Feeding the Black Hills Gold Rush

“In the early 1880 days of the Gold Rush in the Black Hills Fred [Nielsen] and his brother-in-law Christian Callesen bought eggs in the Yankton area, packed them in cases, placed the egg cases in a wagon box surrounded by oats, hauled them to the Hills and sold them at a good price to the hungry miners.” This bit of family lore was recorded by Nielsen descendent Harold Jorgensen and printed in Yankton County History roughly one hundred years after the fact.

The Black Hills Gold Rush began in 1874, the same year that a then ten-year-old Fred Nielsen set sail from Denmark to America with his parents and five siblings, his two oldest brothers having ventured to the Midwest the year prior. The family settled on one hundred and sixty acres of farmland in what is now Yankton County, South Dakota.

Fred turned sixteen in 1880, the same year that Christian “Chris” Callesen, at the age of twenty-five, married Fred’s nineteen-year-old sister Karen Kirstine “Stena” Nielsen. The Black Hills Gold Rush, its epicenter in Deadwood, had peaked in the late 1870s, and the surge of those panning for gold waned considerably by 1880 due in part to a smallpox outbreak and a destructive fire. Apparently, however, there was still enough activity—and “hungry miners,” as the story goes—to make it worthwhile for two young men to drive a wagon nearly 400 miles from Yankton to Deadwood on what may have been more than one occasion.

Charcoal drawing based on photograph of Fred Nielsen (1864-1918), Deadwood, Dakota Territory, ca. 1888-1890, artist unknown, drawing date unknown; digital image 2010, privately held by B.A., 2020.

Indeed, there is evidence that Fred was in Deadwood at least twice, if not more often. He was photographed there on two occasions, the first time circa 1884-86 and the second several years later. Local histories indicate that Christian and his wife homesteaded near St. Onge, a stone’s throw from Deadwood, in 1884. Perhaps Fred spent time in the area with his sister and brother-in-law, as St. Onge hosted a sizable Danish community. In 1889, the Little Dane Church, which still stands today, was built on the southeast corner of Christian’s land.

Were Fred and Christian still making a profit selling eggs and other farm products well into the 1880s, or did Fred find other reasons to make repeated visits to Deadwood? If he was not there on business, Deadwood would at the very least have provided a dramatic change of scenery for a young farmer from a quieter corner of Dakota Territory.

Fred married neighbor Christine Schmidt, a fellow Danish immigrant, in 1890, and it is unknown whether he ever traveled to Deadwood after their marriage. He did travel as far as Colorado with his brother-in-law in 1911, and family lore states that at some point he acquired land near Phillip, South Dakota. Bureau of Land Management records show that a Fred Nielsen purchased one hundred and sixty acres of land in Stanley County, not far from Phillip, in 1910, but further research is necessary to determine whether this was the same Fred Nielsen and, if so, why he might have purchased land there.

Several of Fred’s siblings made return visits to Denmark as adults, but as for Fred, he seems to have been drawn instead to the west.

Copyright © 2020 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.


1880 U.S. census, Yankton County, Dakota Territory, population schedule, Township 93 Range 57, enumeration district (ED) 111, p. 5 (handwritten), dwelling 40, family 40, Fred Olson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 May 2020), citing National Archives microfilm publication T9, roll 115.

Certificate of Marriage, Fred Nielson and Christina M. Smith, Yankton, South Dakota, 08 March 1890; Adam Family; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2020.

Harold W. Jorgensen, “Nelson, Fred and Christina,” in Ben Van Osdel and Don Binder, editors, History of Yankton County, South Dakota (Yankton, South Dakota: Curtis Media Corporation and the Yankton County Historical Society, 1987), 588.

Jan Cerney and Roberta Sago, Black Hills Gold Rush Towns: Volume II (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015), 73.

“Little Dane Church Gets Facelift,” Black Hills Pioneer (www.bhpioneer.com/local_news/little-dane-church-gets-facelift : accessed 25 May 2020), 11 May 2013.

Marie Thybo Sorensen, “Christena Nelson Callesen,” in Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 (Yankton, South Dakota: Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1958); private collection of Melanie Frick.

“New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 May 2020), manifest, S.S. Humboldt, Stettin, Germany, to New York, arriving 4 August 1874, Niels Olsen; citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, roll 392, line 149.

Photographs of Fred Nelson in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, circa 1884-1890; private collection of Ronald Jorgensen.

Phyllis (Wiese) Adam, conversation with Melanie Frick, 2002; notes in author’s files.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “Patent Search,” database, General Land Office Records (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov : accessed 25 May 2020), entry for Christ Calleson, Rapid City land office, doc. no. 1180.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “Patent Search,” database, General Land Office Records (http://www.glorecords.blm.gov : accessed 25 May 2020), entry for Fred Nielsen, Pierre land office, doc. no. 08514.

Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), “Black Hills Gold Rush,” rev. 17:05, 01 April 2020.

Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), “Deadwood, South Dakota,” rev. 09:06, 02 May 2020.

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