Dakota Territory

S. E. H.’s thoughts from the Dakota Territory, March 4, 1882

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

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

Last year I published a few posts on Matthias Woodruff, younger brother of the recently mentioned William Woodruff who in 1870 spent time in San Ysidro as a sheep farmer. A little over a decade later, Matthias left his home in Elizabeth, NJ, to seek his fortune growing wheat in the Dakota Territory. Several of the letters he sent home have survived and were featured in these posts:
Matthias Woodruff Letter to Francis Woodruff, May 10, 1883
Matthias Woodruff Letter to Francis Woodruff, June 8, 1883
Matthias Woodruff — Letter from Sheyenne Valley, Dakota Territory, October 7, 1882

Official Railroad Map of Dakota, 1886

Official Railroad Map of Dakota, 1886

On the Fulton History website, I came upon a letter to the editor of the Holley [NY] Standard newspaper that was written on March 4, 1882, and published by the paper on March 16, 1882—roughly the same time Matthias was in that area. It’s an amusing read about a landlady’s observations of the gentlemen who arrived at her establishment. I doubt Matthias was one of them, but you never know.

Coincidentally, the article caught my eye right before an email arrived from the The Art of Manliness blog (no, I have no interest in being manly!, but I do find their blog extremely entertaining and illuminating; check it out and see what you think!) notifying me of today’s post: “Dining Etiquette and Table Manners.” In a world where manners are increasingly disappearing, it’s always good to see somebody talking about them. I confess to never having heard of leaving knife and fork in the “4:20 position” or of pulling a “French leave”, so I definitely learned a few new things.

So, I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did. As always, comments welcome! Have a good Sunday.






The Holley Standard, Holley, NY,  March 16, 1882 (www.fultonhistory.com)

The Holley Standard, Holley, NY,
March 16, 1882 (www.fultonhistory.com)

Categories: Dakota Territory, Woodruff | 4 Comments

Matthias Woodruff — Letter from Sheyenne Valley, Dakota Territory, October 7, 1882

Official Railroad Map of Dakota, 1886

Below is the last letter I have written from the hand of Matthias Woodruff, younger brother of my great grandfather William E. Woodruff. Like the previous two posted, this one is written from Dakota Territory, but this time to William rather than to father Francis Woodruff. For previous posts on Matthias, please search his name using the search box to the right.

Sheyenne Valley, October 7th 1882

Dear Brother

I did write to you once but did not direct it wright so that it came back again. I got your letter and was glad to hear from home. I am glad Father keeps well. I have been very busy since I came to this country. in fact everyone you see is all very [?] taken up north their prospect but they will be a good many of disappointed [?] for they all expect a real road [?] in a few miles of them but won’t get it. there is a great lot of young and old coming to this country to farm. the land is certainly very good for wheat, in fact any small grain. i hear you want to come out. is that so. if it is when are you coming and do you intend to engage in raising wheat? they are surveying now we have had a very dry summer [?] but it is raining all the time now. i have been sick almost all summer so that I could not do much. then i lost my team right in breaking season so that it was a big loss to me. I have got seventy acres broke and still have 60 acres backsett [?] but I have had so much work for my self that I do not know what I am going to do this winter for [?]. I have plenty of hay but no grain nor money. but if I live to see next harvest I shall be on my feet again. I am glad to hear that your colt is doing well and that you have done well farming this year. the farming here is different from there. there is no little things you know what to do every day. this is a kind of ruff life to lead but I rather enjoy it. there is plenty of game and I do my own stewing so then I know how it is done and don’t leave my fault to find with the cook.  if you still have a notion to come on, let me know and I will be on the lookout for something for you. ther is no land to take up and even if there was it don’t pay to go so far from a settlement. it is raining very hard here  now. it is very dismal weather so that I cannot do much. am in hopes that it clears up in a day or two. I think a young man  with a little money can do better here than on east even if he should buy a house he can pay for it in a year or two.  the wheat is a sure crop. you have to work hard in summer  but it is different from following a walking plow. it is tiresome, but  when you get up you are rested. this is going to be a good country in a few years. it will soon be all settled up. land is worth around Larimore 10 dollars per acre even at that it is a good investment. Well it is getting late & I must close. With love to all I am as ever your loving Brother. Good bye for this time.


Matthias Woodruff letter to William E. Woodruff, Oct. 1882, pages 1 and 4

Matthias Woodruff letter to William E. Woodruff, Oct. 1882, pages 2 and 3

Categories: Ayers, Dakota Territory, Elizabeth, Union Co., Larimore, Woodruff | Leave a comment

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

Matthias Woodruff Letter to Francis Woodruff, May 10, 1883

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

Below is a letter written on May 10, 1883, by Matthias Woodruff to his father Francis Woodruff. Matthias’s mother Mary Trowbridge Woodruff passed away earlier that spring (in March). Francis passed away two months after the letter was written. Both parents were in their early sixties. Matthias was writing from Larimore, North Dakota, a town founded in 1881. In 1883 there must not have been much to Larimore. North Dakota obtained statehood in 1889, and at the time of the 1890 census, the population was just 553.

He was on his own out there–far away from his wife Mary and son Frances (mentioned in previous post). I gather he did not get back East very often. I have another, longer letter that I will post in the near future. It is partly in pencil and there is some smudging, so it will take time to decipher.

P.S. I have added some punctuation since it is largely missing in the letter. The spelling and grammar are his.

Larimore May 10th

Dear Father

It is now a long time since any word from home but have heard of your terrible loss. I wish you would write and tell all about my Mother death and if she ever spoke of me before she died. It is nice warm weather now. we are seeding now. I am tin [I think he means “thin”] for seed. it a great deal of money to start in this country as well as any other.  I had to mortgage my stock to get seed. now I want to ask you to help me pay $130 by the 16th of June. There no chance for me to get the money till my crop comes off. Then I can pay every thing and I will pay you back the first thing. I am about to take another 160 acres [?] of land which I have a chance to do. You will help me this much I hope. I want to come home this coming winter and make a visit. My land is in fine order. I am using mules instead of horses this year. Please excuse all mistakes as I am in an awfull hurry. With much love to all I remain your ever loving son. M. Woodruff

Shorpy Image

Categories: Ayers, Larimore, Woodruff | Leave a comment

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