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Remembering a Pioneer Woman

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

Last month, my husband and I were traveling across the country from Portland, Oregon to attend my nephew’s wedding in Ely, Minnesota. What a large country we have! If you have never driven across the Great Plains, it can be hard to fathom what our ancestors endured as they moved westward. Of course, we were in a truck hauling a travel trailer, not in a covered wagon pulled by horses or oxen! (And we were going in the opposite direction!)

It was thrilling to see some of the places my ancestors lived and worked: the Black Hills where my great-grandmother Bertha’s brothers Worlie and Willie, held a mining claim; Deadwood, where these miners likely went for supplies and a reprieve from mining; Woonsocket, South Dakota where my great grandma, Bertha, lived with her husband, Jack, in a sod house on the family homestead until a crude wooden house could be built.

(The following is my own imaginings of what my great-grandmother may have thought as she worked to make a home for her young family on the prairie. The details are true to the known facts, though the dialogue is made up.)

The Sod House in Woonsocket, South Dakota

I looked up from my washing and watched my husband as he worked laying the sod bricks to form the walls of our new house. The muscles in his strong arms and broad back flexing as he worked. He was tall, nearly a full head taller than me though he had the tendency to slouch, perhaps a reflection of his hidden insecurities.

My parents had not approved of him, thinking he was not good enough for me. His family had recently immigrated from Ireland, and they were Catholic too. My mother said he was a “Black Irish,” meaning that though his family had come from Ireland, somewhere back in his ancestry, he likely had Spanish blood. The term was not a compliment. His family was not nearly so as well off as mine. In fact, Jack had only attended school through the second grade, having to quit so that he could help his father on their struggling farm.

Jack caught me watching him and smiled broadly, that jovial, fun-loving smile that had won my heart. Jack was well-liked in our hometown of Jamaica, Iowa, and he had a way with the girls. I had been so flattered when he had chosen to dance with me exclusively in the May Day festival last year. It hadn’t taken much to fall in love with him.

I sighed remembering all the events that had led us to this place, 60 acres of undeveloped land in the Dakota territory. My father had acquired it for us under the Homestead Act. Seventy-five dollars was a lot of money for a wedding gift, but it was meant to get us started. It was a good price for so much land. The catch was that we had to live here, in the middle of the baren wilderness, hundreds of miles from friends and family, for five years as we developed this land. The closest village, Woonsocket, was also miles away.

Howard stirred in his basket, and I reached in to shake the small silver rattle in front of his face. He giggled and reached a spindly arm out to grab it. I looked down at the tiny boy, smiling. He’d been born in October, before we left to come out here, but he’d been born three months early. He’d been so tiny and frail. I could fit his whole head in the palm of my hand. His arms and legs had been no thicker than my pinkie finger.

My mother, Maggie, had cleaned him up, swaddled him and placed him in a shoebox which she put on the warming shelf over the stove to keep up his body temperature. She’d fed him with an eye dropper and used her pinkie finger to help him defecate. I didn’t think he would live, but he had!

He is still small, half the size, one would expect of a six-month-old baby, but he grows stronger each day.

Howard tired of the rattle and started to cry. I picked him up and stood to fetch a bottle for him. But before I had taken two steps, Jack was at my side looking anxiously down at his son.

“What’s the matter with my little man?” he asked, taking him from me and rocking him gently in his arms.

“You’re all sweaty!” I protested. “You’ll get him dirty.”

“Never you mind that,” Jack laughed. “Howie doesn’t mind, do you, little man?”

The baby stopped crying as Jack stuck his little finger in the child’s mouth. I cringed.

“Now go and get the bottle ready,” Jack said. “I’ll entertain him for a while.”

Shaking my head, but smiling to myself, I turned away and went to fetch the bottle.

The Crude Wooden House, which replaced the Sod House

Maggie Heater and Bertha O'Connell (in back)

Unknown and Juanita with her son (in front)

Bertha gave birth to four more children in Woonsocket, but of all her children only the last two survived. Howard died from German Measles at the age of two. Her second child, a girl, was stillborn. Their third child, Margaret, also died from a childhood disease at two years old. I guess it is no wonder that Bertha never liked Woonsocket very much! Finally, Bertha’s fourth child, Marian, who was my grandmother, and her sister, Juanita, both survived to adulthood and went on to have children and grandchildren of their own.

The Homestead Act was passed on May 20, 1862, to encourage the settlement of the western territory. Each adult male head of household was granted up to 160 acres of surveyed public land for a minimal filing fee of $1.25 per acre. Claimants were required to live on the land for five years and to make improvements to it by cultivating the land. After the five years on the land, the original filer was entitled to the land, free and clear.

It is unknown whether Bertha’s parents, Thomas and Margaret (Maggie) Heater, already held the land claim or acquired it specifically for Bertha and her new husband, Jack O’Connell, but whichever the case, after Bertha and Jack’s quick wedding and the birth of their son, they were hustled off to the remote 60-acre plot of land to begin their new lives in near isolation. This region was a good place to homestead due to the fertile land and an ample supply of good water, which was a rare commodity on the great plains.

Woonsocket, “The Town with the Beautiful Lake,” was built in 1883 at the terminus of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Paul Railroads. Once the railroad arrived, the town grew quickly, selling 50 lots on the first day they went on sale. The population grew from 500 to 800 people within two months. And as one might expect, the first business opening in Woonsocket was a saloon. Three days after the first lot was sold, the first church services were held in a carpenter’s shed.

It is still a small town today, though it has undoubtedly changed from its pioneering days. The old bank was torn down and was replaced with the newer post office building. Still, the old courthouse remains along with the country, small-town friendliness.

The Sandborn County Court House in Woonsocket Then

The Court House in Woonsocket Now

Next month, I will continue to examine the events that lead to or resulted from the settling of the west. In the meantime, I wish you all a fantastic start to the fall season! If you have any family immigrant, pioneer, or cultural stories you would like to share, I would love to hear them! Just reply to this email.

Take care. I will reach out again in October.

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