Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought it was time to write about another woman in my family whose history deserves to be known. She is my paternal grandmother, Anna Moen Orser. The photo shows her seated, surrounded by her adult children. I think it’s from the 1990s; Anna passed in 2006.

Before I start with Anna’s life, I need to provide a little backstory (don’t worry, it’s interesting and I’ll try to keep it short!). Anna’s father was Sivert Sivertsen, following the Norwegian custom of using your father’s name as your last name. However, he changed it to Moen, the place he spent most of his life in Norway. He was born in 1862 in Surnedalen, near Trondhjem. He married his first wife, Mali, in Norway and they had four children: Mikkel, born 1889, Ida, born 1892, Marie and Selma, born around 1893. In 1894, the family emigrated to the US, settling in Minnesota. Mali was extremely unhappy, and she and Sivert divorced. She left the older two children with him, and returned to Norway, telling everyone that she was a widow.

Sivert wasn’t much of a farmer; he was better at talking and at carpentry. He started leaving his two children with friends and traveling around the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, preaching and singing, and taking whatever people gave him. He apparently had a silver tongue. In his travels, he met Christine Thompson, a young woman who was living with a foster family in Abercrombie, ND. He convinced her to marry him, and they settled for a while in Windom, where their first child, Anna (also called Annie) was born in 1898. But Sivert got itchy feet and started traveling again, hauling his growing family with him from job to job, until he finally settled near Grand Forks, ND, where he worked for a building company. By then they’d had four more children, Sarah (1901), Alfred (1902), Waldimer (born and died in 1904), and Ingeborg (1906).

In 1907, Sivert died of typhoid, leaving Christine with his two older children, and their four living children. Mikkel may have left around then to go out on his own, and Ida seems to have married about that time. Christine took the rest of the children, from 9 year old Annie to baby Ingeborg, and bought a house in Edinburg, ND, which she shared with her brother Albert (“Uncle A.C.” to her children). Albert worked at a store in town, and Christine used the house to board teachers. She and Annie also started working then, cleaning other houses and doing laundry for other families, Annie working after school, as she belatedly started first grade (the delay was not because of her intelligence but because she was needed at home). Summers, Annie worked in a “cook car” with a threshing crew that started in Texas or Arkansas and worked its way north with the harvest. She earned $4 a day, a large amount in 1908!

Annie took some extra classes in 8th grade (while still working) so that she could finish her “high school” in 3 years instead of 4. She went to the Walsh County Agricultural and Teacher Training School in Park River. Since that was far from Edinburg, she had to board; to pay for her room and board, she cleaned the home she was staying in, and did laundry, ironing, and cleaning for other students. She also sent money home to Christine and her siblings whenever she could.

She graduated in the spring of 1917, and went to work in a country school. She boarded with a town family (paid by the school district to house and feed her) and traveled to the school with a horse and buggy. Because of northern weather conditions, and the not exactly weatherproof condition of the school, her school year ran from April through December. Typical for Annie, she worked doing cleaning and laundry from January through March. At some point in her life, she learned to play the piano and the organ; we don’t have a record of it, but once she graduated and started teaching, she played piano or organ in whatever church she was able to attend. I remember listening to her play her piano when I was a child, and I was amazed at the beauty of the music as her fingers were gnarled with arthritis. She told me she kept playing so they could keep moving.

After two years of teaching in rural North Dakota, she took a teaching job in a remote area of northern Minnesota, near International Falls, now part of Koochiching County. She started in 1919. Back then, there were no decent roads in the “big woods” of northern Minnesota, and few people or towns. The road she took to work was a “corduroy” road — stripped logs laid side by side, long sides touching, to keep from sinking into the swamp that was the undergrowth of this very wet forest. She also had to carry a lantern to be able to see in the mornings and evenings, and a gun to fend off wolves, which were much more numerous then than now.

At some point, she met a man named Oscar S. Melson. On the 1920 census, Oscar is reported living with his family in Odin, Watonwan County, Minnesota — over 350 miles from Greaney Town where Anna was working. We have no records for that time, but we believe he was probably working on the railroad that was being built through that part of Minnesota, and that he may have met Anna at church or a country dance. However they met, she fell in love with him. He was offered a job with the Northern and Chicago Railroad in Wyoming, and he told her that he’d go work there, and save up his money, then return and marry her. But apparently their relationship went a little beyond kissing, because in January of 1921, after the school year ended, little Oscar Vernon Melson was born.

