Dakota Datebook

Nettie Roberts, Survivor

Friday, June 18, 2004

Women homesteaders who were single or widowed had much to contend with while proving up. In her book, “Land in Her Own Name,” North Dakota author, Elaine Lindgren wrote, “For those who had grown up on their parents’ farms, the skills needed for living on their own claims came as second nature, but young women from the city had a lot to learn. Tyra Mattson Schanche, Randi Garmann, and Kirsten Knudsen were immigrants, well educated, and from well-to-do urban families. They came ill equipped to face the hardships of a homestead; but with courage and determination, they mastered the necessary skills, learning to milk, harness a horse, clean the barn, and do whatever else needed doing.”

Lindgren went on to describe Anna Erickson’s experience of learning how to ride horses. “Rode over to Liberty…on horseback” Anna wrote in a letter, “and was so stiff when I got back Mabel had to get me a cane to use. I thought I would have to be helped out of bed this morning, but was surprised to find myself all in good shape and ready for some more riding. I can’t ‘lope’ much yet, have to learn by degrees, I guess.”

But for some, it was much more difficult than for others. On this date in 1908, Grant County’s Carson Press published the following letter to the editor:

“The Carson Press said something about a woman 70 years old having the pluck to take up residence on her claim. We have a woman (Mrs. Nettie Roberts) in the vicinity of Stebbins who has even more pluck or nerve, which ever you may call it. She had the misfortune to have (a) runaway and got all her ribs broken on the left side, her back broken, one toe broken, and was paralyzed from hips down. She only stayed in the hospital two months and returned home with paralyzed bowels and had to be cauterized twice a day.

“She had bed sores about the size of goose eggs,” the letter continued, “which ran to the back bone. She was unable to turn or lift herself with no nurse or doctor. She boarded the switch at Bismarck and was carried to and from the backs at Mandan, then put into a buggy and driven sixty-five miles to her homestead, knowing all the care she would get was what Mr. Roberts and his ten-year old daughter could give her.”

The writer went on to say that Mr. Roberts was the young widow’s brother-in-law. The letter stated, “Of course his being a veterinary surgeon and understanding how to treat sores was a great help, but they got no outside help. Talk about pluck! She has some. She has suffered now for eight months in which time she has never walked a step…

“She was given up by five doctors,” the writer continued, “and made her will while at Bismarck. She called a priest and was christened by Father Henry at the age of 22 years.

This was something unheard of before, Father Henry said. A person with all relations Protestants and at that age to turn a Catholic, was something new.”

When she was interviewed, Nettie said, “I was preparing to die but did not think I would die… I must say I am getting better. I can creep on all fours like a babe, but I am very lonely and wish my neighbors would come in and see me. Some of the busybodies said I didn’t seem to like anyone to come in and see me. This is a sad mistake. I wish all to come. It is a pleasure to me to see you come – big and little – even if you can’t help me.” (Signed,) Nettie Roberts.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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