Tag Archives: 1880s

Dressing Well in Dakota Territory


Christine Marie [Schmidt] Nelson,  Yankton County, Dakota Territory, ca. 1886-1888; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

Christine Marie Schmidt, spelled “Christiane” on the back of this photograph and called “Dana” by her close friends, would not have remembered Denmark, as she was still an infant when she accompanied her parents to America in June of 1870.1 Her father homesteaded in Dakota Territory later that year, and Christine grew up a hardworking farm girl on the prairie near what is now Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota.2

This photograph may have been taken in Yankton, the onetime capital of Dakota Territory located a dozen or so miles east of the family’s homestead. Christine’s hair is styled in true 1880s fashion with frizzled bangs – which could not have been easy to achieve – and a smooth high bun.3 She wears what looks to be a heavy pleated dress with velvet panels adorning the bodice vertically from shoulder to waist.4 The same velvet trims the collar and cuffs, where a white under-layer peeks out. No fewer than twelve large buttons adorn her dress, and a horizontal pin is affixed to the stylish high collar. Christine is clearly corseted to enhance her hourglass figure.5

Christine married in the spring of 1890 at the age of twenty-one; her wedding portrait suggests that she was a bit younger when this photograph was taken.6 My guess is that she was about eighteen, give or take a year, dating this photograph circa 1886-1888. Although green cardstock, as seen on this cabinet card, technically peaked in popularity several years earlier,7 another photograph from my personal collection with cardstock of the same dark green color dates to approximately 1889. Its popularity may well have been ongoing, at least in the Midwest.

Christine almost certainly sewed her dress herself, likely in the company of her mother and older sister, and she stands so as to display it to its best advantage. A subtle painted backdrop nearly touches the floor behind her as she rests her left hand on the back of an upholstered chair, gazing into the distance. In spite of her rural upbringing, Christine strikes an elegant pose, demonstrating that the latest fashions had found a place even in Dakota Territory.

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An Iowa Homestead

Winter was well on its way when Timothy Adam claimed a homestead near Moville, Woodbury County, Iowa, in December 1886. At that time, only a claim shanty existed on the property.1 I have to wonder if Timothy weathered the winter alone, with his wife and children situated somewhere in town, or if they joined him in what certainly must have been far from ideal living conditions. In any case, the next year, Timothy built a house that measured fifteen by twenty-one feet – three hundred and fifteen square feet for a family of six.2


Timothy Adam (Woodbury County) homestead file, final certificate no. 2560, Fort Des Moines, Iowa, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The Homestead Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on 20 May 1862.3 My first ancestor who took advantage of the one hundred and sixty acres offered to qualified applicants who lived on the land for five years and made specified improvements was Jens Madsen Schmidt, a Danish immigrant who settled in South Dakota in 1870.4 I had assumed that any ancestors who claimed homesteads in the years to follow would have had to journey even further west to find available land, but as it turns out, this was not necessarily the case. It would be sixteen years before Timothy would claim his homestead to the east, in northwestern Iowa.

The new yet modest house must have seemed positively roomy in comparison to the original shanty, and perhaps it was an improvement over what may have been an even more crowded situation back in Massachusetts. Timothy had been born and raised in St. Pie, Quebec, but by the time he was twenty, he had settled in Indian Orchard, Hampden County, Massachusetts, with his wife, Odile Millette.4 For nearly two decades, they relied on the cotton mills to earn a living, although Timothy was a carpenter by trade.5 Life in Massachusetts was likely difficult; Odile reportedly gave birth to ten children, of whom only five survived to adulthood.6 At least one succumbed to scarlet fever.7

Life in Iowa proved to be a fresh start for the family. Within a few years, the homestead boasted a barn, corn crib, hen house, shed, two wells, and fencing, valued altogether at eight hundred dollars. Timothy had cultivated ninety acres, and had raised crops every season. In addition, he had become a naturalized citizen. Finally, in 1893, at the age of forty-five, Timothy Adam became the proud owner of the NE 1/4 of Section 29, Township 88N, Range 45W in Woodbury County, Iowa.8

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A Prayer Book from Home

Before Joseph Lutz left his home village, he carefully inscribed his name inside a leather-bound prayer book, small enough to be tucked inside a coat pocket. “This book belongs to me, Joseph Lutz of Sondersdorf,” he penned in French. The book, however, was printed in German; Joseph spoke both languages, having grown up in an area that was the subject of dispute between France and Germany.1


Joseph Lutz prayer book, Adam Family Collection; privately held by Brian Adam (personal information withheld), 2014.

