Francis Jameson Rowbotham was not your typical homesteader traveling to Stutsman County in 1884.
Rowbotham was from England and, along with two companions, took up claims near Windsor in April of 1884. For Rowbotham, the entire experience may have been an effort to gather material for a book that he published back in England in March of 1885.
The book, “The Life on the Prairie,” did not paint an attractive picture of being a pioneer on the prairie of western Stutsman County.
After crossing the Atlantic, Rowbotham arrived by train in Jamestown, noting the locals called it JimTown, on April 6, 1884. Rowbotham’s description of the train trip notes several difficulties and unpleasantnesses and was described by an English newspaper review of the book as containing “a good old-fashioned English grumble at American railroads.”
The grumbling continued during the few days he spent in Jimtown. He called Jamestown a “few scattered buildings called by courtesy a town.”
He did give the town credit for a large and well-built courthouse and jail and “four or more large substantial looking banks.”
He also noted hotels, restaurants, grain elevators, stores and saloons, which he referred to as sample rooms.
After a few days checking out Jamestown with a tour of the flour mill and a visit to the cemetery, which he described as “God’s acre,” he and his companions traveled to their claims located south of Windsor.
It would seem Rowbotham prepared for his trip to the Dakota Territory by reading the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper. He was anticipating seeing the noble natives “in warlike dress” and roaming buffalo.
He was disappointed.
“Nobody who has not travelled across the wild and desolate prairie in a loaded wagon for even the distance of a few miles can have the faintest idea of what it is like,” Rowbotham wrote.
He described the landscape between Jamestown and Windsor as “flat as an undercooked pancake.”
The teamster driving the wagon took the time to lecture the English settlers on the freedoms enjoyed by Americans.
“Suppose I went to the President himself and insulted him to his face, he couldn’t do anything to me,” said the wagon driver. “If you was to insult the queen, for instance, it would be treason.”
Rowbotham didn’t agree.
“Our Queen don’t take notice of such things,” he said. “She would have compassion on you, and perhaps put you in a lunatic asylum for a brief period.”
In my mind, it would seem Rowbotham and his friends weren’t cut out for life on the frontier.
For example, there was an incident where they shot, at close range, what they thought was a badger but turned out to be a skunk.
In another incident, a horse ran off and they climbed on the roof of the shanty to scan the horizon with a telescope.
While the grumbling about these types of incidents dominate the book, Rowbotham also wrote about the beauty of the open prairie sunsets and wildflowers.
“Last evening the effect was strikingly beautiful,” he wrote on April 26, 1884. “Tonight is a repetition of art evening.”
Rowbotham and his friends spent the summer of 1884 on their claims but returned to England in time to write a book critical of life on the American frontier that was published in March of 1885.
The book was titled “A Trip to Prairie-Land” carried the subtitle “A Glance at the Shady Side of Emigration.”
Author Keith Norman can be reached at www.KeithNormanBooks.com