Sadly, in March of 1921, Oscar S. Melson was killed in a stupid railroad accident — he and some other men from the railroad camp had been to Lander to see a movie, and went back to the camp in a “speeder,” a car designed to run on railroad tracks. It hit a deer, throwing three men from the car. Oscar was seriously injured (it was a neck and spine injury) and he died the next morning; one other man was also seriously injured and in the newspaper report from Lander, it was reported that he was not expected to survive. Oscar’s brother Alfred, younger than Oscar by a year, had a minor hand injury. He filled in the personal information on Oscar’s death certificate, and listed Oscar as single. He escorted Oscar’s remains to St. James, MN (nearest railroad stop to the Melson home in Odin, MN), and his obituary was published in the Butterfield paper (another small town in Watonwan County, as Odin had no paper). In that same paper, his parents and siblings thanked those people who had come to the funeral. Nothing of Anna was mentioned. Apparently Oscar never told his family about her.

Because of her condition, Anna was not asked to stay in Koochiching County. Her mother came to help her, and the two women, with baby Vernon, moved to Colgate, ND, where she started over. She called herself Mrs. Melson, a widow, and took a job teaching. In Colgate, she met Loyd Orser, then a good-looking veteran of WWI, with plenty of medals to prove his courage, and a large hard-working familyor brothers, sisters, and cousins. They married, and he raised Oscar Vernon Melson (always called Vernon or Vern) as his own.

The rest of her story is perhaps not as exciting as scrubbing floors to get to school, fighting off wolves in the North Woods, and making a life for herself and her illegitimate child (did you know that in 1921, there was a box on birth certificate labeled “Legitimate” that needed to be filled with a “yes” or a “no?” Anna filled in the “yes,” but she listed her son’s father as Oscar S. Melson, who never did get to see his son). However, she never quit trying to improve herself and her children. She went back to school, and eventually became the first woman county superintendant of schools in Steele County, ND — possibly the first woman with that post in any county in the state.

She also made sure that all of her children were educated, and all of them were successful in their chosen fields, largely due to her insistence that they make something out of themselves, doing whatever they were best at. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes her a woman worth remembering.


Seven Random Things

March 11, 2011

I was pushed by a fellow blogger, who manages to post weekly, to get back into blogging. So here is a start: my list of seven random things. If I’m doing it wrong, I’m sure I’ll hear about it!

1. I hate March. It’s nice, then it sleets and snows, and the wind howls, then it’s warmer and sunny, but the wind is still howling and streets and parking lots are filled with slushy ponds and my car’s color is unrecognizable. Spring? I think not.

2. I get catalogs from flower and seed companies every single day, starting in November. Seriously. Some of them I’ve bought from in the past, so I can sorta understand, but some are from places I’ve never heard of. Maybe they think showing me beautiful flowers (that only grow in zones 8-10 and I’m in zone 3…) will make me think of spring and planting my garden. They could not be more wrong.

3. A confession. I’m a process knitter. I LOVE choosing a pattern, finding the perfect yarn, casting it on, doing the first three or four rows — and then I’m ready to start again. This is probably the reason that right now I have 6 “UFOs” (UnFinished Objects, in Knit-Speak) just in my living room. I won’t mention the number in my yarn/stash room. However, I believe I have enough yarn to survive the apocalypse and make scarver — excuse me, START scarves — for the other survivors.

4. I’m really, really afraid of zombies. I know, they aren’t real. And in old movies, they weren’t particularly scary (although how running people could be captured by shuffling zombies did and does baffle me…). Have you seen the AMC series “The Walking Dead?” Even if you weren’t afraid of zombies before, you will be if you watch it. I taped them, and watched the first two episodes during the day (I am prone to nightmares). They terrified me. The story was good, but the special effects were really, really amazing. They didn’t look like effects; they looked real (which is, after all, the point…). And they run (if they still have legs; otherwise they drag themselves by their rotting arms…). OMG. I couldn’t watch anymore, even by daylight. Nightmares? Still having them.

5. My dog, Kimiko, loves to play in the snow. However, she is appalled and offended if snow falls onto her. I can’t understand the difference between getting snowy because you’ve been rubbing your big furry head in it and rolling in it, and getting snowy because it’s falling on you and sticking to your outer coat, but apparently in DogLand it’s a huge difference. I’m baffled.

6. I’m a “what’s that song????” junkie, for TV background music. Whether it’s part of the background in an episode of a favorite show, and I think, just maybe, I sort of recognize it, or I don’t but I think I want to download that song; or if it’s in a car commercial or an insurance commercial — I run to the computer to Google “what’s the song in…. [fill in the blank]” and if I get the answer, I find it and download it. If I don’t get an answer, I’m totally bummed. There was an ad last summer for a TV show that came back in the fall, and it had a line about “I love you enough for the both of us” or words to that effect — but I couldn’t find it. Not nowhere, not nohow. I am STILL haunted by it. I want to listen to it 10 times a day!

