Take a drive in the country in Aurora County some spring and look for evidence of Firesteel Creek in Palatine Township. The creek might be dry or flooded, depending upon spring thaw and rain. Gaze at the landscape and consider how it might have appeared to a young German immigrant in the late 1800s, seeking a new adventure, a new life. Perhaps, his story went something like this:
It was the spring of 1879. The train came to a stop at the end of its line in the small community of Yankton, Dakota Territory. One of its passengers, a tall young man, appearing quite strong, gazed curiously at the dusty streets, the simple wood frame storefronts, and all the bustling activity in this commercial center on the edge of the newest frontier.
Eager and apprehensive, the young man was here to claim a piece of this frontier, to build a life totally unlike the one he had known in the crowded cities of New York and Milwaukee, places where he had tried and failed to make his fortune after leaving Germany, his beloved homeland.
Pausing for a moment, he reflected upon his quest, “Eleven years ago I left my family and our farm fields to avoid the Kaiser’s battlefields. I tried building a future in the city, but here I am, a man of twenty-eight years, with nothing but a strong back and a little money to help me start over. This time, I’ll go back to the land. I’ll claim one of these homesteads the government is giving way, and I’ll farm again, like my father and his father and all the fathers of my family. Ach du lieber! I will be happier than I’ve been since I left home.”
Jacob Briedenbach then strode into the frontier town and sought advice from the locals ‘in the know’. After purchasing supplies, as recommended, he drove his oxen along the James River. Several days later, just past the prairie village of Firesteel, he turned west along a winding creek, also called Firesteel, seeking a parcel of land to call his own. As his team of oxen pulled the covered wagon, Jacob absorbed the smells and sounds, the sights and the feel of this new country.
It smelled wunderbar! Jacob breathed deeply, enjoying the perfume of spring wildflowers and filling his lungs with sweet, clear air that swept away the stench of the city, the reek of smokestacks, stockyards, and too many sweating bodies in too many closed spaces. Jacob listened joyfully to the melody of birds accompanied by the hum of insects and soft notes of waving grasses, rushing wind, and gurgling creek. He didn’t miss the noisy clatter of the city, heavy machines, crowds of people, hawkers and merchants on every street corner. No, Jacob, liked the calm and serenity of the open prairie, a peaceful place like his childhood home.
As he walked the treeless prairie, Jacob kept his eyes open for wildlife that could provide meat for the table when supplies were low. He watched in awe as herds of antelope, more than a hundred at a time, crossed his path grazing for food. By the creek, he observed abundant beaver, waterfowl, and prairie chickens. At night, the chattering howl of coyotes filled the silence. Jacob fingered the tall grasses growing in the fertile soil, and told himself, “Die erda ist gut. The earth is good. My future is here.”
Jacob ran into few men in this virgin territory. He was told he’d meet Indians walking the Fort Thompson trail along the creek, but none crossed his path. As his long legs covered the miles, he thought about others who might join him in this land. More settlers would probably come in a year or two with the railroad, when it stretched west between the James River and the Missouri. Jacob didn’t know where exactly the tracks would run; he hoped near his land. He’d need the railroad to bring supplies for the farm and ship his harvest to market. He might even be able to earn a little cash helping lay the tracks, after the spring planting and before the harvest.
As he walked, he daydreamed about the homestead he would build, the livestock he would raise, the family that would come later. He would seek land near water, right on the creek, he hoped. He’d been reading the railroad’s agriculture pamphlets filled with advice about farming in this territory. He already bought his plow. The oxen would pull that. First, he’d have to plow a firebreak. He’d heard stories about prairie fires that could sweep the land for miles, destroying everything – crops, homes, livestock, whole families.
He’d plant corn and potatoes his first year. He’d need a place to live, nothing much to start. Then a garden. And a wife. He hoped he’d find a pretty Fräulein to marry and raise strong sons and beautiful daughters. He would teach them music. He loved music, even performed sometimes in the opera in Milwaukee, but that was no future. This was his future. It would be a good life.
Jacob followed the creek until he found his spot, later described by his granddaughter as “a place where Firesteel made many twists and turns in a small area, giving a lot of creek footage per mile.” This is where he made his camp and staked out his homestead. This is where he lived for the next 60 years, where he would bring his bride, raise seven children, establish a successful farm, help build a community and become known as a good neighbor. This is where Jacob Briedenbach, the first permanent settler in Aurora County, would find his happiness and live until the end of his days on earth.
This imaginative account of Jacob’s journey into Palatine township is based on his story and other early pioneer stories appearing in the Aurora County History book, published by the Aurora County Historical Society, in 1983.
Andreas, A. T. Andreas’ Historical Atlas of Dakota, Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1884.
Aurora County History. Compiled by Aurora County Historical Society. Stickney, SD: Argus Printers, 1983.
Karolevitz, Bob. An Historic Sampler of Davison County. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co., 1993.
Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory, Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915.
Parker, Donald Dean, comp. History of Our County and State, Aurora County. Brookings, SD: South Dakota State College, 1960.
Updated version February 15, 2014. Original version published in The South Dakota Mail, Plankinton, SD on April 4, 2013.