NORTH DAKOTA
Another USGenWeb / NDGenWeb Genealogy Project

An excerpt from The Sahli Family Web Site on
Joseph Sahli, an early Emmons County pioneer.

Joseph Sahli

Born: Kleinliebental, Odessa, Russia, 1868
Died: Hague, ND USA 1947

As translated from German and recorded by son Frank P. Sahli

In the year 1868, on the shores of the Black Sea, I first saw the light of day. A mere accident saved my life at the age of 18 months, or I would not be writing these lines today. My mother went to get some water at quite some distance from the house and took and sat me on the ground at the outside steps. While she was away a large pig came up to me, pushed me over and started to chew away at one of my ears. The pain caused me to let out a frightful cry which attracted the attention of a neighbor who happened to be outside at the time, who came running over and with some effort succeeded in chasing the pig away. A doctor was called immediately to attend to my wounds. He dressed them and in a few weeks I was all right again. This incident of course is not of my own memory but has been often retold to me by the good woman who saved my life.

When I was four years old my dear mother died, leaving my father, one brother and one sister and me to mourn her. The family was poor and it was necessary for my father to find work away from home. The family was thus completely broken up. I was taken to strangers to earn my living at which place I was to stay for eight years without once seeing the face of my father, brother or sister. The thought of this separation at the age of four years, working among strange faces for a living without any pay whatsoever, was almost terrifying. But it was done. My employer proved to be a hard master. It was the custom those days to hitch four horses to a plow in tandem fashion. As I was unable to do any other farm work at that age, my master made me walk alongside the team with a whip and drive the front two horses. The hours were from four to nine every day and for a little lad it was a terrible hardship. Not getting enough sleep and rest, I often got so tired and sleepy that I just dropped in my tracks completely exhausted. To remedy this, my master tied me down on the first horse. This was a little relief but it proved to be no cure for my sleepiness. Every time I dozed off, I was rudely awakened with a stinging slap of the whip as the driver sneaked up behind and gave me to understand that I must keep awake. The place of work, that is the field, was about eight miles away from the village, and being too far to go home each day, the whole week was spent right on the field of cultivation. The days at times got too hot to work so often it was necessary to suspend operations during the heat and work was done during the moonlight. So I was compelled to be up and about my work sometimes 24 hours a day with out getting any sleep or rest. During one of the hot spells the horses were left loose during the day and towards evening about dusk, I was sent out on the prairie to bring them in. One of the mares had a two-month colt. When I approached the horses, I noticed that two large wolves were attacking the colt and in fact were devouring it. Very much frightened, I ran back and told my master of what I had seen. He got so angry at me because I did not drive the wolves away and bring back the horses that he gave me a good licking. I was treated thus for six years, and although I was hired out for eight years, my father for some reason or other came back at the end of six years. Meeting him again was a most happy occasion. I remember I wept with him for several hours as I related to him my story of the six years of hard labor and cruel treatment. He then decided then and there to take me away from the place, as it was too much for a boy of my age to bear.

I was then taken to a carpentry and handiwork school to learn the trade. Here again I got under harsh management and into bad companionship. A good many of the other students at the school spend their nights out on wild and drunken parties. I was asked and coaxed to go along, but I always refused, having a great abhorrence for drink. I was beaten up many times and much of my clothing was stolen and destroyed on account of my refusal to join in the many revelries. Things got so bad and unbearable that I finally resolved to get away from the place. To get caught in this act however meant still greater trouble for me and would result probably in a real whipping and solitary confinement and starving rations for many days. But one dark night I picked up enough courage and sneaked out of the place and ran away and went home to my father, and again told him all about what had happened. After hearing this he decided to put me in another place in a small town where I could continue my learning. This place was 50 miles away from home. My father was too poor to take me by train or hire someone, so I had to walk all the way, it taking me several days to make the journey on foot. Here I worked and studied until I was 21 years of age. I earned nothing above my board and room and clothing and even these were sparsely dispensed with.

