The Early Settlers And Our Ancestors by Kenny Johnson
(I wrote earlier versions of the following story to encourage both comment and the collection of information. This final version, June 2012, contains the most accurate presentation of these earlier times in our family’s history.)
The first white man venturing onto the prairie witnessed its uncluttered terrain stretching from horizon to horizon. A sea of tall grasses covered the rolling hills and in the wind it rolled and swelled like ocean waves. The only trees hid along the stream and riverbanks escaping the frequent prairie fires. Here too, the first settlers found sufficient water for themselves and their livestock.
In early 1850, one pioneer family lived in Montgomery County, Iowa. But during 1851 a dozen families moved into the county and built their crude shelters not far from running water.
Deer, elk and antelope grazed the prairie. Turkey and numerous small animals inhabited the lowlands and the predators; foxes, coyotes, and wolves prowled the territory. The buffalo herds migrated to the Dakotas a few years earlier, but Indian hunting parties still frequented the areas and would continue to do so through 1856.
In 1865, Frankfort lost and Red Oak gained the Montgomery County seat. The Civil War ended. Settlement increased. This year the Montgomery County uplands first succumbed to the plow.
Across the Atlantic, the Esaiasson family forged a decision. Their eldest daughter, Kristina and her husband would purchase and run the family’s water powered flour mill. The rest of the family would emigrate to America.
Church records show they departed from Vrigstad, Sweden on April 29, 1868. Andrew Esaiasson age 51, and his wife Brita age 44, and their three children; Anna 16, John 14, and Augusta nearly 4, boarded a wooden ship. They sailed the Atlantic and docked in New York Harbor.
Immigration officials ushered the family through State Island for their medical examinations and then on to Castle Garden where translators, information booths, and ticket booths awaited them. Esaiassons traveled on to Illinois.
Marjorie Sellergren told, ”Grandma (Augusta) spent a lot of time here with us down through the years and she used to love telling stories about things that happened during her lifetime.
One thing I can remember, which always interested me, she recalled coming to America on the boat. Her father had been a miller in Sweden. Like many other immigrants, they came to Illinois where many Swedes settled in the Andover and Bishop Hill area. Her father worked as a miller there.”
The National Archives records show that on February 8, 1871 Andrew applied for citizenship at the Henry County courthouse. Andover and Bishop Hill are in Henry County.
In 1869 the Burlington and Missouri laid the first rails in Montgomery County and the first train steamed into Red Oak. The Burlington and Missouri Company also appointed Reverend Halland, who immigrated from Sweden, sole agent for much of the railroad land in the area. He beseeched his countrymen to settle on this land.
Marjorie believes that Augusta’s brother John traveled to Bethesda ahead of the family and scouted the area. He may have rejoined a family friend from Illinois, Nels Bergstrom (Nels’ Bethesda church records start December 26, 1870).
The Esaiassons traveled to Iowa in 1871. On March 2, 1872 Nels Bergstrom married Anna Esaiasson (in Montgomery County). A little later, on April 12, 1872, Andrew Esaiasson purchased a 40 acre farm four and a half miles east of Coburg. And on June 17, 1872 (church records show) Nels and Anna moved to Stanton,
Irene Linder told of Augusta’s early life. ”Mom only went to third grade. When she was 11 years old (in 1875) her parents hired her out to some people named Russell. They lived where highway 48 now turns west toward Essex.”
The Essex Centennial Book and other sources show that W.W. Russell owned most of section 20 (Fremont Township, Page County) at that time and he operated a fruit and shade tree nursery on a portion of it. Settlers, with their new farmsteads, created a demand for the trees.
Russell also raised livestock. A train wreck dealt him serious injuries once when he traveled on the Kansas City and St. Joseph Railroad with a livestock shipment. In the settlement, the railroad built the Russells a Georgian style home on their farm.
Irene said, ”The same house still stands, but originally it was three stories. Morn slept in the attic with the maids.”
Irene also said that Augusta later sought employment in Red Oak. She found a job in a dress shop and soon developed a talent for dressmaking. The work required little physical effort, but commuting was a different matter. She walked the 7 miles each way every day.
In 1876 the family’s fortunes suddenly improved. Anna purchased 80 acres five miles south and one mile east of Stanton for $1250 cash. A few months later Andrew purchased 80 acres near Bethesda for $1500 cash. Less than two years later John purchased Andrew’s 40 and 80 acre farms for $900 cash and two mortgages. The money, a lot in those days, looks suspiciously like an inheritance or payment for the family’s mill in Sweden.
Augusta’s share, that not kept for future use, bought a riding horse. The purchase ignited her love for the four-legged critters.
On specified government land, the Homestead Act granted 160 acres to a citizen for farming and improving it. Near Holdrege, Nebraska (250 miles away) homesteading fostered a Swedish community. So, in December 1879 Augusta, her father, and her mother decided to ”go west”. They started immediate preparations, but their urgency remains a mystery.
The extra feed needed for another horse, which could only offer a cold ride, ruled out taking Augusta’s horse. So Augusta decided to leave her horse with her sister Anna, a decision she would regret.
Alvin Johnson told of his mother’s long trek, ”In late December they loaded their possessions in a covered wagon and left from northern Page County. On Christmas Eve they reached the Plattsmouth ferry crossing. The river was frozen over, but they felt the ice wasn’t thick enough to support them. So they camped on the riverbank that evening. It turned much colder during the night. On Christmas day they decided to cross the Missouri.
They drove out on the ice, but the horses couldn’t stand up. An old blacksmith lived a short distance away, so they sought his help. He carried his forge out onto the ice, built a fire in it, and shod the horses.”
Marjorie told, ”Grandma’s father walked ahead of the wagon to test the ice and her mother drove the wagon. Augusta followed. She declared the crossing a ’terrifying experience’.”
John Pollack of the National Weather Service in Valley, Nebraska checked the temperature records for the 1879-80 winter. He believes, during that winter, the ice would support a wagon crossing only in late December. A cold spell started December 10th and lasted through December 25th. On December 24th, the high reached —4 degrees F and the low dropped to a —17 degrees F.
Alvin said, ”Mom walked all the way to Holdrege. She was 15.”
Irene told, ”When Mom lived on the homestead near Holdrege, she said the Indians would knock at the door. When they opened the door the Indians would ask for food. If they didn’t give it to them, they would walk in and take it Mom said they didn’t have much for themselves. She also said the Indians set fire to the hay stacks and and straw stacks and stole their cattle and horses.”
The Phelps County Museum files (in Holdrege) show that Indians lingered in the
county long after the pioneers settled there. They departed as the settlers claimed the land. When Esaiassons homesteaded, the Pawnee still inhabited the Republican River area that cut through the rougher land 11 miles to the southwest. And small bands still roamed the area.
Irene continued, ”Mom said their house was made of sod. Big blocks of sod were dug up and put together. They had a dirt floor, had a stove, and had a window seat where they could set or place flowers. They climbed a ladder to the loft where they slept.”
National Archive records show that Esaiassons built a sod house 12ft. by 12ft. plus a sod addition 8ft. by 22ft., a sod stable 14ft. by 40ft., and a frame granary and corn crib 16ft. by 24 ft. They dug a cellar and a well and erected a windmill. They also fenced 25 acres of pasture and tilled 75 acres of cropland.
They filed a homestead application June 15, 1880 and received title November 14, 1885. Andrew died January 7, 1885.
As the pioneer front rolled westward across the nation, horse racing ranked the number one sport. Few leading settlements remained long without a racetrack. But any outdoor gathering could trigger a horse race. Most men, especially the younger men, seized every opportunity to prove their steed’s superiority. Superior horseflesh reflected on their judgment and masculinity.
However, public opinion restricted women to displaying show horses in county fairs and in other organized events. History has seldom mentioned a woman entering a man’s horse race. And tradition required ladies to ride sidesaddle, not the safest way to ride in an all out near dead heat race.
The homestead required much labor, but Augusta had interests beyond work. She loved horses and she soon acquired one.
Alvin explained, ”She told of entering a horse race out there. They didn’t object to her entering the race. And when she won they couldn’t find anything wrong with the race, but they disqualified her because she was a woman.”
Although the incident caused a lasting resentment, it failed to turn her against the opposite sex. For a young fellow named Peter Johnson would soon attract her attention.
In the meantime, Augusta decided to improve her dressmaking talent. So, she forsook the homestead for seamstress training. This she pursued in Denver, Colorado, a bustling city of 6,000 inhabitants.
Marjorie told, ”Grandma later went to work for a family as a seamstress. She sewed all of their clothes. Evidently they were quite wealthy and owners of a store in Denver.”
In 1873, Peter Johnson immigrated to Chicago from Shene, Sweden. He joined five older siblings, two brothers and three sisters. The 17- year-old immigrant either learned or improved his carpentering skills in Chicago. He also practiced his English. Alvin said of his father’s English, ”He mispronounced only one word ’thumb’ which he pronounced `tum’.”
After five years of absorbing early American life, Peter traveled to central Nebraska. He applied for citizenship in Kearney, Nebraska in 1878.
On May 5, 1879 he applied for a homestead on land located two miles south of Holdrege. He built a sod house, a sod stable, and preformed other required work. Rules decreed that the settler live on the homestead and farm it for five years to receive title. Absences over six months voided a claim. But in 1880 drought struck the area. It destroyed crops, dried up pasture, and burned up the garden. Peter packed up and vacated the homestead from October 1880 until September 1881.
In seeking to reestablish his claim, he testified before County Judge Blackman, (condensed here) ”I had growing 40 acres of wheat… which should have yielded 9 bushels per acre… and 20 acres of corn… which should have yielded 30 bushels per acre… together with the garden crop all of which were destroyed.” Judge Blackman reinstated Peter’s homestead claim and he received title on January 20, 1885.
Peter now devoted increasing time to carpentering. He built Holdrege’s opera house. And after he married Augusta (September 15, 1887) he built their home in Holdrege.
Peter and Augusta started their family in Holdrege with three daughters: Ethel born August 19, 1888; Edna born November 7, 1890; and Nellie born May 23, 1893.
Several years passed since Augusta and her mother left Montgomery County. Life in Nebraska fell short of their expectations. So they returned with Augusta’s new husband and young family and purchased an 80 acre farm one half mile west of Frankfort (October 16, 1893).
Horses held a special place in the hearts of the early settlers. Most admired the spirited beasts, but only a dedicated horse lover would seek the return of an aging nag. Augusta sought the horse she had left with her sister Anna and husband 15 years earlier. But they refused to return it. Irene said, ”They told her the keep was worth more than the pony.
The fourth daughter and the first son joined the growing family on the Frankfort eighty: Rosa born December 2, 1896 and Alvin born November 13, 1898.
Next, Peter bought two 20-acre properties on either side of what is now Eastern Avenue in Red Oak. They moved into the house on the hill (on the west side of the road). Here the last three children arrived: Earl born June 10, 1900, Selma (Sally) born October 6, 1903, and Irene born February 18, 1907.
The last child’s birth found Augusta 42 and Peter 50. Augusta’s mother lived with them, at least part of the time, until 1907 when she died. Peter’s father lived with them a short time until 1912 when he died. Still, while supporting the large family, their affluence increased. Irene concluded a description of their home, ”No one was allowed in the parlor except on Sundays or special occasions.”
They joined the Mission Church and Peter joined a lodge in which the members elected him the leader at least once. Irene said, ’They were an attractive couple when they dressed for a lodge function.” Augusta’s small structure complimented Peter’s stout (but not obese) frame.
In addition to the Eastern Avenue acreages, Peter started buying farmland. He held each farm until it fetched the ’right’ price. He would then purchase another farm seldom holding any over a year. He also bought and sold houses in Red Oak. (From the Montgomery County Courthouse records.)
But carpentering dominated his working life. And his strength served him well in his chosen craft. He would haul out his large wooden tool chest which contained several long removable drawers which in turn contained hand saws, wooden planes, a brace and several bits, a large draw knife, etc. and go to work. He constructed a variety of structures. He also built cedar chests, one for each daughter. The chests remain evidence of his skill.
Irene said, ”At Red Oak, Dad built all the out buildings: a hog house, a chicken house, a buggy shed, a corn crib, a barn, and a shanty where he did a lot of (carpenter) work. I think he remodeled the house. Yes, we had a two holey.
I remember the combination hog and chicken house he built. The hogs occupied one side and the chickens the other. But things didn’t work out like he expected. The chickens kept getting in the hog pen and the hogs ate them.
The house had a kitchen that had a sink with a pump that drew rainwater from a large cistern north of the house. A pantry, bedroom, dining room, and parlor were all on the lower floor. A bathroom with a tub was also on the lower floor, but we had to carry the water in. It had a drain. Three bedrooms were on the second floor and one for company called the spare bedroom. There were two closets and another one just about the size of a room.
