whatever could be done had to be done. Counter fires were started and meanwhile, along the sides, the flames were fought with heavy wet cloths. I myself used a raincoat as long as it lasted, and I had the satisfaction of having assisted in saving considerable property which otherwise would have been consumed by the flames. Many incidents occurred which it would be difficult to explain. For example, one family, when they saw the fire was at close range, took food, clothing, furniture everything they possessed out of their house to carry it to a place of safety; the result was that all these movables were destroyed, while the house remained standing unscathed. In the face of such misfortune my supply of bedclothes and other useful articles passed into appreciative and thankful hands They were welcome to these things, as I could not well make use of them on my return trip, which was now impending.

During my stay I visited nearly all the Norwegian settlements. I went over to the Nebraska side, where many Norwegians had lived while awaiting the opening of Dakota land to settlers. A Dane, a surveyor by profession, had, in company with some speculators, platted a town site there. St. Helena was its name. On a map of the prospective city were to be found wharves along the river, warehouses, hotels, and similar indications of great progress, as well as streets with high sounding names. These maps, together with glowing circulars were sent in great quantities to cities in the East. One of my friends in Iowa, who had bought some corner lots, asked me to ascertain how much St. Helena had grown. When I investigated I found that the whole project had been moved a mile farther downstream. My gullible friend had lost his hard-earned money.

As winter was approaching -- it was now December -- I bought an Indian pony from a French-Canadian. The consideration was an old gold watch which I thought to be worth from twenty to twenty-five dollars. But the pony must have been older than the watch. With a small equipment I proceeded down to Sioux City, and at the Big Sioux River I made a trade with the ferry operator, giving him my umbrella in exchange for a pack saddle. At Sioux City I bought stirrups and straps, as well as a leather bag for my belongings. My equipment was now complete. The next day my pony was put to a hard test, as Smithland, which I had to reach, was a long ways off. Not until late at night did I arrive there. My poor pony was good-natured as a lamb, but was so slow and sluggish of gait that the most miserable wagon ox could easily have kept pace with it. Gentle as it was, I did not have the heart to drive it forward with spur and lash as undoubtedly it was accustomed to being driven. I had to begin my next day's journey to Sac City, nearly fifty miles away, at break of day, and, by traveling continually without pause, I reached my destination before darkness set in.

The following day was Sunday and as I was urgently requested to preach in a schoolhouse in the little town, I agreed to do so. The keeper of the inn where I stayed was also the postmaster and had a contract for carrying the mail in various directions. His son, a young lad, was the carrier on one of these routes. He took a great fancy to my pony, and was determined to trade with me, offering me in trade a large, old black stallion, which, I regret to say, was blind. After trying my pony the boy became still more eager to trade if I would but give him my large raincoat to boot. Thinking that the rainy season was past, I agreed to this, and, mounted on my new steed, I set my course toward Twin Lakes. Here a son-in-law of the innkeeper at Sac City, also a mail carrier, had commenced to arrange living quarters for his family. Into a high bank on the shore of the lake a cellar had been dug. A few branches of trees, with a little hay on top, answered for a roof. In front, facing the water, the entire side was open, only a few loosely-hung blankets serving to keep out the wind and cold. The man himself was not at home; a young boy assisted the wife and children in caring for a couple of horses. A wagon box served as bedroom for the mother and children. The rest of us had either to lie on the muddy floor or to sit up all night on a bench. Early in the evening it commenced to rain, and, accompanied by a biting cold wind, the rain continued to pour all night. Seating myself upon my saddle in one corner, with an umbrella over me, I spent the night in a manner not conducive to pleasant dreams. It was a pity, the following morning, to see the mother and her wet, freezing children, but she was a brave woman. Without any sign of complaint or bitterness, she built a fire in the stove -- after we had first dipped the water out of it -- and prepared good food and coffee for all of us. When I hinted that her husband must be a poor provider, since he had prepared so poor a dwelling for his family, she excused him, saying that it would soon be better, as material and labor were arranged for. Nevertheless, the truth remains that among my many observations of pioneer life, both before and after this, among my countrymen, I have failed to see so utterly miserable a human habitation as this one at Twin Lakes. The Norwegians adapt themselves to pioneer conditions much better than Americans do. They seem to be more resourceful under the stress of circumstances.

Meanwhile the rain and cold had formed a heavy covering of ice over the ground, and traveling was anything but comfortable. It was now fortunate that I had a large, strong horse, for the water in the Des Moines River had risen so much that with the little pony it would have been well-nigh impossible to get across. At Fort Dodge I secured lodging at the old fort, which now was being utilized as a hotel, the guardhouse being used as a barn. Because of my lack of sleep the previous night, as well as other hardships I had endured, and as the accommodations were comparatively good, I decided to stay here a day to recuperate. On an average my day's journey had been forty miles, and considering the short days, poor roads, and cold weather, I thought I had made a good record, for I was in the saddle from morning until night. On the trip I learned, among other things, that on horseback one can endure strong wind and cold better than when sitting and riding in a wagon or sleigh. A horseman's body is put in motion and the blood circulates briskly through all the arteries. In this way it can be explained that although I was thinly clad, I never suffered from the cold, although the weather was very bitter.

The return route was the same as the one that we followed going west, hence I was able to arrange my day's journey so that at eventide I could stay overnight with hospitable settlers, who, although the houses and accommodations which they had to offer might be ever so humble, never refused to any wayfarer a night's shelter. In the days gone by this was a standing rule among all pioneers. It was only as the population increased and road traffic became greater that hostelries were established here and there which now, though ever so simple, display the proud name "hotel."

About a week before Christmas I arrived at my home near Decorah, Iowa, after completing my first missionary tour.

Even though the results, from the point of view of what was accomplished for the church, might have seemed of little consequence, the trip was nevertheless of no little value to me personally. Since that time it has again fallen to my lot to traverse these same tracts in Dakota, but now the changes in all respects are so great that one is at a loss to realize the transition that has taken place.


<1> See post, p. 76.

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