7. Apparently I talk about my dog more than most parents talk about their children. What can I say? I don’t have a husband or boyfriend or children, I don’t get out much, so it’s just the two of us. And I love that song I heard on NCIS — The Dog Song. “I’m just a-walkin’ my dog…” — about a poor sad lonely girl who decided to give up on men and get herself a dog, and now she’s happy. (It could be autobiographical had I written it…)

So, that’s my seven things. I dare any blogger reading this to do your OWN Seven Random Things blog — at least seven of you! Please!

I never did finish my Sioux Falls trip, and now have forgotten much of it. Downtown Sioux Falls is remarkably alive, for a prairie town. While I was there, there were several sculptures placed throughout the shopping/business area, part of a contest in which visitors could vote for their favorite. My favorite was hard to choose; there was a rather abstract dog, but its dogginess and spirit was very clear; there was a sheep with two lambs, one black and one white; there was a mermaid, I think, and of course a bison and an eagle, and many many more. I don’t know if Sioux Falls is always that welcoming to the arts, but I hope so! The downtown area also offered several “green spots” with seating and, at least in summer, flowing water.

The shopping in the downtown area was mainly of the small boutique variety, but the stores were all delightful. My favorite was Mrs. Murphy’s Irish Gifts. Found a lovely Celtic Cross necklace (silver) and Trinity Knot earrings.

The falls for which the City is named isn’t far from downtown, and is the centerpiece of a large park and recreation area. Atop a building next to the ruins of the old mill (it burned, so only the outer stone walls remain) is a restaurant that has outdoor eating with a great view of the falls, which are not one big waterfall, but a series of falls that have been carving the rock since, well, probably since the last ice age ended. Past what I think was a hydroelectric plant was a still pond with a little island. There were plenty of water birds in the pond, and a lovely mallard couple swam over to get a good look at my sister and me before going about their business.

The opera house in Sioux Falls has been restored beautifully, and houses an active community theater. It is alleged to be haunted, according to the Internet and some book entries, but no one could (or would!) confirm or deny those rumors to me.

Outside the city is a wooded area through which a fast stream has dug a deep canyon, about 20 feet across. It’s a park called Devil’s canyon, and there’s a wobbly plank bridge over the canyon. A sign tells visitors that at that point, the canyon is over 60 feet deep, and that at its deepest part, they were unable to find a bottom. The canyon walls also have several small caves in them. According to Devil’s Gulch lore, Jesse James went there on his escape from robbing the Northfield bank in Minnesota. When he reached the gulch, they say, the pursuers were close behind, so he and his horse jumped the gulch. Skeptics say that even a fresh horse couldn’t have leapt that distance, and James’ horse would have been anything but fresh at that point, but believers cling to the legend. Of course there are rumors that Jesse James haunts the gulch, but seriously, why would any reasonable ghost haunt a place he visited exactly once in a long and excitement-filled life? Who knows? I didn’t see any ghosts there, nor did I feel anything but the thousands of no-see-ums determined to suck all the blood from my body.

On the way home we visited a county museum said to be haunted. It wasn’t hard to debunk the “proof” offered in a certain book about haunted places in South Dakota, and I promised the county historical society that if I included it, I would be sure to tell people that it was NOT haunted at all, but rather a great place to see what the lives of the first white settlers in the area were like.

North of there, we ran into bad weather, of course. I have yet to take a trip into South Dakota and encounter only good weather. The clouds filled the sky, the wind picked up to about 30 mph, gusting to around 60, and it started to rain (mixed with snow. In late June. Humph.) We spent that night in Fargo, skipping some of the sites we’d meant to visit (do Ma and Pa Ingalls haunt their graves? I have yet to find a graveyard that’s haunted, other than St. Patrick’s in Dickinson, and that’s a residual haunting, not an intelligent one!). So I didn’t feel bad missing them. I was cold and wet from trying to take photos in the rain and wind (that wind nearly blew me over, and I have a fair amount of ballast!), and I just wanted to go home! We had a good dinner in Fargo, spent the night, and had a pleasant drive home the next day. Leaving just one more trip — that turned into two or three, but you have to do what you have to do when you must illustrate each of the 160 or so pages of the book (even when the contract states 10 to 20 photographs…)

And now it’s January, and I’m still trying to organize and write. Wish me well. Or wish a premature burial of the book. I’m not sure which I’d prefer at this point!

