The Saga of New Salem

On an April day in 1883, a westbound freight train pulled into Jamestown, Dakota Territory and stopped to take on coal and water and to change crews. It so happened that an immigrant car in charge of a young man of 19 summers stopped near a farm implement sales yard. The salesman noticed the young man in the boxcar and stepped over to visit.

“How far west are you going?” he asked.

“They tell me it’s about thirty miles west of the Missouri River”, replied the immigrant.

“Plan to farm out there?” pursued the salesman.

“That’s the idea”, answered the youth.

“In that case you’ll need machinery”, said the man, smelling a chance to make a sale.

“Oh, I can probably get a plow at Mandan. That’s what I need most”, replied the immigrant.

“I’m telling you”, persisted the salesman, “this is the last chance you’ll have to pick up a plow. There’s not much farming being done west of here.”

That information was a bit surprising to the immigrant and he pondered it for several moments. The salesman perceived a weakening sales resistance and put on more pressure.

“I have some very good breaking plows right here in the yard.”

The result of this conversation was that when the train resumed its way westward, a shiny new breaking plow had been added to the equipment in the immigrant car.
Eventually the freight rumbled across the Missouri River Bridge and stopped at Mandan. The young man was met at the depot by his partner, Mr. J.J. Lueck and taken to the Inter-Ocean Hotel for the best meal he had eaten since leaving St. Paul.

The next morning the train pulled out of Mandan. The country was now much rougher. The train seemed to climb higher each mile as it followed a river valley westward. There were now no towns and the hills were rugged and forbidding. The young man gazed with some apprehension from the door of his car at the procession of hills of various shapes and sizes.

At the first halfway level spot west of Mandan, the train stopped. The crew made their way to the car and began unloading the contents from both sides. Presently all the equipment was dumped along the right-of-way. The engine gave two short blasts of the whistle and the train proceeded on its way toward the western horizon. John Christiansen found himself alone on the plains of Dakota. The surrounding country was dominated by a high butte with a patch of buck brush near its summit. For the first time in his life he was in a region without roads, fences or human inhabitants. The only signs of civilization were the possessions in his custody and the railroad. Many miles to the east was Mandan and to the west was the town of Sims, but neither settlement had any influence on the spot where John Christiansen found himself. One wonders if he realized he was the first settler of the community to be known as New Salem.

A short distance to the south stood a butte that drew his attention. It was within easy walking distance and he could keep his camp and the railroad in sight nearly all the way. He made his way over the rich grassy swells and climbed the butte. Here he found his first neighbors. A good-sized prairie dog town extended for about a half mile down the side of the hill. He sat for a long time watching these interesting little animals. He returned to his camp as evening approached, prepared a meal and packed some blankets under an overturned wagon box where he planned to spend the night.

During the hours of darkness the wind rose and moaned around the wagon box. The howling of neighboring coyotes caused more apprehension. Sometime during the night a train struggled up the long grade from the east and rumbled past the lonely camp. John slept but little that first night in what was to be his home community for over 70 years. The train proceeded west a few miles to a point on the road known as Bluegrass siding where it left the cars carrying the original settlers that formed the colony. Thus John Christiansen preceded his fellow pioneers to the “promised land” by about 12 hours.
What forces had been at work to place these people in Dakota at this particular time “40 miles from nowhere”?


In 1882 a number of Evangelical pastors from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin made plans to plant colonies on the then raw frontier of the plains states. They organized a Colonization Bureau in Chicago. In the fall of 1882 a committee was sent out to visit several western states. They looked over sites in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and finally, through the efforts of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Dakota Territory. The railroad had just been constructed through this area and the company was anxious to have settlers along the line. The Northern Pacific issued circulars giving information to prospective settlers and offered to transport them to Western Dakota at greatly reduced rates. The railroad company also offered to plot a new city, laying it out in lots, blocks and streets. The Northern Pacific had been granted every other section of land for fifty miles on each side of the right-of-way by the Federal Government and it agreed to donate the lots in the new city and half of the remaining land in Section 21 Township 139 Range 85.

By the end of 1882 some 200 members had signed up. Each group was sponsored by a pastor of their church known as the German Evangelical Synod of North America.
And so it happened that about noon on April 5, 1883 the first immigrant car arrived where Salem was to be located. It was in charge of John Christiansen and contained the household goods, three horses, some lumber and machinery belonging to A.V. Schallern, Peter Schmidt, J. J. Leuck and John Christiansen all of Ripon, Wisconsin. John was the youngest man of the group and volunteered to ride the car to Dakota Territory.

That night, April 6th, the special immigrant train arrived and was set out on the Bluegrass siding a few miles west of Salem. The N.P. built a siding at Salem and soon the cars were moved to the new site.
The organizers of the group were the following ministers: G. L. Kling, M. Hottendorf, H. Wolf, C. Dalies, G. Lambrecht, Gust Lambrecht, R. Kruger and G. Wercker. The elected officers of the group were: C. Dalies, president, H. Wolf, vice-president, and John Seethoff (a layman) secretary. A Location Committee was made up of J. J. Leuck, Pastor Hottendorf, John Seethoff and Fred Wegner.
With the help of the Northern Pacific, the Locations Committee had found the spot where New Salem was to be located. School Hill marked the site.

The group had left Chicago on April 3, 1883 and landed in Dakota on the 6th. In one car were housed the following: Pastor Hottendorf, W.H. Mann, C. Mix, H. Jahnke, C. Stengel, K. Kreidt with family, G. Kreidt with family, N. Kreidt with family, J. Dieder with family. There were about 80 persons in the other cars. They were: Pastor Kling, F. Wiegmann, Wm. Lehfeldt, F. and H. Spinner with families, J. Heid with family, Ludwig and B. Lueder, Wm. Bethke, Richard and wife, Father Loszmann and C. Losmann, H. Jungst, F. Hoeger, M. and J. Blint, C. Korner, F. Westermann and family, H. Friese, A. Toepke, J. Seethoff, A. Von Schallern, P. Bumann, F. Krieger with father and mother, J. Held, C. Kemmesat, P. Schmidt, H. Pfenning, H. Beusen and family, C. Frick, H. Kroeger, H. Techtmeyer, Karl Lueder, H. Luhmann, A. Kunkel, J. J. Lueck, Jacob Fezler, John Kling, Otto Meier, Kasper Bickel, H. Meschede, Anna von Schallern, B. Behrbaum, Louis C. Nohl, Kasper Nuzbaum, Melchior Roth, Fred Toepke, A. F. Itrich, Anton Gnies, Jacob Gerhold, Wm. Kroeger, Friedrich Dettmann, George Speck, Friedrick Uhlmann, George Wasenmuller, John Schedel, August Ruf, Heinrich Simon, John Reuter, Karl Wasenmuller, Moritz Tausend, Karl Keller, Gottlieb Keller, John Hartmann, Karl Witting, Richard Walde, Jacob Ritz, Anton Walde, Gust Itrich, Christian Becker, Anton Sprietzer, Wm. Starck, Wm. Vorpahl, Jacob Wildi, Christof Kleih, and August Weinreich.

It wasn’t long before food began to become scarce so it was decided to contact a baker in Bismarck to send out a sack of bread each day, but as the train did not stop at New Salem, it was thrown off as the train went by at full speed. Most of the time there was not enough bread thrown off to go around and many had to go home empty handed. John Seethoff had a hundred pound sack of flour sent out and before long had a regular flour business established.

The colony was still under the supervision of the Committee in Chicago and many of the settlers were dissatisfied with the arrangement. Others were content with things as they were, so before long two “parties” evolved—the local government group and the “status quo” group. In the spring of 1884 an election was held with the following officers being elected: Louis C. Nohl, president; Pastor Gyr, Vice-president; Heinrich Jungst, secretary and J. J. Leuck, treasurer. The election did not settle the trouble so Mr. Kruger was sent out from Chicago. The agreement was made in which the church members took over a $600 debt that was involved and in return for this the colony was to have its “independence.” They were now under township government with J. J. Leuck, L. C. Nohl, and John Bloodgood as the first supervisors.
The pioneers lived in boxcars until the railroad company built an immigrant house. Settlers lived there until they had a shack built on their homestead. The water supply came from a railroad tank car and other supplies were brought by rail from Mandan and Bismarck.

Some lumber was available to build small homes and neighbors helped each other. Sod houses were constructed as a measure of economy and protection against devastating prairie fires.

The first church service was held out of doors on June 13, 1883. The congregation was organized with 46 charter members. The following names appear: J. J. Leuck, John Seethoff, F. Wiegmann, H. Jungst, Wm. Bethke, H. Beusen, H. Maschede, Ferd Reichert, Carl Westermann, C. Koerner, Carl Lueder, Wm Kroeger, Wm Lehfeldt, Aug. Toepke, George Speck, A. F. Itrich, Richard Walde, Carl Ollermann, N. Kreidt, C. Lasemann, Casper Bickel, Anton Walde, C. Tegtmeyer, Emil John, J. C. Kreidt, George Kreidt, Herman Kroeger, Jack Ritz, J. H. Tegtmeyer, L. C. Nohl, Fred Toepke, John Reuter, Herman Freise, Henry Blend, Fred Dettmann, John Kling, P.G. Schmidt, Ed Kemmesat, Fr. Spinner, J. Albrecht, Ch. Wassenmuller, Carl Borchardt, Jack Gerhold, John H. Albrecht, John Christiansen, and Phillip Blank.
The Colonization Bureau had agreed to build the church, parsonage and barn. The first pastor was Reverend Gyr. John Seethoff was given the contract to build the church and parsonage. The church was dedicated late in 1883.

All that summer new settlers were arriving, bringing livestock, machinery, and poultry. Some brought their families.

Mr. J. J. Leuck set up a land office and made out applications for homesteads and tree claims. He owned a horse and buggy, which enabled him to get around more than the average newcomer. He built the first fine residence, now owned by Mr. and Mrs. Richard Wolf.

Some of the settlers were commercially minded, among them being Fred Wiegmann and Wm. Lehfeldt. These two men established a general store. Later the store was rebuilt and operated by Fred and Charles Wiegmann. This location is now occupied by the Farmers Union Co-op Locker Association.

A.V. Schallern and L. C. Nohl. Had the first drug and hardware store. The staple drugs seemed to be arnica, carbolic acid and sheep dip.

A lumber yard and implement business was established by John Seethoff. Hotel accommodations were provided by Wm Lehfeldt in the present residence of George Heid and the Speimer Brothers operated a boarding house.

A fashion note from the “Estelline (Dak) Bell” gives some idea of the “styles” of those days.

“The gun is still worn on the right hip, slightly lower down than formerly. This makes it more convenient to get at during a discussion with a friend. The regular “forty five” still remains a favorite. Some affect a smaller caliber but it is looked upon as slightly dudish. A “forty”, for instance, may induce a more artistic opening in an adversary, but the general effect and mortality is impaired. The plug of tobacco is still worn in the pocket on the opposite side from the shooter, so when reaching for the former, friends will not misinterpret the move and subsequently be present at your funeral. It is no longer considered necessary to wait for introductions before proceeding to get the drop……As regards the number of guns which it is admissible to wear, great latitude is allowed, from one up to four being noted on the street and at social gatherings. One or two is generally considered enough.”

On one occasion a man got into a quarrel in Lehfeldt’s hotel. He drew his gun intending to shoot another party but the bullet hit Mrs. Lehfeldt in the chest. Fortunately she was not fatally wounded.
By the end of 1883 almost all the necessary services for plain living were available in the new town.

In June of that year of 1883 an incident took place that has brought New Salem nation-wide recognition. One pleasant June morning Christiansen was out breaking the virgin prairie sod. As his team slowly pulled the breaking plow back and forth and the black strip of plowed ground grew wider, a couple of Sioux Indians approached and watched with interest the activity of the white man. The Sioux were a good deal tamer at this time than they had been a few years earlier, but they were still unpredictable and John’s feelings were not exactly calm. Since there were only two Indians the situation was not as serious as if there had been more. Presently they came nearer and examined the breaking. Possibly this was the first plowing they had seen except the scratching the Mandans did on the river bottoms. Things didn’t look right to them and the older Indian began turning the sod back to its original position. As Christiansen came over to them the younger Indian muttered “Wrong Side Up.” The efforts of the Sioux in reversing the work of the plow were insignificant and he soon gave up, but the wisdom of his words was to be impressed on Christiansen and his fellow settlers in later years.