Tag Archives: Dakota Territory

Finding Homes for Two Orphan Photographs

On a recent visit to western South Dakota, I flipped through a stack of nineteenth century photographs at an antique shop in scenic Hill City. I had my eye out for any with names inscribed on the backs so that I might have a chance to reunite them with their families of origin, but unfortunately, only two in a stack of a dozen or more were fortunate enough to have been labeled.

“May Durkee” read a photograph of a young woman pictured by heaping bouquets of flowers, while the other inscription on a photograph of a young girl caused me to do a double-take: “Emily J. Frick.” Frick is my married name and not terribly common—and although my husband is the immigrant in his family and we know of no Frick relations in the United States, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to research Emily. Young May made it out of the shop with me as well.

Emily J. Frick, Brookings, Dakota Territory, ca. 1889-90; privately held by K.F., 2018.

The photograph of Emily J. Frick held several clues to assist with determining its date. While cabinet cards such as this were popular throughout the late nineteenth century, the location of the studio was stamped “Brookings, Dak.” As South Dakota achieved statehood on 02 November 1889, the reference to Dakota Territory suggests that the photograph was likely taken no later than 1890, should the photographer have held onto any outdated stock.1 The name of the photographer, O.G. Oyloe, is also revealing, as They Captured the Moment: Dakota’s Photographers 1853-1920 indicates that Oyloe began practicing his trade in Brookings in 1889.2

Emily appears to be in her early teens in this photograph, with fashionably frizzled bangs and her hair pulled back into a braid. Her dress features a high, pleated neckline and sleeves that puff above the shoulders, a popular look in 1890 fashion plates.3

Ultimately, it did not take long to identify Emily J. Frick thanks to online records. Young Emily was, as it turned out, Emily Josephine Frick (1876-1918), the daughter of Thomas and Barbara (Fisher) Frick.4 Born in Pennsylvania, Emily spent spent a number of years in Brookings, Dakota Territory when she was a child.5 Emily studied to become a teacher—records show that she taught a kindergarten class at Chicago’s Calhoun School as of 1899—and in 1909 she married Clarence Estes.6 Emily died of Spanish influenza at the age of forty-two, a victim of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.7 She left no children.8

Emily did, however, have a number of nieces and nephews, and I was able to connect with one of these descendants via a Public Member Tree on Ancestry.com.9 Then, her photograph made its way into an envelope and was sent to its new home in Minnesota.

Mary “May” Durkee, Alexandria, South Dakota, ca. 1892-93; privately held by S.B., 2018.

May Durkee’s photograph held a number of clues as to its origins as well. Stamped with the location Alexandria, South Dakota, this photograph was most definitely taken after 1889, once Dakota Territory was no more. According to the Collector’s Guide to 19th Century Traveling  Photographers, the photographer, M.B. Barton, was believed to have operated in Alexandria circa 1887-94.10 A record search soon turned up Mary “May” Durkee (1877-1972) of Alexandria, the daughter of Franklin and Mary (Wakeman) Durkee, as the most likely candidate for this photograph.11

Although at first glance it seemed to me as though May was posing by a memorial of some kind, the words on the apparent certificate propped among the flowers at her feet read “To Whom It May Concern,” with the header labeled “City of Alexandria,” which does not give the feeling of a tribute. Could this have been an educational certificate?

According to a biography held in the South Dakota State Archive’s Pioneer Daughters files, May, who was born in Wisconsin and came to Dakota Territory at the age of two, completed the one-year high school course offered at Alexandria’s brick schoolhouse in 1892 when she was fifteen years old.12 She had to wait until her sixteenth birthday before she was eligible to begin teaching in the local country schools.13 This photograph might have been taken in honor of one of these occasions. May, a young woman with a fair complexion, wears what was likely a white dress with puffed sleeves that rise above the shoulder and are gathered above the elbow. A corsage is at the center of her chest and what appears to be a small book dangles along the side of her skirt, held in place by a sash affixed at her waist.

May taught school for five years until her marriage to John H. Dobson in 1898.14 The couple remained in Alexandria and had four children: Burdette James, Merrial Bertha, who died as an infant, Henry Bird, and Florence Louise Dobson.15 They enjoyed seventy years of marriage; John died in 1968, and May in 1972.16 A number of years before her death, she was celebrated as Alexandria’s longest continuous resident and was even crowned “queen” during a local anniversary event.17

After tracing May’s descendants through obituaries, I contacted a surviving granddaughter who remembered her well and was glad to have May’s photograph mailed to her home in Oregon.18 Thus, happy endings were found for both orphan photographs of these young Dakota pioneers.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Danish Pioneers

Erik and Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen were in their sixties when they left their native Denmark to settle with their adult children in Dakota Territory.1 They had married on 1 September 1832 at Skrydstrup Kirke in Skrydstrup, Gram, Haderslev, Denmark, when Erik was twenty-eight and Inger Marie twenty-four.2 It was four decades later when they bade a final farewell to their farm, Hørløkkegaard, and their homeland.3

Erik Bramsen (1803-188–), circa 1870-1880; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen (1808-1885), circa 1870-1880; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

These undated photographs, circa 1870-1880, may have been taken before or after the couple made their ocean voyage; as I have not seen the originals, only photocopies, I am unsure of their format or any other identifying information. Erik wears an unbuttoned double-breasted wool overcoat; while seated, it reaches his knees. Little detail can be discerned about the shirt he wears underneath, which has no visible buttons, but his trousers are of a straight, loose cut. He is clean-shaven, his hair is trimmed and combed to the side, and his eyes appear light in color. Seated in a chair with an arched back, Erik rests his left arm on a small table covered with an embroidered cloth. Tassels from a curtain are visible in the background.

Inger Marie sits before the same background, with the chair situated to the right of the table instead of the left and her right elbow resting on the table. It seems possible that she has suffered a stroke, as her mouth appears uneven and one eye droops. A bonnet with a white frilled trim frames her face and ties below her chin with a large bow. Her dress has fitted sleeves with ruched cuffs, and the bodice is of a darker color than the full skirt. The fabric has a sheen to it, and, while simple, the dress appears well-made and carefully fitted. Several elements of her attire support a date sometime in the 1870s, including the frilled trim on her bonnet and its substantial bow.4

The couple arrived in New York aboard the Cimbria on 14 August 1872, within weeks of their fortieth wedding anniversary.5 They appear in the 1880 U.S. census for Yankton County, Dakota Territory,6 and both passed away in the years thereafter, Erik circa 1880 and Inger Marie in the spring of 1885 when she succumbed to tuberculosis.7 Erik and Inger Marie (Hansen) Bramsen are said to be buried in unmarked graves at Elm Grove Cemetery (formerly Maple Grove Cemetery) near Tabor, Yankton County, South Dakota, alongside many of their children and grandchildren who, like them, were pioneers.8

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Remembering the Children’s Blizzard

Even seventeen Dakota winters could not have prepared the Danish immigrant family of Jens Madsen and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt for what they faced in 1888.

January 12 dawned bright and clear in southeastern Dakota Territory. The weather was so pleasant that many children set off to school wearing only light jackets and wraps.1 In the Schmidt family, just twelve-year-old Mads was still in school; while he settled in with his classmates, his mother and older sisters, Mary and Christine, tinkered eagerly with the new sewing machine that had been delivered to them just that morning.2

Within a few hours, however, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon, bringing with it a wind so powerful that it roared as it whirled snow and ice into the air. The temperature dropped abruptly, and the snow and ice, said to be as fine as flour, made it impossible to see. Those unfortunate enough to be caught on the open prairie – or even in their barnyards – had little hope of making it to shelter.3

Through the remainder of the day and into the night, the Schmidt family waited in agony, a lantern burning in their window. They had no way of knowing whether Mads had taken shelter at school, or whether he had tried, in vain, to run for home. To search for him would be futile until the storm had ceased.

