The Nelson Family at Home

The leaves had already fallen from the trees surrounding the modest two-story farmhouse belonging to Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson when this photograph was taken in late 1904.1 Situated near the scenic bluffs along the Missouri River west of Yankton, Yankton County, South Dakota, the house was said to have had a creek running through the corner of the kitchen as a source of fresh water.2 Its simple, symmetric design featured a center door and four front windows on its clapboard walls, with a chimney appearing above the gable roof on one side. The house was likely painted white with a trim of a different color around the windows and door. Many trees surrounded the house, which was situated on an incline; the remote, wooded landscape seems to lend truth to family lore of the children fearing howling wolves (or coyotes?) as they walked to and from the nearest country school.3

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson and Family, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1904; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Fred and Christina, both of whom immigrated from Denmark as children, married in 1890.4 Fred, at left, was forty years old in late 1904; he wears a loose-fitting sack suit and hat and sports a mustache.5 At center stands son Ole, ten, beside Christina, thirty-five.6 She holds baby Mary, who was born in February of that year.7 While Ole is clearly dressed for the outdoors in a coat and cap, Christina, like her daughters, wears no jacket or shawl. Her simple buttoned bodice and unadorned skirt appear comfortable for a nursing mother as well as household duties.

The open door behind Christina suggests that perhaps she and the girls had just stepped outside for the photograph. In a cluster at right stand Anna, thirteen; Helena, nearly or barely four; Louise, five; Julia, twelve; and Andrea, nearly eight.8 All of the girls wear their hair neatly parted and plaited down the back; it was said that the sisters would line up each morning, oldest to youngest, to braid each other’s hair.9 They wear dresses that, with the exception of the youngest’s, fall below the knees, and all wear dark stockings. Their dresses have high necks and full bishop sleeves; a few additional details can be distinguished, such as the plaid fabric of Andrea’s dress and the belt at Anna’s waist.10

The occasion for this photograph is not known, although perhaps it was taken by an itinerant photographer who made stops at rural homes throughout the Midwest. Unlike formal studio portraits of the era, this photograph is as much about the place as the people, allowing a glimpse into the lives of the Nelson family that would otherwise be missed.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.


SOURCES

1 “Yankton County of Yesterday: Frederick Nelson Farmhouse,” The Observer (Yankton County, South Dakota), 08 October 1993, newspaper clipping privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
2 Brian Adam, conversation with Melanie Frick, 2017; Brian is the grandson of Helena (Nelson) Wiese.
3 Phyllis (Wiese) Adam, conversation with Melanie Frick, ca. 2000; Phyllis is the daughter of Helena (Nelson) Wiese.
4 1900 U.S. census, Yankton County, South Dakota, population schedule, Township 93, p. 5040 (penned), dwelling 27, family 27, Fred Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 October 2017), citing National Archives microfilm T623, roll 1555.
5 1900 U.S. census, Yankton Co., South Dakota, pop. sch., Township 93, p. 5040, dwell. 27, fam. 27, Fred Nelson.
6 1900 U.S. census, Yankton County, South Dakota, population schedule, Township 93, p. 5040 (penned), dwelling 27, family 27, Christina Nelson and Ole Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 October 2017), citing National Archives microfilm T623, roll 1555.
7 “South Dakota, Birth Index, 1856-1917,” index, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 October 2017), Mary Nelson, 28 February 1904, Yankton; citing South Dakota Department of Health, Pierre.
8 1900 U.S. census, Yankton County, South Dakota, population schedule, Township 93, p. 5040 (penned), dwelling 27, family 27, Annie, Julia, Andrea, and [Louise] Christina Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 October 2017), citing National Archives microfilm T623, roll 1555, and “South Dakota, Birth Index, 1856-1917,” index, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 10 October 2017), and Helen Margaret Nelson, 04 December 1900, Yankton; citing South Dakota Department of Health, Pierre.
9 Phyllis (Wiese) Adam, conversation with Melanie Frick, ca. 2000.
10 Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1997), 508.

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