At the age of 21 I was drafted into the army for four years service. This took me 500 miles away from my father, brother and sister and it was a very pathetic parting when I left for the entraining camp. Soldiers in the army were paid 30 cents a day. Rations were poor, especially the bread which was black and heavy. Those who had enough money to buy themselves extra things to eat were indeed fortunate. We only got two meals a day. The daily drills were hard and long and many times this included long distance running. One day when the mercury hovered near the 100 mark while on one of the running drills, several of the boys including myself, from lack of water and from the great heat, fell exhausted to the ground. I was picked up later, brought back to consciousness, taken to a hospital and nursed back to my original strength. After I was all right again I was again put back in the lines. In this manner I served my full term of four years. When the time was up, I returned again to my father's house. I was now 25 years old. From the meager pay in the army I managed to save a little money and had enough to get married on. My oldest brother emigrated to America at this time. I was sorry to see him go and I longed to see the day when I also could go. I kept on working, saved by money and soon had enough to go to America also, the land of promise and liberty, of which I had heard so much about. I had two children now. Great and enthusiastic preparations were made for the trip across. When my father heard that I had decided to go to America, he became very sorrowful and pleaded to be taken along also. He had not enough money to buy his ticket and after taking stock of my finances I found that I was just able to buy his fare. Being mindful of all the lonesomeness and suffering I would cause him were I to leave him behind, I decided to take him along. I was aware that he had sacrificed a great deal in his life for my welfare and thought this would indeed be a most fitting manner in which to partially repay him.

Another obstacle immediately loomed up. When my only sister learned that she was to be left behind all alone she became nearly frantic and begged to be taken along too. I however, had stretched myself to the limit and it was impossible to comply with her request. Here I was faced with the predicament of leaving her behind perhaps never to see her again, but there was no alternative, she simply had to stay. When the time arrived for the departure to the station with my belongings, I stood up on the wagon and sang the farewell song to my dear sister and to the rest of the neighbors that had gathered to bid us a happy and safe journey. A heartrending scene took place at this time. As I started to drive away, my sister cried aloud for me to take her along, and although two good women held her back and tried to calm and console her, she struggled and fought and finally broke away from them and came running after and climbed upon the wagon. I could do nothing to persuade her to get off and she rode along to the station. When the train arrived she threw herself about my neck and that of my father's and would not let go. It was only with supreme effort and I might say heartless and cruel action that I was able to free myself and my father from her clutches and hurriedly get on the train which was starting to pull out. Here she made a final and last attempt to get on and come along by grabbing the rails of the coach steps and it took the full efforts of two policemen to drag her away. In all my days I had never experienced a more painful feeling of seeming cruelty and neglect on my part than this, yet I was helpless to do anything about it. I and my father sat in the train for many hours and wept bitterly afterwards.

I went across country by train and then took the steamer and in six days arrived in America. I crossed the states and arrived safely at the place of my brother who had preceded us. I stayed with him until spring then took a land grant from the government on the Dakota prairies and started farming. I bought 4 horses and 6 cows and a tent to house my family and belongings. I pitched my tent for the night and cattle were tied to poles out in the open. During the night a great storm arose, rain, hail, sleet and snow and cold. The wind took on cyclonic proportions and ripped up the poles of the tent and carried it away. There I was, my family, my aged father, out in the elements and nothing to shelter us. I took all the coverings and clothing that I could get hold of and threw them over the children to keep them dry and warm and my father held them down, while I ran over to look after the cattle. But alas, they all but one horse, had broken away and were nowhere to be seen. As the storm wore on in the blackness of the night it struck terror into us all. I remember by dear old father fell down on his knees, looked up to heaven and begged the good lord to save at least the children from destruction as it seemed that all else would perish. For hours that seemed like years, I and the family were huddled together until finally dawn came and with it the fury of the weather ceased. The first thing uppermost in my mind was the search for the missing horses and cows. Luckily one horse was still moored to his post and with it I galloped forth thru the countryside and after many miles of wearysome riding covering the better part of the day, I recovered all the cows and all but one horse, which I could not find. Thus I had to do by spring work with only three horses instead of four as I had planned.

Breaking up the new soil was a hard job, which was then seeded to flax. I encountered many large rocks, which had to be removed. One particularly large one I was unable to get out of the land and so I struck upon the idea of digging a hole along side of it and sink it below the working surface of the ground. I was digging away, my wife watching me when all of a sudden she gave a fearful shriek and I without looking to see what it was all about, and as if be some premonition, I jumped out of the hole just as the huge rock came crashing in. I was just a trifle slow in getting right foot out of the hole and it was seriously bruised. I was thankful to get out however, with a minor injury and I was again forcefully reminded of that incident in my life when I was but 18 months old when I was similarly snatched from seeming impending death just in the nick of time. As the hole had not been completed and was not large enough to accommodate the rock it was necessary for me to split it up with several shots of dynamite which then enabled me to haul it away in small chunks.

The spring and summer developed into a very dry one. Water shortage became acute and while there were small creeks and lakes on the land, they soon dried up from the excessive drought. I then started digging a well with bare hands and shovel. When I got down to a depth so that I could no longer throw up the dirt, I erected a sort of scaffolding and my wife pulled up the dirt while I was down below filling the pail. The size of the well was 4 feet by 4 feet and about 25 feet deep. It failed however to produce any water. I changed locations and dug another one with same results. Undaunted with this seeming failure, I proceeded to dig still another and another until I had six such wells dug and to my great dismay none of them produced any water. Here indeed was a situation the like of which I had never before been up against, The heat and drought wore on and grim death stared us in the face and that of the stock. In final desperation, I took a horse and rode away. I know not where at the time, in search of water - a little creek or lake that might have still withstood the evaporating rays of the sun. Good luck was with me and several miles away I came upon the remains of what was once a pretty sheet of water from all appearances, but now only a little puddle was left. I quickly returned and drove the stock to this place. They had been days without drink and when they first sighted the water they galloped right in and drank for minutes without stopping. After they thus had their fill one cow was unable to get out of the mire and it became necessary for me to get a rope and pull her out. After that, seeing the danger in the soft spongy lake bottom, I dug a little trench from the water to the shore and to solid ground so that the water could run out and the stock no longer need wade into the mud.

Later that summer, two men came to my place and offered to drill an artisan well for me. This, they told me, was the only permanent kind of a well to have in that part of the country. I was overjoyed for awhile to think that there could in all the whole wide world be such kind and generous and kind-hearted people as to actually offer their assistance at a time when it was most needed. However, my happiness lasted only for a few moments when the thought struck my mind that I was practically penniless. I feverishly inquired what the price of such a well would by and they told me they could do the job for $1000. This was like a bolt out of the clear sky and it left me groping for want of what to say or do next. After however, gaining control of myself again and talking the matter over with them, they decided to let me pay for the well in five years. To this I heartily agreed and they went to work. In three weeks of continual drilling to a depth of 1600 hundred feet, a steady stream came flowing from out of the earth and it was indeed a wonderful sight to behold.

But a debt of $1000 upon my shoulders was a heavy load to carry and I set about thinking of ways and means to pay it off in five years time. The same two men that drilled my well gave me the nucleus of the idea that later developed into fact. They told me that as long as the country was to a great extent unsettled and large grazing ground lay at my disposal, I could undertake to range cattle for other people. This plan looked all right to me and I set out to go from place to place and offered to keep the people's stock from April to October for $1.60 per head. I was successful, and in this manner gathered a herd of 800 cattle which grazed the open lands at practically no cost to me whatever, except in the early part of the year and latter months, when it was necessary to feed them. In order to do this I cut 400 acres of hay land and put it up in stacks in the meadows. In the fall of the year a great prairie fire broke out and in a few minutes it had swept over and burned up all my hay. Thus, a whole summer's labor was consumed in smoke in a few moments. Fate again, it seemed had singled me out and wrought her fury against me. But courage and hope ever was with me. I went back and told the people what had happened and that I was unable to keep their stock longer than Sept. 1, on account of lack of feed. They however persuaded me to keep them as they had not yet finished threshing and had no place to put them. So I went back and did the best I could with the stock herding them from place to place where the grass seemed most plentiful. One night late in October a tremendous snowstorm broke loose with intense cold and the cattle all broke out of the corral. About three o'clock in the morning I got up and saw what had happened. I jumped upon my pony and immediately began the weary search for 800 head of cattle in the storm and cold. By the time dawn broke I was many miles from home and had come upon one bunch huddled together and I had to go on and find the rest. They had separated into three groups. One group had come upon some stacks of grain and had done considerable damage, which I had to make good. I had a tough time in getting all the herd together. Six of the herd had also perished, either from the cold or were stampeded to death. I was held accountable for all lost animals.

In this manner I with my father and family labored for five years until the well was paid for. By that time also other pioneer settlers came in and the land was gradually taken up and it no longer was available to the wide roamings of the herds. My aged father was tired and weary of this mode of living and longed to be back with his old friends in the old country. I could not prevail upon him to stay and he went, saying that one year of life at his old homestead would by worth ten in America, and truly enough he hardly lived a year after crossing the waters when he died. God rest his soul. He has seen and went thru as much hard times as I have and was ready when the Master called. Twelve years later I sold my farm and went north, approximately 100 miles from where I was and purchased 520 acres of land, and farmed there for 14 years more, raising a family of eleven children, eight of whom are living. Conditions were good, farming was profitable and I was able to accumulate enough to retire in 1924. Two years later, I took some of my hard earned money, and with my wife took an extended trip, which took us thru such places as Chicago, Buffalo, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The excursion and sight seeing was a very enjoyable one and upon reflection a great satisfaction and consoling thought and fitting climax of a life that was for me filled with untold hardships and sufferings. But thank God all is now past. I am now 63 years old, my wife is 59, and are both of sound mind and body and often spend hours together in retrospect. (Year: 1931)

Contributed By John Sahli

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