Women who settled the West in the years after the Civil War often faced harsh and unremitting toil. Laboring from well before dawn until well after the sun had set, women helped plant and harvest crops, raised large families, and kept house with the most rudimentary of equipment. Long periods of isolation from neighbors and kin were common; social occasions or visits by travelers and kin were rare and cherished events. Sarah Thal, a German Jew who immigrated to North Dakota in 1882, recalled that “getting mail was a big event” on their North Dakota farm and that when she looked out the window onto the flat prairie she was “still unable to realize the completeness of our isolation.”
When a child attending the religious school, the story of the sojourn of the Israelites in the Wilderness stirred my imagination. I too longed for a sojourn in the wilderness. I did not know that my dreams would become a reality, a reality covering long years of hardship and privation. I grew to womanhood in the town of Ellingen in the Saar Valley, and when I married Solomon Thal in 1880, I went to live in the picturesque village of Berg in the Mosel Valley. I remember this country as quiet and picturesque, where life was pleasant and peaceful.
My husband had brothers in Milwaukee who sent home glowing reports of conditions in America. We wished to try our luck in that wonderful land. When my daughter Elsie was fourteen months old we left to make our fortune, fully confident of our undertaking. We sailed from Antwerp and landed in Boston. I brought with me my linen chest, feather beds, pillows, bedding, etc. I have some bits of these things today. As most of the immigrants of that time were German, we reached Milwaukee without difficulty. Here my brother-in-law met us and took us to his home. I had become ill during the last part of the journey. I went to bed at once to learn I had typhoid.
My brother-in-law Sam Thal advised us to go to Dakota Territory. He had been out there and thought highly of the prospect. In fact, he had a large farm out there only twenty-eight miles from the railroad. My husband was anxious to get started and as soon as he could leave me he went out there. Six weeks later I followed. The only English I knew was “Yes” and “All right,” and when my fellow passengers admired my baby and asked, “Is it a girl?” I said “Yes,” and when they said “Is it a boy?” I said “Yes.” I didn’t know why they looked at each other and smiled. . . .
We had few neighbors. At Harrisburg there was a little settlement and owing to the large tract of land the farm stood on, we had only one near neighbor, the Seligers, and another Jewish family. We received mail rarely. A stage ran from Harrisburg to Larimore. The service was not dependable and getting mail was a big event. . . .
In the spring of '83 we homesteaded land in Dodds Township along the supposed railroad right of way. A Mr. Anderson, long since dead, built a four-room house. The lumber was hauled by ox-team from Larimore. The nearest store was in Bartlett. We drove there to get some things we needed. Money was scarce and prices were outrageous. I paid $3.00 for a set of flat irons. . . .
That fall I would look out of the window and see [prairie] fires in the distance. These l believed were far off factories. I was still unable to realize the completeness of our isolation. . . .
That fall my second baby, Jacob, was born. I was attended by a Mrs. Saunders, an Englishwoman. We couldn’t understand each other. It was in September. The weather turned cold and the wind blew from the north. It found its way through every crack in that poorly built house. I was so cold that during the first night they moved my bed into the living room by the stove and pinned sheets around it to keep the draft out and so I lived through the first child birth in the prairies. I like to think that God watched out for us poor lonely women when the stork came. All but two of my neighbors survived their many confinements and lived to see their children grown. . . .
One year all the Germans of the community were asked to a Fourth of July picnic at the Gutting Grove. We looked forward to this with great anticipation. I had just finished ironing the last piece for the next day’s outing when I saw it clouding up, a greenish gray. The storm broke and with it came a terrific hailstorm, the worst in my memory. When over, our beautiful wheat was cut to the ground. The next morning the sun came out. We couldn’t disappoint the children, we drove to the picnic, a distance of twenty-two miles, each way, around the lake and up and down the steep hills, a heavy day for a team. Each foreign colony celebrated in their own fashion, loyal to the traditions of the old land and faithful to those of the new. . . .
Source: Pioneer Stories Written by People of People of Nelson City (Lakota, N.D.: American Press, n.d). Reprinted in Glenda Riley, A Place To Grow: Women in the American West, (Arlington Heights, Ill. : Harlan Davidson, 1992), 37–38.