Joseph Lutz of Sondersdorf, Haut Rhin, Alsace, France, the son of François Joseph and Marguerite (Meister) Lutz, was baptized on 31 May 1844.2 He left his homeland following  the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. It was said that he had been injured during his time of service, which may have limited his opportunities for occupation, and, furthermore, he did not wish to live under Prussian rule.3 Thus, like many of his relatives, he set his sights on Minnesota.

Once settled, Joseph may have read from his prayer book with his wife, a Polish immigrant who also spoke German, as they began their life together.4 Perhaps it inspired his generosity during his career as a butcher, when he was said to have provided gifts of meat to struggling immigrants. When he later became a saloon keeper, it may have given him the strength to avoid the temptation of alcohol, a quality appreciated by his wife.5 Perhaps the prayer book brought him peace as he suffered from tuberculosis, an illness that claimed his life on 3 May 1887 when he was forty-two years old.6


Joseph Lutz prayer book, Adam Family Collection; privately held by Brian Adam (personal information withheld), 2014.

Joseph was said to have been buried in Danville, Blue Earth County, Minnesota, and though a wooden cross once marked his grave, it is no more.7 His well-worn prayer book was passed down to his daughters, who kept his tintype – his only known photograph – tucked inside to ensure its safety. These items may have been their sole mementos of their father, a slim man with a handlebar mustache, a Catholic, a veteran, and a businessman who hailed from the border of France and Switzerland.

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A Deadwood Mystery

After years of wondering about an unidentified photograph from Deadwood in my family’s collection, a second photograph of the same couple turned up in the collection of an extended family member. In my mind, while just one might have come from, say, a neighbor who had gone off to the Wild West and wished to be remembered to those back in southeastern South Dakota, where this branch of my family lived, two suggest that this couple may actually have had a closer connection to my family. Were they friends, or were they relatives?


Unidentified couple, Deadwood or Lead City, Dakota Territory, ca. 1884-1890; digital image 2013, privately held by [personal information withheld], 2014.

Unidentified_Deadwood_Couple_02In the first photograph, a couple poses for what could be a wedding portrait, as the woman arranges her hands in such a way that a ring is visible along with two bracelets. The man has a distinctive high forehead, large ears, and a long beard. He wears a dark three-piece suit and a plaid tie. The woman has a broad face and light-colored eyes; her hair is curled at the temples and arranged in a looped braid at the back, a style that became popular in the 1870s.1 She is corseted and wears what looks to be a heavy gown, with a high collar and bustle. A single row of buttons adorns her bodice, and matching patterned material is visible at her collar, cuffs, and on a unique side panel of her skirt.

According to the information stamped on this cabinet card, it was made at Excelsior Studios, located either in Deadwood or Lead City, Dakota. Deadwood and Lead were founded in 1876 during the Black Hills Gold Rush, and the place name “Dakota” suggests that the portrait was made before (or immediately after) South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889. Thus, an initial time span for this photograph, as well as the one to follow, can be set at 1876-1890.

I’ve been unable to turn up anything about the Excelsior Studio online, although the small “K” emblem made me wonder whether any early photographers in Deadwood had the last initial “K.” As it turns out, a strikingly similar style of cabinet card can be attributed to Deadwood photographer Charles Kersting; perhaps he operated his business under the name Excelsior for a period of time. Online sources suggest that he may have arrived in Deadwood in 1884, at which time he joined forces with photographer George W. Scott.2


Unidentified family, Deadwood, Dakota Territory, ca. 1883-1887; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

The second photograph seems to feature the same couple, although at a different time; the woman appears more slender and has styled her hair differently, and, of course, she and her husband both wear different clothes. This time, a young girl joins them in the photograph, most certainly their daughter. She looks to be about five or six years old; while standing next to her seated father, she places her hand over her his and leans back against his shoulder. Her dropped waist dress falls to her knees with a pleated skirt, belt, and a fancy collar. Her mother again wears a row of buttons on her bodice, and her draped overskirt over knife pleats was of a style popular in the mid-1880s.3 In many ways, her dress is similar in style to that of the previous photograph.

This cabinet card, printed with a pink pattern, bears the name of the photographer Geo. W. Scott. Biographical information suggests that Scott was in operation in Deadwood for four years, beginning in 1883.4 It was in 1884 that Charles Kersting allegedly took over a branch of his business.5

Initially, I wanted to date the photograph of the couple alone before that of the couple with their child; however, the dates of operation of the Deadwood photography studios suggest that the reverse may also have been true. Perhaps it was not a wedding portrait after all! In any case, for a child of five or six to have been photographed by Scott in Deadwood between the years of 1883 and 1887, a birth date of somewhere between 1877 and 1881 can be assumed. This provides an essential clue.