The big rainwater cistern was north of the north porch. Two other porches graced the house, one on the south (where we kept the gas tank for our lights) and a front porch on the east. Our well for drinking water was north east of the house. We had our clothesline on the north side of the house.
We had a truck farm and sold potatoes, strawberries, apples, cherries, pears, etc. One apple orchard was north of the garden and one was across the road.
I had the job of answering the telephone when ladies called in their orders. I must have been six or seven years old. I also had to stand on a chair and wash dishes. The rest of the family was out picking strawberries, cherries, etc.
We stored apples in the basement in a separate room from the furnace. Dad made a cellar in the barn for the potatoes. We had a wooden pump in the pasture where we watered the cattle and horses. Dad raised the first alfalfa crop in the county. It was (in a field) where the Beauty Nook is now.
When Grandpa Johnson came from Chicago to stay with us, Dad built a room in the barn for him. He was very sick. Dad wouldn’t let us go close to him. He took care of Grandpa. (Peter feared that his father’s unknown illness, probably cancer, was contagious.)
Ethel, Edna, Nellie, and Rosa pursued teaching careers in the country schools. They would board and room with a farm family near the school, a necessity due to the distance from home. Late Sunday Peter would drive them to their temporary residences in a carriage. Then Friday evening he would go after them. This job was delegated to Alvin when he was old enough to handle it. Alvin said, ”It seemed I would no sooner get them home, unharness the team, blanket the horses, then get up in the middle of the night and remove the blankets, curry them down in the morning, and then Sunday harness up the team and make the return trip.”
But the automobile usurped the noble beast’s transportation role. Other mechanization introduced additional changes. And war threatened Europe.
October 1, 1913 Edna married Arthur Erickson. They moved to a farm east of Stanton. April 10, 1917 Alvin enlisted in Red Oak’s national guard company. August 15th he matched off to the battlefield. In 1918 Peter sold the Eastern Avenue properties and the family moved to a farm south of Stanton. And on October 29, 1919 Nellie married Herbert Isaacson.
Peter farmed the 80 acres he bought three miles south and one-fourth mile west of Stanton. While only 63, his health worried him. He wore a heavy truss over a large intestinal rupture, but the rupture still pained him. His hearing diminished and depression plagued him.
Irene said, ”He would go out to the barn to hang himself and Mom would send me out to talk him out of it.” Each time his love for his young daughter overpowered his desire for self-destruction.
Peter farmed other land in addition to the eighty. He also farmed with Alvin for a short time. Finally, he quit farming and moved to Red Oak. Earl, Irene, Rosa, Ethel, and Sally moved with him. Augusta remained and cooked for Alvin and he farmed the eighty.
February 22, 1923 Alvin married Leila Smith. With a short exception, Alvin continued farming the eighty for the next 17 years. He and Leila started and mostly raised their family there.
When Augusta’s daughters planned their weddings they expected her to design and sew their wedding gowns. Augusta obliged.
Sally married Myron Rush on March 5, 1924; Rosa married Anton Anderson on August 29, 1924; Irene married Walter Lindner on August 2, 1927; and Ethel married Elven Johnson on October 10, 1928. Earl found work in Rockford, Illinois and married a Rockford girl, Pauline Jolliff.
Unlike Peter and Augusta, their children raised small families. Peter and Augusta received 16 grandchildren including 2 adopted and 1 step-grandchild with the largest family of 5 grandchildren and the average of 2. Sometime after their youngest child married they engaged in the old country custom of living with their children.
Stanley Johnson said, ”Grandpa and Grandma lived with us at least for a while. I remember Grandma rocking me for hours. Every morning, shortly after he got up, Grandpa would put snuff up his nose. Then he would sneeze and sneeze and sneeze until he about drove everyone nuts. He said it cleared his head. I remember Dad and Grandpa discussing framing. He was taller than Dad, about five-foot eight. One day Grandpa just disappeared.”
On November 18, 1929 a farewell note led relatives to Peter’s car on the Mainquist bottomland four miles south of Stanton. Sheriff J.A. Baker led a three-day 150 man fruitless search. Two months later, 13 year old Clarence Berglund and his dog stumbled onto the body. A self-inflicted gunshot ended 73 impatient years.
Grandmother lived with her daughters for many years. She died on August 18, 1955 at the age of 91.
My grandparents’ old clock sits on a shelf in our living room. Every time I wind it I think of them. Time perpetuates their legacy as it lives on through their descendants.