One of Dakota’s Pioneer Mothers

There can be no question that Christina Marie (Schmidt) Nelson was a strong and capable woman.

Born in Skrydstrup, Gram, Haderslev, Denmark on 11 October 1868, to Jens Madsen Schmidt and Anne Bramsen, Christina immigrated to America with her parents and older sister when she was just twenty months of age. A dugout on a homestead in Dakota Territory was her first home in America; it was from this homestead in Bon Homme County that she spent long hours tending her family’s cattle, experienced devastating prairie fires and blizzards, witnessed interactions with displaced Native Americans, and even once encountered General George Armstrong Custer when he stopped for a drink of water. She was fortunate enough to attend a one-room log schoolhouse through eighth grade, and, in 1889, when she was twenty-one, she married her neighbor and fellow Danish immigrant Frederick Nelson.

Over the course of the next twenty years, Christina gave birth to nine healthy children: Anna Sophie (1891), Julia Marie (1892), Ole James (1894), Andrea Mathilda (1896), Louise Christine (1899), Helena Margaret (1900), Mary Magdalene (1904), Frederick Andrew (1908), and Myron Alvin (1910). Education was of apparent importance to Christina and Fred, as he was known; although their oldest son attended school only through eighth grade, destined to become a farmer like his parents before him, their younger sons and daughters all attended school at least until the age of sixteen. They even saw to it that their four youngest daughters had the opportunity to attend a “normal school” in nearby Springfield, South Dakota, where they received the necessary training to become schoolteachers.

The Fred and Christina Nelson Family, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1912; digital image 2011, privately held by Lori Dickman. Back row, from left: Julia, Anna, Ole, and Andrea Nelson. Front row, from left: Mary, Louise, Christina with Myron, Fred with Fred Jr., and Helena Nelson.

A formal portrait of the Nelson family was taken in July of 1912, likely in Yankton, which was not far from the family’s home in Lakeport; the girls sport bare forearms for the season, their fabric colors light and featuring gingham, stripes, and lace. Christina, while dressed in a dark gown, wears a white collar and whimsical crocheted flowers at her throat. As to the occasion for the photograph, it was not a milestone anniversary year—Christina and Fred would have celebrated their twentieth anniversary the previous spring. However, Christina perhaps realized that, at forty-three, her childbearing years were behind her and now was the time to have a portrait taken of the entire family all together. Furthermore, as her eldest daughter had married in March of 1912, having her first child leave the nest might also have sparked sentimentality and a wish to document the fact that, at least for a short while, all nine Nelson children had been under one roof.

Christina and Fred would go on to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary in 1916, but two years later, a matter of weeks after her fiftieth birthday, Christina would be dealt several harsh blows in short succession. First, Spanish Influenza hit the household, and then, in a turn of events that shocked both the family and their wider community, she lost Fred to suicide, and, one month later, daughter Andrea to undetermined medical circumstances.

Christina persevered. She faced another trial when her father died the following spring, but it was a blessing that her eldest son was home from his service in the Great War and able to help manage the family farm while she continued to raise her two youngest sons. She continued to live on the farm with support from her sons well into her old age; even in 1950, when she was eighty-two, the census reported that she was still “keeping house” for her three bachelor sons. It was at this farmhouse that her children and grandchildren frequently gathered to celebrate birthdays and holidays.

Christina died on 23 January 1961 at the age of ninety-two and is buried alongside her husband and three of their nine children at the Elm Grove Cemetery in Yankton County, South Dakota. A brief biography included in a local history book several years prior had noted, “Mrs. Nelson is well-known by her many friends and relatives as a person who always has a warm welcome hand extended to all those who call at her home. Even today, at the age of eighty-five, she is active with her household duties and retains an active interest in what is going on about her. She is cordial and sympathetic with the many young people who come her way. She is truly one of Dakota’s pioneer mothers who still looks ahead and enjoys her home and family.”

Copyright © 2022 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

SOURCES

1950 U.S. census, Yankton County, South Dakota, population schedule, Township 93-57 (South of Lakeport School, Highway 50), enumeration district (ED) 67-31, sheet 2, dwelling 15, Mrs. Christina Nelson; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 08 June 2022), citing National Archives Record Group 29.

Anne Schmidt, A Pioneer Narrative (Mitchell, South Dakota, 1961), unnumbered; privately held by Melanie Frick.

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

“Danmark Kirkebøger, 1484-1941,” database with images, FamilySearch (www.familysearch.org : 25 November 2018), Christiane Marie Schmidt, 11 Oct 1868, Skrydstrup, Haderslev, Denmark.

“Death Certificates, Pottawattamie County, 1904-1920,” in “Iowa, Death Certificates, 1904-1960,” digital images, FamilySearch.org (http://www.familysearch.org : accessed 30 September 2018), entry for Andrea Nielsel [Andrea Nielsen], 28 November 1918, Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa; citing Iowa Department of Health and the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines.

“Death of Andrea Nelson,” Tabor [South Dakota] Independent, 05 December 1918; Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ : accessed 08 June 2022).

“Fred Nelson,” Tabor [South Dakota] Independent, 31 October 1918; Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ : accessed 08 June 2022)..

“New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” digital images, Ancestry.com (www.ancestry.com : accessed 08 June 2022), manifest, S.S. Allemannia, Hamburg, Germany, to New York, arriving 30 June 1870, Christe Schmidt; citing National Archives microfilm publication M237, roll 331, line 38.

Yearbooks of the Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1944-1958 (Yankton, South Dakota: Old Settlers Association of Yankton County, 1958); privately held by Melanie Frick.

2 thoughts on “One of Dakota’s Pioneer Mothers

  1. Mary Walberg

    Once again, your writing kept me spellbound as I read Christina M (Schmidt) Nelson’s life story. Thank you for transforming “facts” into a story that makes those that have gone before us very very real. Such a gift!

    Reply

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