The vast stretches of unclaimed prairie land in Dakota Territory beckoned many a hearty soul in the frontier days, and the Saunders family of Richmond, Virginia, were among these early settlers. On this date in 1886, Thomas Saunders began the journey west with his family when he was nine years old, so that his father could survey land in the Dakota Territory.
When the Saunders family stepped off the train at their destination in Gladstone, they were shocked by the 20 below zero temperatures and the freezing wind that stung their faces. Thomas Saunders remembered his mother insisting that they turn around "right now!" but his father decided they would stay and settle a homestead.
That winter of 1886-87 was one of the longest and coldest in the history of North Dakota. The flimsy house and barn the Saunders family constructed from railroad ties was not built to withstand the howling winds of North Dakota's bitter blizzards. When the feeble barn blew down, the Saunders moved the surviving farm animals into the house to keep them from freezing. Looking back on the experience, Thomas Saunders jokingly wrote, "So we came out of the winter with a three legged cow, two very thin horses, a mule and nine hens." But they survived and decided to stay in North Dakota.
Despite North Dakota's harsh winters, the state's frontier landscape captured the imagination of young Thomas Saunders. The Saunders' family moved to the Dakota Territory just ten years after the Custer Massacre, and lived near the trails that Custer travelled on his way to Little Big Horn. "I would just sit in those trails and imagine I could see the Seventh Cavalry and the wagon trains traveling by," recalled Saunders.
When Thomas Saunders went out on his own in 1897, he tried his hand at farming, lumber hauling, and firefighting, before he and his wife Nina settled on ranching. "Our ranch life was like most ranchers in the early days," Saunders said. "We have been rich and also ‘broke.' Sometimes it seemed almost hopeless, but there was always that ‘never quit' feeling that kept us going."
And it was just this positive attitude that sustained many a North Dakotan settler through the hardships of frontier life. As Saunders wrote of his fellow settlers, they were, "Heroes of many a deed unsung, they lived and died when the state was young."
Dakota Datebook written by Carol Wilson
Johnson, Andrew, ed. 50 Years in the Saddle: Another Look at the Trail vol. 2. Austin: San Felipe Press, 1965.