The next step is to learn whether any of my direct ancestors had kin who lived in or near Deadwood. If a couple had a daughter between roughly 1877 and 1881, who happened to be the only child in their household at some point between 1883 and 1887, then that would make them strong contenders for the individuals featured in these photographs. Whoever they may be, I imagine that they must have had interesting stories to tell about life in Deadwood’s first decade!

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A Spectacle in Spectacles

A close look at this photograph reveals something rather unusual: all four women wear pince-nez spectacles.1 In addition, one appears to clutch a writing tablet of sorts, lending a studious air to the scene despite the blur of a moving animal at left. Although these four women have posed for a tintype, which might lead one to believe that it was taken before card photographs exploded in popularity, this image can in fact be dated to the late 1880s.


Four unidentified women wearing spectacles, likely Mount Pleasant, Henry, Iowa, ca. 1885-1890; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

The bespectacled women are firmly corseted in high-collared dresses. The single and double rows of close-set buttons featured on their bodices were in vogue at this time, as were their high, ruffled collars.2 Pleats at the hems of their skirts can also be attributed to this time period.3

This tintype comes from an album that can be linked to the family of Jesse M. Smith of Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa. The album page in which this tintype rests is labeled in pencil, with the names Exsie and Mollie at the top, and Franc and Laura at the bottom.4 It’s possible, given the date of this photograph and the perceived age of the young woman at lower right, that this Laura could be the daughter of Jesse M. Smith, Laura B. Smith, pictured here when she was, perhaps, eighteen or twenty years old.5

There are other possibilities. As Exsie is an unusual name, I decided to search on Ancestry.com for young women named Exsie who might have resided in Iowa in the 1880s. A stroke of luck revealed just one – Exsie B. Sayles, who was a resident of Mount Pleasant as of 1885.6 A local history page shared that Exsie was a member of the Mount Pleasant High School graduating class of 1886, along with, notably, Franc Pitcher, Laura S. Mitts, Mary Wright, and a handful of others. 7 Mollie can be a nickname for Mary, so could these be other contenders for the women in the photograph? Although Laura B. Smith was not named as a graduate, school records may provide additional clues.

One might assume that these women had the specific goal of appearing scholarly for all to agree to be photographed in their spectacles. It seems likely that they were friends or classmates; perhaps they were celebrating an educational achievement, such as their high school graduation, or were acknowledging their involvement in an intellectual club of some kind, such as a literary society. No matter the occasion, this tintype offers a suggestion of the women’s personalities and interests, as well as a fun look at stylish vintage eyewear.

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Fashionable Winter Wear


Unidentified couple in winter attire, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, ca. 1889; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

This Valentine’s Day, perhaps you’re looking forward to a special outing with a loved one. You might dress up, or you might bundle up, depending on the temperature outside. In any case, you likely won’t be decked out in fashionable furs like this couple, who dressed for the winter weather in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa circa 1889. This cabinet card photograph comes from an unidentified antique album featuring a family of Swedish immigrants.1 The photographer – J. E. Johnson of 705 Fourth Street in Sioux City – operated his studio from at least 1887-1891.2

A newspaper column in a nearby community in South Dakota reported in 1888, “It is a lively competition between the comparatively old-fashioned sealskin cloaks and the newer, more picturesque wraps that reach to the ground.”3 The unidentified woman pictured here wears a toggle-fastened coat with a fur collar and cuffs, and she sports a striking fur cap that immediately made me think of one worn by Laura Ingalls Wilder in a photograph taken in the latter half of the 1880s. Her outfit is completed by a pair of fitted gloves, and a pleated skirt extends below the hemline of her coat.

The unidentified man wears a toggle-fastened overcoat of heavy cloth that reaches below the knee, also trimmed with a fur collar and cuffs. He tucks a bare hand into a pocket; the other grasps the spare glove and his bowler hat. Visible beneath his coat are distinctive striped pants. While flipping through Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer, an excellent reference for dating nineteenth century photographs, I spotted an example of another young man wearing striped pants in a photograph dated 1889. In fact, he leaned against what appeared to be the very same pedestal. As it turned out, it was. The photograph of a young man in striped pants featured in Dressed for the Photographer was also taken at the Johnson studio in Sioux City.4 Apparently, striped pants were at their peak in popularity at this time!

