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52 Stories #20–Strong Women

Challenges and hardship can shape people. Have I seen examples of this in my own family? Of course. These women, my ancestors, lived through and overcame obstacles that I cannot imagine facing, yet they survived.

  1. Olive Dunbar Riddle (1823-1902), my great-great grandmother. She was born on Cape Cod and spent her early years there surrounded by a large extended family. Her Hall and Dunvar forebears had lived in that state for 200 years, so it surely felt like home. Her father worked as a saltmaker. Olive likely envisioned that she would make her life in the area where she grew up, but life had other plans for her. The salt trade dried up before she was 10, and the parents decided to relocate to the country’s interior. They sold everything and moved to Ohio, taking young Olive with them. Shortly thereafter, Olive’s father, Benjamin E. Dunbar, died. Olive lived with her widowed mother until she married John D. Riddle when she was nineteen years old. After their marriage, Olive sold land she had inherited and the couple moved to Mendon, Michigan. There they bought a farm and had a family of nine children. Olive likely worked had as a farm wife, but things did not turn out happily for her. Her husband lost an eye, and they lost a grandchild in a fire. Several of her children moved far away to homesteads in Nebraska. As the years went by, the sight in John’s remaining eye failed, and they relied heavily on the help of their eldest son, Isaac Newton Riddle. By 1896, John greatly feared blindness and poverty. He took his own life, leaving 73-year-old Olive a widow with a farm to run. Olive spent her remaining years on the farm with her son, scratching out a living. She passed away six years later after a hard life of trekking twice through the country to build a new home, raising a large family, and surviving tragedy. Her family remembered her as a kind and sweet woman, so she must have borne it all with grace.
  2. Anna Petronellia Sherman (1865-1961), my great-grandmother. Petronellia never knew her mother. The family story tells us that this German woman died shortly after the birth of her child. Petronellia spent her early years as a virtual orphan in her paternal grandmother’s Illinois home. Her father Thomas was often away on blacksmithing jobs. When Petronellia was six, a step-mother named Mary came into her life for a few years. Perhaps Petronellia was fond of her step-mother; she adopted Mary’s Methodist faith. Yet by the time Petronellia reached the age of fifteen, Mary was gone, and her father was marrying again. This time, Petronellia definitely did not like her new step-mother, Alice. Petronellia left the stormy household as soon as she was able and promptly married a much older man. Samuel Harvey Reed already had two surviving daughters, 13-year-old Anna and 11-year-old Clara. Eighteen-year-old Petronellia became a step-mother herself. She and Samuel moved to southern Missouri to begin a new life away from Samuel’s disapproving family, and she had seven children of her own. By all accounts, it was not easy to get along with Petronellia. She and Samuel divorced in 1904, and Petronellia later said she had married him because she liked his big, white house in Ashmore, Illinois. She had not known it actually belonged to his father, Caleb. After her divorce she married a former Confederate officer, John Coffey. That did not last long. After their divorce, Petronellia resumed used of the Reed surname and kept it the rest of her life. By World War I, one of her sons, Robert Morton Reed, worked on the railroad in southeastern Wyoming, so she took up a homestead there as a way to make a living on her own. She was in her fifties, and the first year she managed to grow only a bucket of potatoes. She disliked the dry, windblown prairie, so she sold out when she proved up the homestead. Her crustiness had seen her through. She returned to the gentle landscape of southern Missouri. Finding strength in her Methodist religion, she remained there and lived to be ninety-five years old. She is buried in the churchyard of her beloved Methodist church in Huggins, Missouri.
  3. Laura Riddle (1853-1933), my great-grandmother. Laura could write her name but not much else. She was not much of a student. Born on a Michigan farm to Olive and John Riddle, she became a farmer herself. By 1880, she was a single mother of three sons, two of them disabled. Without much opportunity in Michigan, she moved to Nebraska near McCook to homestead alongside her older sister, Theodocia. A few years later, Laura’s eldest son left home, and Theodocia’s family moved on to Hyannis, Nebraska. Laura herself elected to settle on a new homestead near Palisade with her two younger sons, Louis and Joe. Eventually, she had another child, a daughter this time (my grandmother, Grace). Life on the homestead was hard, and Laura finally had to send Grace to live with Theodocia. When the chance for a larger homestead arose a few years later, Laura and the boys took it and moved on to Haigler, Nebraska. Throughout forty-five years of homesteading, Laura managed to care for her two sons and keep a farm. When she was in her 70’s, she finally gave up her homestead and retired to Palisade with the boys. Described as a strong and robust woman, she lived to be eighty years old. The money from the homestead sale provided her a living for the rest of her life with a little left over for her four children. Despite a life of terrible hardship, Laura had never given up.
  4. Sofie Sivertsdatter (1878-1966), my great-grandmother. Sofie was born at Valfjord in the county of Nordland, Norway. It must have been a sad household. At least five older siblings had died. Living in a home with elderly parents taught Sofie to be a hard worker. From an early age she contributed by caring for livestock for a relative. Eventually, she made her way to the town of Stokmarknes to work. There she met and married Ole Jorgen Bentsen. Life with him was not any easier. Almost immediately, he left for America, leaving her behind until their first child was born. The next year, traveling alone with a newborn, she made her way across the ocean to meet Ole in Minnesota. They scrimped and saved for two years until they had enough to settle on free land in Montana. Twice they homesteaded there, first on a 160-acre tract and then later on a 320-acre tract. After two more children had joined the young family, Sofie spent one winter virtually alone on the homestead while her husband lay in town ill with typhoid fever. Sofie nearly ran out of supplies and would have starved to death had not a passerby butchered a calf for her. Happily, Ole recovered and returned to her. Eventually, Sofie had another two children while she and Ole continued to manage their homestead and acquire more land. They were proud that they never borrowed against it, not even during the Great Depression. In 1952, they decided to retire to the town of Plentywood, Montana, and they sold their land to their son, Otto. Sofie developed a degenerative illness, but she carried on keeping house for Ole and attending events at the local Lutheran church. Despite her illness, she made fattigmand every year at Christmas time. By 1966, she became too weak to continue, and she passed away at the age of eighty-seven. She is buried in a prairie cemetery at Redstone, Montana, not far from her farm.

Strong women, all of them. I cannot imagine surviving some of the difficulties these ancestors faced. They survived pioneering, brutal farm labor, family tragedy, disabled children, and debilitating illness. If not for them, I would not be here. From their legacy I learned that complaining does no good. Find a way to keep going.

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