Land of Opportunity: Arduous Journey Taken by Riverboat

Family’s belongings, including oxen and oxcart, were transported by riverboat to western Wisconsin.

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My great-grandparents, John and Rebecca, in 1868 came to western Wisconsin in this land of opportunity. The only transportation option from Stillwater, Minnesota, to St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, was the packet boats. Their oxen, oxcarts, hay and feed, tools and all of their personal belongings were on the lower deck of the riverboat, The Nellie Kent.

John Lumsden and Rebecca Densmore had emigrated from Scotland several years before and were married in Nova Scotia. Then they moved to Ontario. They must have had a very strong desire to come to the United States. Perhaps they heard of land in Polk County, Wisconsin: almost the entire county was once owned by Gen. Caleb Cushing, a Civil-War-veteran-turned-land-speculator. In 1868, he was involved in Massachusetts politics, but he was also the president of the Great European-American Emigration Land Co. His advertisements were probably instrumental in convincing people to settle in Wisconsin.

First John and Rebecca traveled by boat on Lake Huron, then by riverboats on the Illinois, Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers. At the time, these hardy souls had two sons, ages 13 and 5, a daughter, who would become my grandmother, 10, and a baby girl only 6 weeks old. Great-Grandmother must have been very brave to attempt such a trip, but she probably didn't have a choice in the matter.

Four families traveled together to settle in the same area. When they arrived at St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, they went by oxcart north along the St. Croix River to where they were homesteading. They lived in tents while the four families helped one another build log cabins. Two of the men had been there the winter before, but the ground, covered with snow, didn't show its poor condition. They'd gone back to Ontario and said, "There's plenty of land." In time they discovered that the land was not rich and fertile in that location. That area today is known as "The Barrens." The sandy soil is OK for producing jack pine, but not for farming. The families moved a few miles to the southeast, where the soil is a rich loam.

Life must have been very hard in the new state of Wisconsin – the little towns were not nearby. Timber had to be cut for new houses and firewood, which was needed for warmth in the dreadfully cold winters. They raised sheep and carded and spun wool. They knitted mittens, sweaters, stockings and socks. They had to make candles and soap and bake bread; clothes had to be scrubbed on a washboard.

When they went to a town to buy flour, sugar, material and other necessities such as kerosene, nails and tools, they used their trusty ox team and oxcart. It was a long day's trip.

Lucille Anton
Circle Pines, Minnesota

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.