The couple pictured here seem relatively young, and perhaps were recently married. If they, like others in this album, were Swedish immigrants, they may have shared copies of this photograph with family members who remained in the old country. Even if they weren’t dressed for a date in the modern sense of the term, they certainly look prepared to take a romantic stroll downtown!

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A Sad Accident: The Death of George W. Fenton

George W. Fenton of Saline County, Kansas, was a young father of three when he was accidentally shot and killed by his brother-in-law on 9 October 1880.1


Saline County, Kansas, “Marriage Affidavits, 1873-1879,” p. 43-44, George W. Fenton and Sarah Hall marriage, 11 June 1873; digital images, FamilySearch, “Kansas, County Marriages, 1855-1911,” (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 18 September 2013).

George, the American-born son of English immigrants, was raised in Ohio and Illinois and was orphaned around the age of ten. He ventured to Kansas as a young man, no doubt seeking opportunity and adventure on this new frontier. In 1873, at the age of twenty-two, George married Sarah Ellen Hall, who was barely sixteen, though she claimed to be a year older.2 They settled near her mother and siblings by Gypsum Creek in Saline County, Kansas, and it was there that they raised three daughters: Minnie Bell, Alpha Doretta, and Anna Leota Fenton.3

The tenth of October 1880 was a Saturday. Farm chores were put aside for the afternoon, as George, Sarah, and their young daughters gathered at Sarah’s mother’s home with a crowd of neighbors and kin. Perhaps they were celebrating a successful harvest, or perhaps it was simply a good time to enjoy the early autumn weather, to catch up, and to let the children play.

Also in attendance that afternoon was Sarah’s elder brother, Elithan Davis “Bud” Hall, who fell between Sarah and George in age, and no doubt thought well of George as he, as Sarah’s oldest living male relative, had granted permission for their marriage seven years before.4 He and George were talking of hunting when he reached for the double-barreled shotgun behind the door, teasing his nieces Bell, six, and Alpha, four, that he was going to shoot their dog. His niece Leota, at seven months old, was still too young to play along, as was Bud’s own daughter, Gracie, just over a year.5 As Bud raised his shotgun in jest, however, presuming it to be unloaded, it discharged – sending a bullet straight above George’s heart.6

George was mortally wounded, and lived only an hour more on that fateful October afternoon. His death was ruled purely accidental at the inquest held two days later, when five witnesses testified in front of a jury. The Salina Herald headlined the incident as a “Sad Accident,” and added, “The thing to be condemned [is] the careless handling of firearms.”6 The Journal (Salina), detailed, “Hall is nearly distracted over the result of his carelessness. The brothers-in-law were the best of friends – no trouble ever having occurred between them.” The frequency of such accidents was noted with sorrow, and it was questioned, “Will people never learn better?”7

George W. Fenton was buried at McQuary’s Graveyard on Gypsum Creek.8

1 Saline County, Kansas, Coroner’s Records, “Fenton, George,” filed 10 October 1880; database, Smoky Valley Genealogical Society, “Saline County, Kansas Coroner’s Records” (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kssvgs/ : accessed 18 September 2013).
2 Saline County, Kansas, “Marriage Affidavits, 1873-1879,” p. 43-44, George W. Fenton and Sarah Hall marriage, 11 June 1873; digital images, FamilySearch, “Kansas, County Marriages, 1855-1911,” (https://www.familysearch.org : accessed 18 September 2013).
3 1880 U.S. census, Saline County, Kansas, population schedule, Eureka Township, enumeration district (ED) 300, p. 204 (stamped), dwelling 102, family 110, George W. Fenton; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 September 2013), citing National Archives microfilm publication T9, roll 396.
4 Saline County, Kansas, “Marriage Affidavits, 1873-1879,” p. 43-44, George W. Fenton and Sarah Hall marriage (1873).
5 1880 U.S. census, Saline County, Kansas, population schedule, Gypsum Township, enumeration district (ED) 300, p. 12 (handwritten), dwelling 82, family 90, Elithan D. Hall; digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 September 2013), citing National Archives microfilm publication T9, roll 396.
6 “Sad Accident,” The Salina Herald (Salina, Kansas), 16 October 1880, copy of newspaper clipping privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
7 “A Sad Accident, The Journal (Salina, Kansas), 14 October 1880, copy of newspaper clipping privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.
8 “Sad Accident,” The Salina Herald (Salina, Kansas), 16 October 1880.