Walsh County, North Dakota

The Life Story of Mrs. Harriet Sanborn


by Mary Derby nee Thatcher

Harriet Sanborn passed away January 24, 1934 in Minneapolis, Hennepin, Minnesota, at the age of 94. Among the personal belongings found after her death was the following story just as she had written it. This unaltered manuscript has been put into a simple booklet as a Christmas remembrance for a few of her beloved relatives.

I know all who read it will find it interesting and exciting. I hope it will be handed down to succeeding generations, not only as a family keepsake but as a constant source of courage and faith. These qualities, along with kindness and graciousness is how I remember Grandmother Sanborn, the only name I ever knew her by.


I was born in 1840 in Medina, Ohio. When I was two years old the family moved to Genesee, Illinois. The village was on the Genessee River, which at times was filled with wild rice that decayed in the summer, making us very sickly with ague and fever.

Father had a carriage and wagon shop. Brother William and I attended school in Genessee for the first time. A Mr. Chapin taught school and also preached at the school on Sunday, as there was no church. During church the ladies sat on one side and the men on the other. When Mr. Chapin gave out the announcements for the evening meeting he would say, “If the Lord is willing, we will all meet here one week from tonight at early candle light.”

Slavery was then in practice. This was long before Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” There they had an underground railroad to help the Negroes to Canada, then on the Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, over a bridge the beavers made, then to Waterloo, twelve miles from Watertown, the town with the planked road. We stayed here while father went farther north. They made a high grade across a swamp. The net morning there was no grade—it had sunk during the night. How terrible it would have been if it had happened in the daytime.

We took a boat to cross to Governor Doty’s Island, then crossed to Menasha, which is only a logging camp. Here we lived in a surveyor’s tent in front of which was a big log fire. Mother and I took our beds into a log cabin and slept on the floor. Here father built the first frame house with lumber that came down the river from Green Bay on a raft he had built. I was the first little girl ever there. We got our groceries from Neenah, our fish in the river, wild honey from woodsmen, and hickory nuts and hickory bark to burn from the woods.

That winter mother and I went to a donation party over at Governor Doty’s Island. Mother got acquainted with a great many ladies and had a good time.

Settlers came fast the next spring. Among them was a woman with a sick little girl. Mother was with her most of the time until the girl died. There was no place to bury her, but someone said there was an Indian burying ground around the bend of the river. So, one bright morning they took two boats with the mother and the corpse in the one and we in the other. How still everything was. The only sounds were the dipping oars and the mother’s sighing. We kept close to shore and soon came to one of the prettiest places I have ever seen – a small green spot with big trees back of it. We stepped out of the boat and saw shingles sticking up which marked the Indian graves. As we carried the baby up, four Indians came in line back of us. They stood on one side of the grave and we on the other. This troubled the mother, but my mother quieted her by saying that they were sympathizing. After the ceremony we all went back but the Indians. As we went to the boat and down the river, there they stood like four black stumps. They had not moved.

Father built the first store here at Menasha. They had school on the second floor where William and I attended second grade.

Father then went to Princeton and took a claim, so we had to pack up and go again. Grandma Curtiss came with her youngest son to visit just as we were going. The captain and mate had the boat ready and loaded, and eight of us started out. We expected to find settlers along the shore where we could land any time. The boat was guided with poles and oars, keeping near the shore. We traveled all day, and there was no settlement near. Our lunch was gone, it was getting dark and a storm was raging. Father fell overboard and there was no one to help him, but some way he hung on with one hand and got back into the boat alone. Then someone said, “I see a light.” The captain said, “We’ll go ashore right here. We’re aground now and cannot move the boat. I’ll carry you all ashore.”

We walked on the beach toward the light over the stones, then the light went out. Finally, we found the road and soon the light went on. We found a large house where we were welcome and were given a good supper. We stayed there all night. The next day was Sunday, and after breakfast we had a chapter read and had prayer.

We decided to go back to the boat. No one knew which direction we should go. We walked in different directions and through thick brush. Finally, we heard a dog bark. Brother’s dog was in the boat and was barking. We got into the boat and traveled up-river all day. Provisions ran out. It was sundown and no place to land. Someone said they saw a man washing his hands. We came to him and asked him if there was a place to land. He said that was a logging camp, and when we asked if there was a place where he could buy provisions he said they were almost out of provisions themselves and no place to get any nearby. He also said that our boat was a bettter place to sleep in than their shanty.

Mother and father decided to stay in the boat. She told him to get a length of stove pipe and put it on the stove, which was in the boat, and take the head out of the port barrel and flour barrel and she would make pancakes. After supper everyone was tired, and the next thing was to figure out how we would sleep. Mother and grandmother slept on the seats. I slept under the stove hearth on the bottom of the boat. Grandmother slept with her glasses and lace cap on. The stars shone bright. All was quiet when suddenly there was a splash in the water close to the boat. It was a big black bear. We could see his head and paws as he slapped the water. The bushes cracked as he climbed up the bank into the woods.

The workmen at the logging camp asked us where we were going. We told them to Princeton on the Fox River. They told us we were not on the Fox River but the Wolf River. We would have to go back to the lake and start up the other river. When we got back to the lake the wild rice had not straightened up where our boat when through the rice before. We then went up the Fox River to Berlin. Here the boat went back and teams took us to Princeton Farm, two miles out.

At that time there were three small towns near Princeton, St. Maris and Hamilton. Father went to the village and built housese and churches. Mother and grandmother decided one day to burn the swamp land near the house. Father went to the village that morning and had expressed his desire to have it burned so that the next year he could use the hay. The fire was set and the meadow burned in a few minutes, but not only that, in a few minutes it was into the timber, cordwood, hay shanties, and then in the tamarack swamp and on to Hamilton, where Father was working on the roof of a house. He saw the fire coming and remembered what he had said. He came home and said nothing about it to anyone. No one ever found out who set the fire.

We, in a short time, moved to Daniels Mills. My brother, William, was married here. Both William and father worked in the lumber mill. Near the house was a small pond on which we often boated. A sugar camp was near and we were often invited to the camp in the evening to make sugar. A big iron kettle filled with sap hung over the fire of the log. The fire shone thru the trees and made plenty of light. Everyone was gay, laughing and talking, some sitting on the mossy ground. When the sugar was ready, each was given a saucer and spoon to help themselves.

When everyone had eaten all they wanted, we sat on a log near the fire and told stories and sang all the songs we knew. All the way home we sang, or at any rate until we came to the big oak tree that stood beside the road near the cranberry marsh where we picked cranberries. The year before, two young boys who owned the adjoining settlement had been quarreling. They decided to settle the argument here one day. One man shot the other. He fell on the road under this tree. After that, no matter whether it was day or night, we ran by that tree.

After living in Daniels Mills for two years we left for Minnesota. A long caravan started for Minnesota. When we came to the great divide we doubled the teams on each wagon and clocked the wheels going up. Then we went down on the other side and crossed the Mississippi River on ferry at LaCrosse. We then went to Rochester, Minnesota, where we stayed with friends, then on we went to Medford, Minnesota. One year after our arrival we bought a house at Mapleton. This was during the Indian war.

Our house was located on the high bank of the river a short distance from the bridge. Our house was used as a fort and every man who had a gun stayed with us. The families near and far gathered at our house each night. As soon as it was dark all lights were turned out. Down in the shed by an old stove the men were running bullets.

One night I was told that if Indians came I was to go out on a low roof then down on the ground, over the foot bridge and into the plum grove. No Indians came though that night, and the next morning everyone packed provisions and bedding, harnessed the teams and left. Mother told me that if I would take care of her silver I could have it, so I took it where we buried our potatoes the year before, in a sand pit, and buried it.

We camped on the prairies, waiting to make arrangements and find out where we were going. One day the scouts came and told us the soldiers from Fort Snelling were coming and to go back home. They said, “You cannot go to Wilton. The town is full now. There are no provisions there for you. They have not enough for themselves.” To get to Wilton we would have to cross the Indian reservation. They called the roll call every night at camp. One night they found some of the whites had gone to help the Sioux murder.

We went back home to Mapleton and found the garden fence was down, the door open, gate broken, sweet corn cut, and the feed out. Old Mapleton was in the timber. Mr. Middlebrook was postmaster. The soldiers soon came and drove the Indians back to their reservation. The governor said he would give everyone who carried a gun a month’s supply of gunpowder. I carried a six shooter always with me and so got my powder.

The following year, January 28, 1864, I was married to Josiah B. Sanborn, of Medford. We went on a farm twelve miles from Winnebago Lake where Ezekiel Colby was born October 18, 1864. The next year we sold our house and moved to Medford. Francis Curtiss was born August 21, 1867. Olive Arsulah was born January 8, 1870. Marian Clyde was born February 5, 1872. Ezekiel Colby died January 7, 1876. He was buried at Medford.

My husband, Francis, father, and a hired man were on their way to North Dakota with a covered wagon filled with household goods and driving stock 400 miles northwest to the Red River Valley when Anna May was born at Medford on May 28, 1880.

The men went west to Forest River, where they found timber and took claims before it was surveyed. They built a log cabin, and after it was finished Mr. Sanborn was not satisfied so thought he would look around to see if he could find another location he liked better. He left Grandpa Hawkins, Frank, and the hired man at the cabin. He told Frank he had buried money in an old can at the trunk of a tree and if he did not return to take the money and come back to Minnesota. The next morning he returned and said he had the best timber and it was located on the nicest river at the ford.

The family soon came as far as Grand Forks on the train. This was the end of the railroad. We then hired two men with ox teams and covered wagons who took us to Forest River, which was fifty miles. It took us three days to get there. It was very warm, and we slept each night in the covered wagon with the end of the wagon covered with mosquito bar.

Our house was located on the bank of the Forest River in sixty acres of timber. It was called “Sanborn Stopping Place,” and was the mecca for travelers and homeseekers seeking claims along the out fringe of the settlement. Many times we thought we heard people talking, and when we went to the door saw the trees filled with prairie chickens cooing to one another.

One morning we looked out the window and saw a large wolf under the tree where the chickens roosted. My father got his rifle and ran after the wolf. The wolf ran among the cattle, then up the hill. Father shot at him and then followed him. He found him about a half mile away, dead. He skinned him and sold the hide. Two men came that winter to hunt elk in our timber. They shot three elk behind our barn. We were supplied with venison steaks all winter.

One night during a blizzard the cattle came home without the drove of colts. My husband went after them. He walked miles and got lost in the snow. The hired man took his horn and lantern and went to hunt for him. The horn soon froze and the lantern went out and he was forced to come back without finding him. After midnight Josiah came almost frozen. He had lost his way and wandered in the wrong direction. After a long time he found the Old Fort Totten Trail, which runs from Fort Snelling to Winnipeg. The Indians hauled their skins to St. Paul on this trail. The trail went by the house, and that was the only way he could find his way home.

Settlers came. The river was high. We had a boat and used to row them across to their land. The following spring the surveyors came to survey for the railroad. They camped in our grove. Jim Hill stayed with us occasionally. One night he came late. There were no empty beds and he had to sleep on the floor.

Summer came. A July 4th celebration was being planned. We had the only stove in the country. It was twenty miles or more to the nearest store, so we had fresh green peas and new potatoes. There were sixty people at the celebration. Patriotic songs were sung and there was a speaker who spoke broken English. The next morning we heard that President Garfield had been shot.

Every night a big wolf would come and sit on the ridge half a mile from the house and look down and howl. If you have seen the picture of “The Lone Wolf” you have seen him. It made the children nervous, so Mr. Sanborn said, “I’ll fix him. Where is that old coffee pot?” He put poisoned meat in the pot and put it out on the hill. We never saw the wolf again, but a man stayed with us while he built his shanty, and one night he came home and said he found a good, clear-water spring on his land. The boys asked how he dug it out. He then told them he found an old coffee pot up there. This frightened the boys. It was the same pot the poison had been put in for the wolf. They found the man had used the pot to drink from, but I guess the poison had all been washed out before he drank from it. The wolf must have carried the pot on his head two miles after he had eaten the meat.

The prairies near Forest River were covered with buffalo bones. A boy picked up enough and sold them to buy clothes and school books.

Josiah was well known in the early history of Walsh County. He was instrumental in organizing Medford township and naming the first post office in that vicinity, Medford. He also served as one of the first commissioners of Walsh County. After a long illness he died on May 22, 1889. After all my children were married I came to live with Olive, visiting the children occasionally.

OBITUARY: Mrs. Harriet Sanborn, 94 years old, pioneer, North Dakota resident, and for the last 35 years a resident of St. Louis Park, Minneapolis, Minnesota, died January 24th in the home of her daughter, Mrs. B. W. Carpenter, 4304 Minnetonka Boulevard. She was born in 1840 at Medina, Ohio. Burial was held in the family plot at Inkster, North Dakota.


We are the products of our ancestors. The account of Harriet Sanborn’s life offers a look at an amazing life of struggle and accomplishment during a difficult period to survive and overcome hardships. Mabel (Carpenter) Forsythe kept the records of our family members. These accounts can be found in the family Bible, which was given to Mrs. Christine Forsythe (who was born in Norway), in 1895 by Henry Forsythe (who was born in Scotland), Al’s grandparents. This family Bible will be given to Trevor Forsythe after we’re gone. We hope this information will encourage you and yours to share and record family memories while they are fresh in your mind. Thanks to Nancy Chybowski for putting this together.

Submitted by Al and Pat Forsythe

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