Diary gives insight into life across Dakota territory

By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent

Our winters have been challenging in recent years, but we’ve had it easy compared to life on the northern plains in the 1880s.

North Dakota gained statehood in 1889. Before that, my great-grandparents farmed in what was then Dakota Territory near Mapleton, southwest of Fargo.

John and Mary McAuliffe emigrated from Ireland. Their daughter Nora, my grandmother, was the sixth of nine children.

Farmsteading nearby was Mary Dodge Woodward, a widow, and her two sons, Walter and Fred. Excerpts from Woodward’s diary became a book, “The Checkered Years,” recalling life on the prairie between 1884 and 1889.

The Dodge house later was moved to Bonanzaville in West Fargo. It’s sentimental for me going inside the house, knowing that my grandmother and great-grandparents no doubt set foot inside that dwelling.

Woodward’s diary provides real insight into life in Dakota Territory.

Jan. 16, 1884 – “We stay in the sitting room near the stove most of the day, going into the kitchen just long enough to eat our meals. Tonight is cold and clear and the stars gleam as I have never seen them except in Dakota.”

Feb. 20, 1884 – “Sixteen degrees below zero and snowing hard. Walter started early for Fargo, with hearty horses pulling his bobsled. He returned home at 5 o’clock bringing plenty of reading, ‘Harper’s Monthly’ and letters.”

March 1, 1884 – “Blustering March comes in like a lion. Therefore, we may hope that it will be lamblike in its exit. The snow flies so that we cannot see the barn half of the time. The drifts are mountain high. We can see the tip of the clothes reel from the east bedroom window.”

March 6, 1885 – “Grover Cleveland is now president of the United States. God grant that he may prove to be a good one.”

Feb. 27, 1886 – “Sullivan’s beer sleigh went by today. If the men get out of beer, they go in any weather to get more. Sullivan brings his beer from Fargo.”

Feb. 21, 1887 – “The drifts are immense and the farm roads and railroads are all blockaded this morning. The boys get around some on snowshoes. It is a hard task to open the railroads. Engines buck through the snowdrifts. The companies hire every man they can get to shovel snow along the rails.”

March 1, 1888 – “The snow which has fallen the past two days is flying over the prairie in a blinding mass, the sun shining through it. I pray it is the last storm of the kind we will have this year.”

April 28, 1888 – “My red, old-fashioned peonies have stuck their pink noses out of the ground. I covered them up last night. They thrive in Dakota Territory.”

May 7, 1888 – “The country is alive with seeders, horses and men. There are four plows running here, and two seeders which take every horse on the place. The men are now able to seed mud holes which were too wet when they started. Fred is working with two balky horses which cousin Daniel bought last summer.”

I am forever grateful to Mary Dodge Woodward for sharing joys, woes, hopes, fears, humor, optimism, memories of the past and observations of Dakota Territory. She has allowed me to travel back in time to where my great-grandparents farmed, near Mapleton, southwest of Fargo.