South Dakota, Trip 2

June 6, 2010

The Historic Mellette House, Watertown SD

Goss Opera House, Watertown SD

On May 20th, I set off to explore the haunted, and not-so-haunted, spots in eastern South Dakota, accompanied by my sister, who is my driver, my first reader and picky editor (a much-valued skill, believe me, since I seem to see what I meant to type, not necessarily what’s actually there), and the chooser of hotels and restaurants. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good (mall food court food, for example).

We set off on a very breezy day, to put it mildly. We didn’t take any back roads (sigh. but the driver picks the route) so we flew east on I-94, with limited traffic and a speed limit of 75 (and despite that high limit, people were passing us like we were at a dead stop), then turned south on I-29. After stopping for lunch at the Granite City Brewery in Fargo.

South Dakota’s first rest stop, as you’re heading south on I-29, is a wonderful place. Not just restrooms and vending machines, but real people and racks of brochures, maps, booklets, and so on, about pretty much everything in South Dakota. Without the help of the very pleasant man who welcomed us and overwhelmed us with suggestions about where we should go, we would have missed a lot. Like Watertown.

Now Watertown isn’t exactly a booming metropolis. but with a population of just over 20,000, it holds its own against larger cities. The downtown area was alive and blooming. Lots of fun little shops, places to eat, and only a few empty store fronts. But the real prize of Watertown (if you don’t count the enormous art center with it’s incredibly beautiful park, right off the highway) is the Goss Opera House. If I’m remembering correctly, it was built in 1888, and held its first performance in 1889. It’s a 3-story brick and stone building, and after being empty for many years, managed to make it onto the National Register of Historic Places, and with help from the local population, it’s gradually being restored.

The building sits on a corner, and on one street, you can enter via a coffee shop, with wonderful coffee and pastry smells wafting through the air and tempting us to sit down and enjoy a snack. But from the coffee place, you can go into the store that fills the corner. It’s filled with jewelry, knick-knacks, books, humorous items, Native American items, and more. If you turn left after entering from the coffee side, you’ll walk into a room defined more by racks than walls, where clothing and accessories are sold. From there, you can enter a restaurant that is open for dinner, although it appeared that the bar might open a little earlier. I found it interesting that the only way to get into the store was through one of the two eateries. Hmm.

As we wandered through the first area of the store (where Shari found a few things to buy!), I talked to the clerk there and told her the reason for our trip, and asked her first, if they’d be interested in stocking my book when it’s out, and second, if there were any spooky stories about the opera house (the top two floors are still being renovated; at some point, it will, they hope, be an opera house and live theater again). She gave me the card of the woman who does the buying, but said that she really couldn’t talk about whether or not there might be haunted (or haunting?) stories. My sister figured that meant that there probably were, but who really knows?

I do know that in the coffee bar area I felt welcome and comfortable. I was less comfortable in the main room of the store, but I put it down to the sheer volumer of stuff that filled the room. Then I walked into the room where the clothes were hanging. Immediately, the hair on the back of my neck rose. I don’t know, dear readers, if you’re aware of the effects of electro-magnetic fields on humans. EMF can come from any electrical device, from your refrigerator to a computer, or from poorly grounded wires. And the effect can be that rising hair, feelings of paranoia, nausea, and headaches (there’s a copper pipe over my laundry area that has a ridiculously high EMF level, probably it’s a conduit for wiring, but I know that I always feel like I’m being watched when I do laundry. Now I know it’s just the high EMF, so I’m not as nervous about it). I didn’t see anything in that room that could be giving off EMF. Nada. I passed rather rapidly from the first feeling, that feeling of being watched, to a headache and a growing nausea. I walked across the room and stood by the large window in the sunshine, and felt a little better. But I didn’t stay inside to wait while Shari paid for her purchases; I went outside and waited on the sidewalk. Haunting? Natural EMF? I don’t know. I do know that I tend to be overly sensitive to both, but I couldn’t tell you what caused that feeling. Shari and the clerk were both oblivious to it. Hmmm.

Our next destination in Watertown was the Mellette house. It was built in the early 1880s by Arthur Calvin Mellette (up until then, the family had lived in a tent next to a nearby lake, then in the apartment over a store Mellette owned; imagine Mrs. Mellette’s delight in having this huge house for the couple and their four growing boys!). Mellette was the last governor of Dakota Territory, appointed by his old friend, President Benjamin Harrison, then in 1889, was elected the first governor of South Dakota. He served two terms before retiring, in part for health reasons. While he traveled the territory mainly by train, Mrs. Mellette and the boys stayed in the house. It’s a large beautiful brick and wood house, with gorgeous woodwork in the interior. Built on Prospect Hill, Watertown’s highest point, its outstanding feature is a three-story tower, in which a spiral staircase leads you to a platform at the top, where you can see about 3 miles in every direction. I started up the stairs, gripping the beautiful wood railing, but the spiral and the height overcame me, and I let Shari go up to see what she could see, while I stayed at the bottom of the stairs, enjoying the sunlight that came through the round stained glass window in the tower’s front side.

Outside, lilacs were blooming, birds were singing, and it seemed like a wonderful place to be. Honestly, I could have spent the night there (no, you can’t spend a night in the Mellette house; it’s a museum with guided tours, sadly). The house doesn’t seem to be haunted at all, although it had fallen into almost irredeemable ruin over the years since the Mellette’s had left it behind. The County and State Historical Society held many fundraisers and applied for grants left and right, and the house is now restored to its former glory. There is a rumor that frightens the children of Watertown (or at least, used to, according to our tour guide who grew up in Watertown); it’s said that during the unoccupied years, a “bum” (their word; I’d say homeless man) got into the house one night and hanged himself in the tower. There’s no documentation for the story, in newspapers or books, so it’s probably one of those things that children make up about the spooky decrepit house on a corner in any town. The house still seems to belong to Margaret Mellette, and she wants it clean, shiny, and filled with happy visitors. And that’s just what it is.

Stay tuned for part two of Trip 2! And Trip 3 (the final trip, I hope…) will happen in a couple of weeks, as I write along.

In response to a comment from “Joanne,” I did some looking into Joseph Robidoux (III, founder of St. Joseph, MO), who, she said, had an Indian wife named Otter, possibly in between white wives. This was my comment answering hers:
Further research revealed quotes about Robidoux having children by many “Indian” women. Either he (aka Joseph Robidoux III) or his son (Joseph Robidoux IV — there are also nephews and cousins named Joseph Robidoux, making things even more confusing) is said to have married an “Otoe” woman ca. 1840. Possible confusion with tribe/nation “Otoe” and individual named Otter? Maybe. Probably.

Otter Woman apparently plays a role in the novel “Sacajawea” which I haven’t read because first, if the author couldn’t even get the woman’s NAME right, what else is wrong? And second, she proposes a romantic relationship — or at least feelings of romance, and this is what I’m told, I repeat I haven’t read the novel — between Sacagawea and Wm. Clark. I think Clark liked and respected Sacagawea — especially in comparison with her useless husband — but I doubt that he viewed her as a romantic partner. Who knows? He clearly wouldn’t have put that in his journal, nor would the men (although possibly in later gossipy lurid memoirs?), but it’s possible that he really missed his family, and the presence of a young woman and a baby brought back warm and happy memories for him. At this point I’m not thinking that Robidoux and Otter Woman are connected, at least not without a lot more evidence.

One other possibility arises; the Wind River Shoshone have a grave they marked (and still honor) as Sacagawea’s; they claim she came back after the expedition, and raised her orphaned nephew Bazel (spelling uncertain), and died at the advanced age of 106. If they’re right (although Anderson and Schroer, 1999, call it a “regrettable circumstance” resulting from oral histories, misunderstandings, and confused memories — in other words, they are so not right, according to these two), is it possible that Otter Woman was the “wife of Charbonneau, a Snake [Shoshone] squaw” who “died of a putrid fever” at Fort Manuel in 1812? Leaving the “fine infant girl?” (who later arrived with Jean-Baptiste at St. Louis; both were taken into the guardianship of Clark… so it seems more likely the one who died in 1812 truly was Sacagawea.) It does get confusing; so long ago and so few written records, especially about women, and more especially about Native women. But Otter Woman still deserves to have her history told!

The Historic (Haunted?) Adams House in Deadwood SD

In April, I survived a 5-day trip through the Black Hills with my sister. I say survived because I was exhausted by the end of the first day, and my fatigue level just got worse from there; the day we drove south from Deadwood to Hot Springs it decided to rain (why do we always say “it’s raining?” What is “it” that can do such things?) and fog came up (or down) (or maybe it was clouds; we were much higher than usual), and it got very windy. So I have many photos with raindrops on the camera lens (I need some sort of thingy to put on the end of the lens to protect it, although since some of the rain was blowing at us, I’m not sure that would help) and my photo of the famed Crazy Horse Memorial-in-progress looks like a photo of fog, with a black blur behind it. Not book-worthy, I fear.

I did wonder, as I looked at the mountain being shredded, what Crazy Horse himself would have thought about the monument/memorial. Remember that the Black Hills were sacred to the Lakota, even more sacred than the rest of Mother Earth. I can’t imagine a Lakota leader and spiritual man, which is how he is described by his people, would appreciate having a mountain blasted and carved into his image, or any other for that matter. But maybe it’s just me. The fact that there are no known photos of him makes it even worse, at least to these white eyes. The Lakota name for us, “wasichu” (meaning both fat or greasy, and greedy) seems even more appropriate when you enter the visitor center after paying the $20 to get close enough to see the monument. When it isn’t raining and foggy.

Hot Springs was a wonderful break for my sister and me. We stayed at an old hotel across from the railroad station, the River Rock Resort and Spa? I apologize to the owners; I was exhausted and looked like a drowned rat when they welcomed us in and led us to our room. The owners have been remodeling it, trying to keep to the spirit of the original hotel (ca. 1890?), but modernizing the bathrooms for our modern tastes, and of course including televisions! The high-ceilinged rooms, hardwood floors, and vintage furniture were a delight, and the restaurant, open only for dinner, was amazing. (Blue Vervaine, it’s called, if my sieve-memory is working.) And the spa — oh my, we were ready for that. If you’re a hotel guest, you’re welcome to use all the amenities — sauna, hot tub, hot sand room, and hot granite room. Hot sand room? you may ask, like I did. Yes, a room with six or so inches of sand on the floor, covered with canvas and then topped with a layer of sheets and rimmed with pillows. Heated from the bottom, and the light had a dimmer. I spent half an hour in there, in the spa robe they gave each of us for the duration of our stay, lying in the hot sand that I shaped to accomodate the needs of my aching body. And oh, it was heaven. The heat soaked into muscles and joints, and put me right to sleep. I spent another half hour there right before bed.

Mostly I spent that last half hour there because Shari hadn’t mentioned anything about hot tub and bathing suits, and the name “HOT SPRINGS” apparently didn’t register in my brain. So she was in the hot tub, joined by the couple who had been sitting next to us in the restaurant. She told them why we were there, of course, and as so often happens when our mission is made public, stories appeared. I spoke with the woman myself the next morning, since they’d gone to bed by the time I emerged from the hot sand room (Oh, I want one in my HOUSE!), and she told me two stories that aren’t in any source I’ve ever found. Wonderful stories! I also got a story from a woman in a coffee place in Lead, with the wonderful name “Sacred Grounds” (the coffee place, not the woman…), where we also stopped to get out of the wind and light rain the previous day.

Sometimes I am told ghost stories, and sometimes I eavesdrop on other people’s conversations (those times when you can’t help it, when they’re in a booth behind you, for example, and speaking LOUDLY), and get ideas that become seeds for stories. One such seed came to me at a coffee and muffin place in Carson City, NV, where I wrote much of the first draft of my novel-in-progress, currently in its a hundred-and-eleventy-second revision. Behind me one morning were three elderly women, speaking very LOUDLY. They were talking about funerals, of all things, and one of the women was very concerned that the funeral home might steal the gold teeth from her body when her time came. She told her friends that she had decided to leave them to her nephew in her will. I’m not sure what story that will be, but what a detail! (And of all the things I may leave my nephews, my teeth will not be among them!)

You just never know where a story will start. A casual conversation, someone else’s conversation, or a dropped remark about the fastest gun in the west, who briefly worked for Ambrose Bierce as a coach guard, and who never got the kind of fame, or infamy, of other fast guns like Wild Bill Hickock, or Billy the Kid. Keep your eyes and ears open all the time, and stories will come right up and sit in your lap!

Spring Tulips

It seems that, May snowstorm aside, spring has finally come to my little corner of the world. My tulips are almost finished blooming, my ornamental cherry is in bloom, one of my 9 lilac bushes is blooming, and my lilies-of-the-valley seem to be spreading into the lawn, having already spread from the north side of the house to the south side (why and how they managed that is beyond me!).

One other sign that doesn’t happen every year is the new family on my property. Actually they’re not quite on my property. In Bismarck, that space between the sidewalk and the street is called the “boulevard” (doesn’t that mean street?) and the city owns it, while the property owner must care for it. On the “boulevard” on the south side of my house is a large and reasonably healthy old elm tree. The elm tree has a — knot? hollow? I’m losing words again, somebody help me! Anyway, there’s a round space that is just the right size for little birds like wrens, chickadees, and one year, beautifully, goldfinches.

This year I’m pretty sure it’s wrens. One of the parents was sitting on a branch next to the opening of the perfect home yesterday, and gave me quite a scolding for looking at him (her?) before diving inside. The days are finally warm, and I hope that finding food is easier. There’s plenty of water around, thanks to all the rain. I keep an eye on the tree, and every once in a while I think I see a tiny head peeking out. Soon the babies will fledge, and leave the nest. Will I ever see them again? Will their parents ever see them again? I don’t know, but I wish them well. And I thank them for bringing new life to this aging woman.

While this won’t sound like much to published authors, yesterday I received the galleys for what is now to be titled “Spooky, Creepy North Dakota.” This is the first major step of the publishing part of writing a book (the writing parts are the ideas, the organization, the writing, the revising ad infinitum, and submitting the manuscript, with photos in this case) and I am SO excited!

The galleys have been reviewed by an editor (my editor! What sweet words to an author! especially on a first book, as this is!), and marked for corrections, additions, deletions, etc. It doesn’t yet look like it will look on book pages, but I can see the type they’ll use, and I like it. The corrections (in red) are very few (Yeay!) and are almost all things like “We need one more sentence here” or “This is a reaaalllly long sentence, don’t you think?” or “Can you get a photo to put here?” which makes me feel good; it means that my writing is good and doesn’t need either basic corrections (grammar and spelling — aka line editing), or much style editing. Except for those loooooong sentences. (Yes, I do ramble… Mea culpa.)

So I’m really excited. Not nearly as excited as I will be when my book is in my hands, but still, really excited. The first big step! I’ve been waiting for it since January (since my manuscript was submitted before December 1st) and now it’s here. The timing could be better; I’m leaving tomorrow for five days of photographing spooky creepy locations in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota, and the (hard copy) is due back in my editor’s hands the 29th — four days after I get home. ACK! But, there’s a way out — “If revisions are minor, you can email them to your editor with the hard copy to follow.” And I think that’s what mine will be.

But first, I have to go over it with a fine tooth comb, and then have my eagle-eyed sister do the same thing. After all, what else did we have planned for evenings in South Dakota?

The recent “happy California cows” ads have succeeded in convincing most people that cows are happy placid animals that have nothing better to do than gossip while munching on grass and chewing their cud, in between milkings, of course. This could not be further from the truth. Cows are vicious, aggressive creatures who hunt in packs. And they’re probably carnivores.

How do I know? From personal experience, of course. I used to be someone who believed that cows were calm and basically a little dim, with kind brown eyes and cute babies. Then late one summer day in my first full field season, I was ordered to do a piece of survey that would lead me through a field of cows. The boss told me that the cows would move away from me and let me pass. Silly me, I believed her.

So with great difficulty, but only one tear in my jeans, I made it over the barbed wire fence and into the field, as the truck disappeared into the distance. All the cows immediately looked at me. I thought they were merely curious; actually, they were starting to plan.

I took a few hesitant steps forward, looking from side to side for any stray artifacts, but any that might have been there were covered with cow flops. The cows moved slowly in my direction. I remembered what the boss had said: if they come towards you, stand still; they have a “personal space” and will stop before they reach you. Silly me; I still believed that. (I didn’t realize that these were actually free range cattle who had been rounded up within the past two days, and stuck into this barbed wire cage. They were not happy cows.)

I walked a few steps more, and one cow stepped out in front, and pawed at the dirt/cowflops and snorted. “Nice cow,” I said. “Be a nice cow. I’m just passing through. Really. I’ll be gone before you know it.”

I don’t know if it was the sound of my voice or the smell of my fear, but the lead cow charged and the rest of the pack followed. I held my ground at first, certain they would stop (after all, the boss SAID they would…), but when they were within about 10 feet and gaining speed, I threw valor to the wind, turned, and ran for my life.

I reached the fence that had given me so much trouble on the way into the field, and just in time, flew over it (Olympics, here I come…). The cows were right behind me, stopping only when the front ranks actually hit the fence. I backed through the ditch and back onto the road, and the cows kept pushing at the fence. Could they get through? Was I doomed?

After about half an hour of standing in the middle of the road and shaking, I noticed that the lead cow seemed to be communicating something to the others. Quickly they spread across the field, returning to pretend to graze. Within minutes the truck returned for me.

No one believed my story. They still don’t, over 30 years later. They all think that Silly Me is terrified of cows for no good reason. They don’t know that vicious carnivorous cows nearly trampled and ate me that hot summer day. But I do, and I remember. And I avoid cows in all forms.

Most elementary school children in our country know who Sacagawea is, but most of them have never heard of Otter woman, whose story begins when Sacagawea’s does.

As young girls living with their people, the Shoshone, Sacagawea and Otter Woman were stolen by Hidatsas who were raiding mainly for horses. Since neither the Shoshone nor the Hidatsa kept written records, and oral histories after all these years aren’t entirely trustworthy, the years they were born (especially for Otter Woman, who is rarely mentioned by anyone) and the year of the abduction aren’t clear. Historians believe that Sacagawea was born between 1788 and 1790, and that Otter Woman was a year or two older, and that the Hidatsa raid occurred between 1799 and 1800.

Some histories write that the girls became the slaves of their captors, but cultural anthropologist Dr. Mary Jane Schneider, who spent her entire professional life studying the culture of the agricultural river tribes along the Missouri in what is now North Dakota, states unequivocally that the Hidatsa never practiced slavery. Children taken by their warriors on raids were adopted by families, often families who had lost a child (early deaths were common back then), and were treated exactly the same way as their other children. It seems that Sacagawea and Otter Woman were adopted by different families, but the village wasn’t so big that they wouldn’t have seen each other and been able to do many things together, like picking berries and gathering roots, or grinding grain and tanning hides. Sacagawea’s name, in Hidatsa, is Tsa-ga-ga Wiya, meaning Bird Woman. While Otter Woman’s name would also have ended in Wiya, I don’t know enough Hidatsa to tell you the first part of her name.

Historians debate about how old Sacagawea was when she married French-Canadian (and possibly Metis, or mixed blood) trader Toussaint Charbonneau, and how that marriage came about. We may never be sure of Sacagawea’s age at marriage; she may have been as young as thirteen, but was probably no older than 16, a typical age for marriage in those days. Regarding the marriage, there are two common stories: one, that her Hidatsa family sold her to Charbonneau, and the other, that he won her in a gambling game.

Again, relying on Dr. Schneider’s years of research, it’s safe to say that neither story is true. Children were loved by Hidatsa; they were considered a precious gift from the spirits, not property to be sold or gambled away. Also, Hidatsa women made the earth lodges that families lived in, and the main woman in each lodge basically owned that lodge; a man could be “put out” by simply leaving all his possessions outside the door, and women were rarely forced into an unwelcome marriage.

Toussaint Charbonneau was no prize. We know from journals and letters that years before, when he was working for the North West Company under Jonh MacDowell along the Assiniboine River, he was stabbed by an elderly Saultier woman as he was raping the woman’s daughter. The woman wasn’t punished, and Charbonneau lost his job and was unable to get another with an established trading or fur company. He began to work as a “free trader” and interpreter, working for whoever would pay him. When Lewis and Clark arrived at the Hidatsa and Mandan villages on the Missouri River in the fall of 1804, Charbonneau had interpreting contracts with two traders: Larocque, from the North West Company, and McKenzie from Hudson’s Bay Company.

One possible reason for Sacagawea to agree to a marriage to Charbonneau is his connections to the white traders. Those connections would have added to her Hidatsa family’s status, and also brought them a larger amount of white trade goods. Another possible reason is that Charbonneau had already married her good friend, Otter Woman, so she knew that she would not be alone. She would be with her friend, who shared her history and her language.

Otter Woman has been written out of history quite successfully, due in part to Toussaint Charbonneau. She is mentioned, although not by name, in one of the diaries of the Corps of Discovery; “today the wives of Charbono [sic] came to the Fort [Ft. Mandan] bringing gifts of buffalo robes.” Note the plural “wives.” Yet later that winter, Charbonneau and one wife, Sacagawea, moved into a tipi inside the palisade of Fort Mandan. In February she gave birth to her first child, a son named “Jean-Baptiste” by Charbonneau, but whom she called “Pomp,” a name very similar to the Shoshone word for “first.”

After the single nameless mention, Otter Woman disappears from all but oral histories, and there’s very little to find there. She didn’t accompany Lewis and Clark (and her husband and sister-wife) to the Pacific and back. It doesn’t appear that she went to St. Louis with Sacagawea and Charbonneau in 1809, where Charbonneau claimed the 320 acres of land promised to each “man” of the expedition. (I find it interesting that Sacagawea, who was much more useful than her husband on that expedition, as an interpreter, a peace maker, a boat handler, and a finder of food that often kept the Corps of Discovery alive, was never granted land or money. Interesting, but not surprising.)

Otter Woman didn’t accompany Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau in 1811, when the two went north again, this time with Toussaint in the employ of the Missouri River Fur Company. While there is debate as to whether Sacagawea died in a fire not long after that, or returned to the Shoshone and died as a very old woman on the Wind River Reservation, there is absolutely nothing known about Otter Woman. Or at least nothing that was shared with whites, or that they considered worth recording.

Did Otter Woman remarry when Charbonneau and Sacagawea left with Lewis and Clark? Did she have any children by Charbonneau? Why did Charbonneau take Sacagawea to Fort Mandan but leave Otter Woman in the Hidatsa village? Was Otter Woman ever able to return to her Shoshone family? Without written records, there may never be an answer to any of these questions. But even though she didn’t accompany the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific, Otter Woman deserves a place in history beside Sacagawea, her friend and sister-wife.