Daily Archives: April 11, 2012

Matthias Woodruff Letter to Francis Woodruff, June 8, 1883

(This post picks up from the previous Matthias Woodruff post. Matthias was the son of Francis Woodruff and Mary Jane Trowbridge.)

Lots of land available per this paper. I wonder whether the Woodruff highlighted is any relation to Matthias.

Little did Matthias Woodruff know that his father would pass away a month after he sent the below letter off to him from Laramore, Dakota territory, in early June 1883. The arrival of the railroad in that neck of the woods spurred many to seek their fortunes there. I assume that was the lure for Matthias. You will see from his letter that by 1883 he had accumulated 320 acres of land and was farming wheat. At the time, he was 32 years of age and he had been married to Mary S. Ayers for 11 years. Their son and only child, Frances, would have been just eight. I have no idea when Matthias left Dakota permanently. Perhaps he never did. Maybe he spent winters back east in New Jersey with his family who were probably living with Mary’s father and mother (Ezra and Mary Ayers), and spent the planting and harvesting season in Dakota. All I do know for sure is that he was to live just nine years more, as he died in New Jersey on April 6, 1892. I have been unable thus far to find him in the 1890 census; that record may provide some interesting clues.

Distance from Larimore, Dakota (red balloon), to NJ

In any case, amazingly this half-in-pencil, half-in-ink, 130-year-old communication has survived, and here I am now ready to share it with you. It offers an interesting glimpse into the life and trials of a frontier farmer. Francis, his father, was very well off, so it would be interesting to know whether he supported Matthias in this venture. Francis’s will, if we could track it down, would probably be quite revealing.

Sheyenne Valley, June 8th 1883

Dear Father,

I got a letter from you the other day and was very glad to hear that you were in such good spirits. There must certainly be a great change in your house [wife Mary Jane had recently passed away] but it the change that we all must experience sooner or later. I have also undergone a great change to leave all that was dear to me on earth and come out here to this country. When I first came I was sick a long time but last winter froze it out. I am in excellent health now. It is a healthy climate. you spoke as if you had money you would come and make a visit. it would do you good & I would like to have you see the difference between east and west. I mean the way of living and farming. I am afraid the water would not agree with you. I have now three hundred and twenty acres of splendid wheat land. All I want now is to get it broke in. then I can live at my ease. 

Turning Sod in North Dakota in the 1890s (Photo credit: Shorpy website*–see link to large version of photo below)

I earned a good deal of money this winter with my team but had to lay it all out for seed. I have sixty acres of wheat in and fifteen of oats, so you see I will have quiet a harvest but there is a time from now until harvest that I am very poor and I want to stay and break all I can for there is where all the money in this country is. I will have money enough this fall to pay all my debts & come home too if I could have $150 within a week or two so a to save my team. If I do not get it, they will be sold so help me this time please. I can pay it all back in September. Then I will market my wheat.

Distance between Devil’s Lake and Larimore

Grand Forks, ND, Store, 1880, probably visited by Matthias Woodruff during his time in the Dakota territory (Photo in public domain)

I had to buy a new seeder this spring and will have to get a self binder [?]. The wheat looks splendid here. there will be a good crop witch never fails in country. i put from ten to fifteen acres in in a day witch is different from eastern farming. You wanted to know how I stood my trips last winter. I had to stand them or starve. I had no grain for the team so I went all weather every week except two. in January I was over the road from Larimore to Devil’s Lake City or west end witch is about twenty farther up the lake and I tell you I never want to go through any thing like that again, Some days was terrible. I started to make thirty miles one day with a four-horse load and along in the afternoon the wind began to blow and drifted the track so that I could not see where to drive. When it got dark my load turned over so I had to leave it. My leaders would not [?] blow the trail so I did not know what to do but after a while I put the pole horses ahead and they brought me through alwright with the exception of my big toes frozen badly so that my nails come off. my face and nose I got frozen every day I was out almost. Well, I have to go and plow seven miles yet this afternoon so I will close. From your loving boy, 

M. Woodruff

P.S. Please don’t disappoint me this once I have written for my wife to help but they are poor too and refuse to help me.

I have just come in from my day’s plowing. I use two mules and one horse to plow and it makes nice work. We keep our plow sharp as a knife. I plow through sollid strawberry plants that are now in full bloom they cover the ground in some places.

*Shorpy Image

Helpful Links:
National Park Service website: The Bonanza Farms of North Dakota
State Historical Society of North Dakota
History of North Dakota

Categories: Ayers, Larimore, Woodruff | 2 Comments

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