Personal Narrative by Samuel Denton

Looking for a Home in Dakota
A Night in the Coteaus During a Terrible Snow Storm

The following particulars were recently related to the writer by Mr. Samuel Denton

“In June, 1882, Josiah True, Robert Lemmon and myself, rigged a boat on the running gear of a buckboard and with a good team left Avoca, Iowa, to hunt for a home in Dakota. We entered the territory at Sioux Falls and traveled north by the way of Watertown, Clark, Groton, Grand Rapids, Jamestown and Ft. Totten. Not finding a suitable location, we turned back at Ft. Totten and traveled in a southeasterly direction; but found nothing suitable until we reached Sacred Earth Gap, just east of Britton, where we found the first good drinking water after a three days’ journey. On our way down here we camped at Bear Creek, where we discovered a bed about six feet square of tame onions, which had undoubtedly been planted by the Indians. The next day we went to Frank Ford‘s, a short distance south, who had located’ his home a month previously. From there we traveled south, to what is now Waverly Township, where we concluded to settle. This was in the latter part of July. Frank Ford‘s house was then the only one in the valley in this county, and ten miles from our location. We set about building sod houses and cut hay with the “Armstrong” mower and put it up with a wooden fork. As our locating here is given in the township history I will pass over to January 23, 1884. I had been down at Waubay at Mr. Barse‘s surveying, and on above date reached Ft. Sisseton by stage. The morning had been foggy and the weather turned colder in the afternoon and commenced snowing. . The snow was about eighteen inches deep on a level, and in the marshy places I frequently plunged through the snow waist-deep. I soon began to regret that I had not heeded the advice of my friends at the fort, and remained there until the storm had abated. But, fearing that my family might be suffering for the want of fuel, I redoubled my efforts, facing the blinding storm, to reach home, a distance of sixteen miles. There was no trail, and having observed the direction of the wind when I left the fort about 2 o’clock P. M., I was enabled to take a direct course home. About dark I reached the west side of the hills, three miles from home. In coming down a hill I suddenly discovered a wolf thirty yards distant. I stopped, somewhat startled at the sight, knowing that wolves were not common. I feared there might be a pack of them not far off; and not having a desire to have my bones picked I charged the foe with a pine stick, determined, if he stood his ground, to grapple with him; but he slunk off, gave a howl which was answered by an other wolf on the hill, and together they disappeared. I had been perspiring freely, and the delay had chilled me so that one of my legs clamped and made it impossible for me to reach home. It had now grown dark, and I retraced my steps a few rods to a gulch containing brush. The cold was intense and the storm continued with unabated violence. I dug down several feet in the snow and cleared a place to build a fire and camp for the night. I burnt several newspapers in my vain attempts to light a fire, when I finally succeeded with the last paper by holding my coat-tail over it to keep the wind from blowing it out. I soon discovered that instead of having my camp on the ground I was on the top of a plum-brush heap. I wound my watch, and every thirty minutes during the night I went after a handful of brush. I did this so that I might not go to sleep. I crouched over the fire and kept comfortable, although, as I learned afterwards, the thermometer went clown to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Little Sod Shanty on the Claim
The Little Sod Shanty on the Claim

About 5 o’clock A.M. I sketched with a piece of charcoal a skull and cross-bones on the hard snow near the fire, faced it, and then bid my camp adieu. The storm was still raging, and knowing my exact location I took my bearings by the direction of the wind and started for home. I plunged about in the gulch for two hours, the snow having drifted in during the night. After getting out I once more took bearings and started for home; suddenly I saw a house, a man chopping wood, and another man going round the house. I walked up to it and found it to be a large stone; the man chopping wood was but a weed nodding in the gentle breeze, while the man going round the house was another weed being whipped back and forth by the wind.

The smoke I thought I had seen was snow drifting over the top. I now, for the first time, realized that hunger, cold and fatigue had affected my brain, and my chance to reach home was one in a thousand. Both my hands were already frozen and numb, and only by extraordinary-will power, and my wife and children perhaps perishing, did I move forward. I wanted to lie down and go to sleep, but knew if I did it meant certain death. I finally reached what I recognized to be breaking south of my house about fifty yards, but took it to be Mr. Brunskill‘s pasture, and wondered why he had moved it there. (I state these facts to give an idea of my mental condition.) I finally reached my house, but could not knock with my hands; neither could I speak, as the ice had frozen my whiskers so that my mouth was open and filled with snow. After awhile I kicked at the door. Just before reaching the house, while trying to collect my thoughts, I was taken with violent cramps of the stomach, and came within one of perishing before my own door. My wife took in the situation at a glance, and at once proceeded to thaw me out in snow slush. For two days was bathed with kerosene and then with glycerin to absorb the water collected in the blisters. This treatment proved a success to a certain degree. I still feel the effects of the great exposure and freezing. There are perhaps but few, if any, persons that ever came so near the brink of death by freezing and lived to relate their experience.”


Hickman, George; History of Marshall County, Dakota: Its Topography and Natural History, and Sketches of Pioneer Settlers, with the Names of Actual Settlers where They are From, and where They Live; Also the Military and Sisseton Reservations; J.W. Banbury, 1886.

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