Angel of the Prairies
Anna Shatswell was born in Vienna, Austria, on this date in 1875. She immigrated with her family to New Ulm, MN, when she was 13.
Shatswell wanted to pursue a career in nursing, so she studied in San Francisco and practiced in St. Paul before coming to Devils Lake in 1906. There, she was among the state’s earliest pioneer nurses. As she described it, she worked in a “little hospital on the prairie with a staff of one doctor and two nurses.”
In an interview with the Williston Herald in 1967, Shatswell claimed, “Nursing on the prairie involved a lot of ingenuity and perseverance, because hospitals were few and far between.”
As one of the state’s earliest nurses, Anna spent many years traveling great distances in harsh weather to reach sick patients.
“I went wherever the doctors needed me, and I shook the snow out of my clothes many a time – it was an ordeal, but it was rewarding, too,” she said.
Anna remembered traveling to treat an abundance of stricken patients during the 1918 flu pandemic. One victim from the Fort Buford area told her fretful family, “If Nurse Shatswell comes, I will live; if not, I will die, that’s all.” Thankfully, Anna arrived, and the girl did indeed live. “I brought her right out of it,” Anna said.
Anna and her sister staked a homestead claim in Divide County and built a farm together. Anna then opened a six-bed maternity hospital in Crosby. During her 60-year career as a registered nurse, she said she “delivered most of the babies from Minot to Crosby and as far south as Williston.” She said she kept track of the number of babies she delivered until it got as high as 1000, when she quit counting.
It was in Divide County that Shatswell became widely known as the Angel of the Prairies. “I didn’t make much money,” she said, “but I didn’t charge folks when they had no money, because they had to provide food and clothes for the little ones running around.”
Anna and her husband, Ed Shatswell, moved to Williston in 1962. In her 1967 interview, Anna said her life of nursing had been “meaningful and satisfying.” She added, “I’ve gained a wealth of experience, and I never tired of nursing – I never could say I’d had enough. Nursing is respectable and provides a good perspective for working and living. You see so much good and bad, and you feel so sad and glad – it’s a good life…Like any lifetime occupation, you never really stop, you always have it with you.”
Anna broke her leg and was confined to a wheelchair when she was in her 80s. Unable to walk, the nurse was forced into retirement after sixty years of service. But, she remained lively and energetic, and she took pride in her ability to remain up-to-date, saying, “I have to keep up with what’s going on in the world, or I might get old, you know.”
When several of her friends suggested she might do better living in a nursing home, Anna quickly disagreed. She said she wanted to be around her books and papers and to laugh and “say foolish things.” She felt being surrounded by only the elderly would keep her from staying young.
Anna’s grown ‘babies’ continued to visit her well into her nineties, often bringing their families. “The rewards of a lifetime spent nursing are manifold,” she said.
The “Angel of the Prairies” passed away on November 12, 1972, 16 days shy of her 97th birthday.
Anderson, Jackie. Angel of the Prairies nursed over sixty years. The Williston Herald. 6 Mar 1967: p 10.
The Williston Herald. 14 Nov 1972: p 2.
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm