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Widows Go West

1/26/2004:

Horace Greeley encouraged more than just young men to go west. “Young men! Poor men! Widows!” he said. “Resolve to have a home of your own! If you are able to buy and pay for one in the East, very well; if not, make one in the broad and fertile West!”

In her book, Land in Her Own Name, NDSU Professor of Sociology Elaine Lindgren describes hundreds of women who followed Greeley’s calling by staking claims in North Dakota. Today we look at just a small sampling of those who came as widows.

Norwegian immigrant Kari Skredsvig became a widow when she was only 38 years old. Left with seven children between the ages of 2 and 10, she was destitute. A friend urged her to put her children in an orphanage so she could go out to find work, but instead, Skredsvig moved to North Dakota to file a claim in Burke County.

Breaking the land for the first time was a grueling job, and many homesteaders hired the job out. Kari didn’t have the means for that, so with a team of horses, she and her 10 year-old son broke their first 10 acres by themselves. To supplement what she could make from her land, she washed clothes for others, cared for the sick, cleaned and cooked ducks for hunters and also became a mail carrier.

Kari helped organize one of the first churches in the area, but she wasn’t allowed to be a charter member, because that favor went to men only. Sadly, being a widow further lowered her status in the community; when her children tried to bring in money doing odd jobs, they were paid less because they “were the widow’s kids.” Kari managed to prove up, however, and she lived on her 160-acres for 42 years until her death.

Anna Hensel was 67 when she came here from Southern Russia as a widow. A year later she declared her intent to become a citizen, then homesteaded in Hettinger County. Six years later, she proved up, and for eleven years, she provided a home there for her daughter’s family.

Anne Furnberg came from Norway with her husband in 1869. Two years later, he died shortly after their first child was born, so Anne went to North Dakota in a covered wagon pulled by oxen. Her first home was a log cabin west of Fargo. To support her young son, Christian, she kept a cow and some chickens so that she could sell butter and eggs – but her market was across the Sheyenne River, which she had to cross by crawling on a log. When she was 38, Anne filed on 80 acres south of Fargo. While she did the farming, her 11 year-old nephew, Ole, cared for little Christian and cooked the meals.

In Towner County, a family of four women each filed their own claims. Karen Olsen Storberget, a 64 year-old widow, homesteaded in Grainfield Township. On nearby claims were her daughter, Karen, a 36 year-old widow, and two other daughters who were yet single, 22 year-old Bertha and 23 year-old Maren. Between them, they all proved up.

Not many people realize how many women filed claims in North Dakota. Lindgren’s research sampled only 9 of the state’s 53 counties, but in these 9 counties alone, more than 4,400 women filed for... Land in Her Own Name .

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm