Ferguson Trek of 1881

Prelude to the Ferguson trek of 1881

The development of a strong wheat farming economy in eastern Dakota began in the 1870’s when a new milling process was developed by flour millers in the grain marketing center of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The process enabled superior flour milled from the hard spring wheat which was thought to be inferior.  Hard spring wheat actually had the highest percentage of protein, making it an excellent bread wheat with superior milling and baking characteristics.

Furthermore, this was the type of wheat best adapted to the soil and higher moisture conditions found in eastern Dakota.  In response, the railway companies extended lines south from Pembina to Grand Fork opening up the Dakota lands of the Red River Valley to settlers.  This set the stage for the emergence of the area as a mecca for wheat production.

The railroads led the way to mass settlement of the state.  The development of agriculture depended on attracting settlers. To finance their enterprise, the government granted the railway companies massive tracts of land along the railroad right-of-ways.  The companies could sell these lands, or use them to exchange stock for land.  It became vital for the railroads to attract both the workers to lay track, and land buyers to take up homesteading.  Consequently, the railway companies became the active agents in enticing settlers into the region.

Towards the end of the 1870’s settlement of the Pembina River Valley of Dakota was complete and a second wave of settlers was about to venture into the Red River valley.  In 1878,  seven young French Canadians from Quebec responded to the railway company’s advertising campaign for workers and were the first to settle in the Red River valley of north eastern Dakota.  For them the initial drawing card was the report that tools and equipment, as well as good wages, were being provided to railroad workers.  These Canadians travelled to Minnesota via the Great Lakes waterway and found jobs building the railway line in the frontier of North Dakota.  From Pembina they worked on the southern track to Grand Forks.  About ten miles south they decided to stake clams in the fertile soils of the Red River valley.

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The first French Canadian settler was Frank LaRose who operated a ferry which crossed the Red River and provided the settlers access to the new lands.  His farmhouse became a stopping place for stagecoaches as well as a refueling stop for steamboats.  In 1879 a regional post office was also established.  This small, but thriving, pioneer community was named after Frank’s home town of Joliette, in Quebec.  Others in this first settlement group included the four Pariseau brothers: Ernest, Joe, Frank and John.  So pleased were they with their accomplishments that the following year they sent for their parents and sister and several others from Quebec.

The news of new land in North Dakota also reached the sons of pioneers who had already settled in the frontier forest lands of Upper Canada.  Newspaper advertisements announced 160 acres of free or cheap open grasslands with deep fertile soils that were stone free and easy to till.  Posters promoted the philosophy of a frontier where freedom to own and work land included the opportunity for prosperity and success.   It was presented as a place where social mobility could be achieved through hard work by good and just people and who would be free from religious persecution and unjust taxes.  (include poster illustrations)

The news of free, or cheap lands in Dakota came as a grand opportunity.   Farmsteading in a natural fertile grassland environment would mean that settlers could begin to plow, cultivate and seed some of their land in the first season upon arrival!  Felling trees would not be a burden.  Road construction in a grassland region would not be hindered by extended periods of tree removal and preparation.   The farm lots could be brought into full cultivation in a few short seasons.  In addition, with the availability of a rail line nearby, farmers could easily market their grain crops to distant markets.

These attractive conditions, along with Margaret’s need for a drier environment motivated the couple to sell their land in Ripley and make the journey to the Dakotas.  Although pregnant, the couple sold their land in Kincardine and headed west in 1881 to join the migration of other early settlers into the northern Great Plains.  Between 1879 and 1886 over 100,000 immigrants entered the northern Dakota territory.

The Ferguson Trek to North Dakota

Screen Shot 2013-06-16 at 2.24.22 PMIt was into this new frontier community that the family of Robert and Margaret Ferguson arrived in April of 1881. They likely travelled the Great Lakes waterway to Duluth Minnesota and from there by rail to Pembina where the federal land office was located.  After registering a land claim, and completing arrangements, they journeyed about 10 miles south of Pembina by stage coach to begin homesteading on the open plains of the Red River valley near Joliette.  Other settlers who arrived throughout 1880 to 1882, and took up homesteading, included the Emersons, Barrons, Storms, Dietrichs, Shannons and McCauleys. They were a culturally mixed group of English, Irish, Scottish, Germans, Dutch and of course the earlier founders, the French Canadians.

The Ferguson trek to the western frontier of the Dakotas in 1881 was a far less severe trip than Robert’s father had experienced from Ottawa to Kincardine in 1851.  However, the stark realities of the task ahead must have presented themselves on the stagecoach journey from Pembina to Joliette.  Not a tree obstructed their view for miles. They passed many sod houses which dotted the landscape amongst the sea of grass waving in the wind. Building shelter would not be easy without logs and lumber.  The French Canadian settlers had previously claimed the land along the few wooded rivers and streams.  This provided some timber for logs homes and wood for fuel.  However, by the time Robert and Margaret arrived they had to settle on the treeless prairie nearby.  Their limited resources would not include purchases of expensive lumber.   However, the one construction material which was unlimited was the prairie sod.

Construction of a “soddy” required thick mats of accumulated prairie grass as building blocks. The seasonal decay of wild grasses over the centuries had left a thick mat of interlocking stalks of organic material which could be cut from the ground. These earthen blocks measured  about 2’ x 1’ x 6”.  Although flexible, the blocks could be stacked, brick-like, to form a substantial wall.  Overlapping the ends at corners provided for a relatively sound, well-insulated, but damp, dwelling that was inexpensive.  The structure could accommodate normal doors and widows by inserting a wood frame and lentils above the openings.  Roofing methods varied as can be seen in the sample illustrations.  The “soddies” required frequent maintenance especially in times of rain and melting snow.  Stucco or wood panels were often added to protect the outer walls.  Canvas or plaster could be added to line the interior walls.  Such structures were built by settlers into the early 1900’s.  Few stand today.

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Oral history discloses that Robert Ferguson farmed a total of 480 acres in Township 161 north, Range 51, west of the fifth principal meridian.  His acreage comprised three sections of land, 160 acres each.  His homestead was located just over a mile west of the Red River, three miles south and one mile east of the village of Joliette.  A survey of the Land Holdings record for Pembina County in 1885 identifies the precise location of his lots.  They included lot sectors 2 SE, 11 NE, and 14 NW.   His neighbours included Robert McCauley, John Taylor, and members of the first French Canadian pioneers, Ernest Pariseau and Louis LaRose.   The map also shows the location of his sod dwelling on the northeast corner of sector 2 SE.

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It is uncertain whether or not Robert acquired all three sections of farmland at the outset. Most new settlers grew wheat, but did not have large farms. They either bought their land from the railroad or homesteaded federal land.  Homesteading involved living on and improving 160 acres of land for a number of years, after which the settlers received the land for free. They could realize  an additional 160 acres of land by planting and maintaining trees on the prairie.

Fanning mill

Fanning mill

A second building, appearing on the 1885 map of landholdings, was the Ferguson’s threshing barn. The location is illustrated on the above map with a small rectangle.  Threshing barns were built for the purpose of storing the harvested sheaves of grain.  The building had a wooden plank floor upon which sat a fanning mill.   Fanning mills were a great technical advance over the hand-process of pouring grain from one container to another in a breeze to blow away the lighter matter.   The mechanical machine was a wooden box-like device with a metal crank and sliding drawers and was usually kept in a barn to protect it from the elements.  It was operated by a hand crank which, when rotated, removed straw, chaff, stones dirt and weed seeds from the harvested shafts of wheat or other grains grown.    As it was cranked, fans moved air across and upward through sieves to float off the light straw, chaff and dust to separate the grain.  It was a process that young children could perform during the slack winter season when the full mature grain could be separated from the dry straw.

However, one summer a tornado struck the family granary and destroyed the Ferguson’s prized fanning mill.  Coincidently, that same year there was a community raffle in Joliette, with a fanning mill as the prize!  Margaret, quite against her religious principles, decided to buy a raffle ticket and was the lucky winner.

It did not take long for a spirit of comradery to develop amongst the many diverse nationalities and religions represented within the pioneer community of Joliette.  The Protestant Fergusons developed a close relationship with their Catholic neighbour, Ernest Pariseau, one of the original founders of the community.  Robert shared a mutual understanding and trust with Ernest even though they had religious differences.  “The Roman Catholic and Methodist churches in Joliette were side by side and the congregations attended each other’s social functions.   Nevertheless, each maintained its own customs, such as shivarees and wakes, and the Orangemen held a Protestant parade every 12th of July.  Roberts’ closest friend was James McCauley, a big, good hearted Irishman who occupied a neighbouring farm.  For fifteen years the Ferguson and McCauley families went back and forth to celebrate Christmas and New Years together – and even backed each other’s notes at the bank”  (Houston, p. 14-15)

The first child born on the farmstead was a second daughter, Ida May, on Nov. 14th, 1881.  It is most likely that Margaret was pregnant at the time of the family’s trek to Dakota.  Two years later a third son, Robert George, was born on Sept 12th.  It seems that whatever had been ailing Margaret in Kincardine had dissipated and she returned to good health.  Perhaps she had been suffering from acute bronchitis and the drier air of the prairies had helped to alleviate the symptoms.  She gave birth to another ten children!

A series of four entries in the North Dakota Naturalization Record Index for Robert Ferguson  provides supposition that on several occasions he either left Pembina to visit family back in Canada or to gain citizenship.  The earliest record for him is April 16, 1881, which most likely represents the date that he first arrived in Pembina with his family.  The process of naturalization may have taken several years since he likely had to certify land ownership and occupancy as a homesteader.

In the early stages of Margaret’s pregnancy in late 1886, their eldest son, eleven year old Thomas, would arise early every morning to make the family breakfast because of his mother’s morning sickness.  He was very endearing, thoughtful, and helpful around the house, and the pride of his father.  Tragically, on April 25th, 1887 an accident occurred on the farm taking the life of Thomas.  There are three different versions of the event, which have been passed down through the family.  One story tells that he fell off a wagon, and the wheel ran over his head;  the second, that he fell from a stoneboat, when the horses bolted and struck his head on a rock;  and third, that Thomas was helping a hired man shovel frozen manure from the barn on to a sleigh, when a large frozen lump fell from the top of the pile and struck his head.  On May 2nd ,   seven days after his death, a new baby brother was born.   The grieving parents decided to christened him Thomas Fisher in honour of their deceased son.  (Houston, p. 15)

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