The next morning, which dawned bright and beautiful, Mads trudged home over the sparkling drifts of snow. The joy and relief that he, his sisters, and his parents must have felt at this reunion can only be imagined. As it turned out, the schoolteacher at the Breezy Hill School had managed to convince all of the children to stay in the shelter of the schoolhouse overnight, which, thankfully, had been sturdy enough to withstand the winds and had had enough fuel to keep them from freezing.4

JensMadsenSchmidtHomestead

Schmidt Family Homestead, near Tabor, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1888-1889; digital image 2013, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. From left: Inger Marie “Mary,” Mads, Christine, Jens Madsen, and Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt.

Others had not been so lucky. Remembered as the “Children’s Blizzard” for the high number of school-aged victims, the storm tore apart some of the flimsier schoolhouses, forcing the teachers and children to flee into the storm, often in insufficient clothing due to the balmy weather of the morning.5 Others thought that they could beat the worst of it home, but on the open prairie where some children walked miles to reach school, many became disoriented in the storm or were forced by the wind in different directions. It became impossible for them to spot familiar landmarks either because of the fine and blinding snow or because their eyes had frozen shut.6

Later, two sewing machine salesmen, who had made their last stop at the Schmidt family homestead in Bon Homme County, were found huddled in the box of their bobsled just three miles to the west. They had frozen to death; their horses, tied in a grove of trees, survived. For years, locals referred to the area as Dead Man’s Grove.7

The Children’s Blizzard claimed an estimated two hundred fifty to five hundred lives across the Midwestern prairie, with the majority of the casualties in southeastern Dakota Territory.
8 As reported by historian David Laskin, “The pioneers were by and large a taciturn lot, reserved and sober Germans and Scandinavians […]. Even those who never wrote another word about themselves put down on paper everything they could remember about the great blizzard of 1888. Indeed, it was the storm that has preserved these lives from oblivion.”9

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

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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_Deadwood_Couple_01

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_Deadwood_Family

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 (Somewhat Lackluster) Homestead File

When I sent away to the National Archives for a copy of a homestead file, I was sure that I was in for a treat. I was aware that, in addition to the homestead application and final certificate, a homestead entry file would typically include proof documents in the form of testimony from the applicant and two witnesses. I couldn’t wait to read what this testimony would have to say about the home, family, and farm of Jens Madsen Schmidt of Bon Homme County, South Dakota.1 Jens had applied for a homestead on 23 November 1870,2 just months after his arrival from Denmark and less than a decade after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.3

As it turned out, I shouldn’t have gotten too excited. Apparently, on 8 June 1877, Luman N. Judd, Register of the Land Office at Springfield, had better things to do than to fill in the three blank lines meant to describe the home of Jens Madsen Schmidt, or the additional three blank lines meant to detail the improvements made upon his land.4 Of course, perhaps Mr. Judd isn’t to blame, and the witnesses – Peter Anderson and John Haase – were either unable to communicate these facts in English or were particularly reticent that day.5 To be fair, these men likely had crops to get back to and saw no reason to belabor the details, especially if they were equally well acquainted with Jens and knew that nothing stood in the way of his patent.

JensSchmidt

Jens Madsen Schmidt, Bon Homme County, South Dakota, ca. 1900; digital image 2003, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

All was not lost with the homestead file. I learned that, in 1877, Jens had cultivated about forty acres of land.6 I learned, too, that his inclination to Anglicize his Danish name to James Smith had caused some issues with the paperwork; in 1878, he signed a document swearing that the “correct orthography” of his name was, in fact, Jens Madsen Schmidt.7

Regardless of the details – or lack thereof – of the homestead file, Jens Madsen Schmidt became the proud owner of one hundred and sixty acres of land located in Section 1, Township 93, Range 58 of Bon Homme County, South Dakota.8

If you would like to order your ancestor’s own homestead file, I would suggest beginning with the General Land Office Records of the Bureau of Land Management, where you will be able to locate the necessary information to order the file from the National Archives. I used their online form, and found it quick and easy. Fifty dollars and a few weeks later, perhaps you will find that your ancestor’s neighbors had at least a few things to say about his living situation!

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