Woman Not Found Dead
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
On this day in 1902, word came from Lisbon that a woman had been found dead near Velva. Elaine Lindgren wrote about it in her book, “Land in Her Own Name”:
Freezing temperatures were always a threat, but the tale of Helma Nelson has a surprising twist. Helma had a claim about 13 miles northwest of Velva. On March 24, 1902, a dispatch from Lisbon reported, “Helma Nelson, daughter of Andrew Nelson, a farmer living near Lisbon, was found frozen to death in a cabin on her claim near Velva.”
The story was carried in a number of newspapers, including the Minneapolis Journal. While it was certainly tragic, the story wasn’t all that unusual. Claim shanties were often so inadequate, that it didn’t take much for Nature to overcome settlers.
There was one reader, though, who found the story very shocking, and that was Helma, herself, who was very much alive when she read the report of her death. Nine days later, Helma wrote to the Minneapolis paper from Valley City.
To the Editor of the Journal:
The other day while reading your paper, I found an item which surprised me very much. It was my own death announcement. The item is correct in every detail except that I was not frozen to death and wish you would correct it.
I am at present at Valley City and have been here since my return from Velva. I do not understand how anything so unfounded as this could get out, but perhaps the following will explain.
I have a claim thirteen miles northwest of Velva and had gone there to live upon it for some time. My “shanty” is not of the warmest kind and I was caught there in the big blizzard of March 14, 15, and 16. I had only a limited supply of fuel and had not reckoned on a storm like that. When my fuel was gone, I broke up my table, bed and everything I had and burned it. After that, I appropriated the bedstead and floor for fuel out of a claim shanty about twenty feet away belonging to Miss Hannah Sollin.
Helma continues her letter by saying, George Selvig, of Norwich (Post Office), N.D., a neighbor, and Mr. Sawdey, of Tilton, Iowa, deserve credit in their effort to come to my rescue. On Saturday, the second day of the storm, they, with great difficulty, found their way to my place, about two miles from theirs. They thought it best if I could stand it, to go with them to Mr. Selvig’s and off we started, Mr. Selvig taking the lead.
I will admit I did not have bright hopes of ever seeing or finding any house or place of refuge when we left my shanty, but after wading through the snow and facing the wind which was freezing one side of our faces, we spied Mr. Selvig’s house when about two rods from it. I think we were very fortunate, indeed.
The newspapers wrote retractions stating, “She is out on her claim again and expects to have a bumper crop this fall.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm