Sarah Thal

“… when the cream separator came into common use I felt that the pioneer's days were gone and that the land was tamed forever.” – Sarah Thal

"When a child attending the religious school the story of The Sojourn of the Israelites in the Wilderness stirred my imagination. I too longed for a sojourn in the wilderness. I did not know that my dreams would become a reality, a reality covering long years of hardship and privation. My husband had brothers in Milwaukee who sent home glowing reports of conditions in America. We wished to tell our luck in that wonderful land. When my daughter, Elsie, was fourteen months old we left to make our fortune fully confident of our undertaking.

We sailed from Antwerp and landed in Boston. I brought with me my linen chest, feather beds, pillows, bedding, etc. My brother-in-law, Sam Thal advised us to go to Dakota Territory. He had been out there and thought highly of the prospects. My husband was anxious to get started and as soon as he could leave me he went out there. Six weeks later I followed.

I had never seen frame houses until we reached America. Everything I saw from the train window was interesting and new. We reached Grand Forks late at night. Being unable to speak English I could not make my wants known so I went to bed without supper. I reached Larimore hungry but safely. Here I met my husband. He was wearing a buffalo skin coat, the first I had ever seen. With him was Sol Mendelson, the manager of the Sam Thal farm.

A newcomer must be of course experience much embarrassment. My worst one day was when Mr. Mendelson brought in a crate of pork and asked me, a piously reared Jewess, to cook it. In time I consented. However, I never forgot my religious teachings. In the spring of '83 we homesteaded land in Dodds Township along the supposed railroad right of way. Here we planted our first garden. My, how I loved to watch things grow in that newly broken land.

That fall I would look out of the window and see fires in the distance. These I believe were far off factories. I was still unable to realize the completeness of our isolation. That fall my second baby, Jacob, was born. I was attended by a Mrs. Saunders, an English woman. It was in September. The weather turned cold and the wind blew from the north. It found its way through every crack in that poorly built house. I was so cold that during the first night they moved my bed into the living room by the stove and pinned sheets around it to keep the draft out and so I lived through the first child birth in the prairies. I liked to think that God watched out for us poor lonely women when the stork came.

In the spring our baby was taken very ill. I wanted a doctor so badly. There was a terrific storm and when it cleared the snow was ten feet deep. My husband couldn't risk a trip to Larimore. On the fourth day my baby died unattended. I never forgave the prairies for that. He was buried in the lot with Mrs. Seliger and a child of the Mendelson's. For many years we kept up the lonely graves. In time the wolves and elements destroyed them. They are unmarked in all save my memory.

In winter we killed our meats and froze them, in summer we bought fresh meat from the market and kept it by tying it to a rope and lowering it into the well where it kept as though on ice. Fresh fruit of any sort was almost unknown. We used Arbuckles coffee, paying a dollar for eight pounds. Our fare was meat and potatoes, bread and vegetables. The only fruit obtainable were dried. Syrup and jelly came in large wooden pails. Biscuits and jelly, pancakes and syrup constituted the favorite breakfast.

I never learned to milk a cow. On one occasion when my husband and the hired man went threshing and did not return at night I waited until dark. The cows came home to be milked. I tried my hand at milking. I sat under a gentle and patient cow for nearly an hour and succeeded in getting only a few drops of milk. I grew desperate, and drove my cows to the nearest neighbor. The man was away and Mrs. Fahey milked the cows for me and I carried home the heavy pails, a distance of about three-fourths of a mile. Card playing was a favorite winter pastime. The neighbors would gather in each others homes. When extra men were needed a lantern was hung out and left there until they came. I can't remember that this signal ever failed.

By this time most of the sod houses and barns have been replaced by frame buildings and such luxuries as buggies and driving horses became common. There were schools in every district. Then came hanging lamps, upholstered furniture, carpets and curtains and when the cream separator came into common use I felt that the pioneer's days were gone and that the land was tamed forever. Year by year wild ducks and geese became scarcer, the storms become fewer and less severe and the Northern Lights less mysterious."

Biographical Information

Sarah's husband had brothers living in Milwaukee who sent home glowing reports of the conditions in America. Intrigued, Sarah and Solomon immigrated to America in 1882.

In her memoirs Sarah tells harrowing tales of just how fragile life was when pitted against the harsh winter weather:

"About six weeks after I came I experienced our first real blizzard, a true Nor'wester. The Seliger's cabin was so poorly built they were afraid to spend the night there. Mr. Seliger came by to our place and asked if he might have the team to bring his wife and baby. The storm was such that a team couldn't have found its way. My husband advised him to keep to the plowed ground, which ran from his door to ours. He reached home and started out with his family. He was obliged to let go of them for just a bit and he lost them.

Late that night he came to our place almost frozen. He had been searching for his wife and baby since mid-afternoon. The storm lasted three days. During that time no one ventured from the house and when it cleared mother and baby were found about fifty feet from their house, of course frozen to death."

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Sarah Thal, pioneer of the American West.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Sarah Thal." (Viewed on January 21, 2020) <>.


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