The Pioneers of Oak Gulch

The Woodland family outside their first soddie north of Clark, South Dakota
The Woodland family outside their first soddie north of Clark, South Dakota

Fine, white snow whipped against the tent flap that cold, blustery day. The sky was dark and foreboding, but the Deans thought it was nothing more than another snowstorm. Tom Dean searched for a way to prevent the snow’s intrusion into their hole in the hill. Their little dug-out was dark –except for light from their fire burning towards the back of the cave. It worked to keep them dry while plenty of coverings kept them warm. They curled up by their small fire pit and settled in for the night.

Sometime during the night, the wind changed. Ominous snow-filled clouds and bitter cold ravaged from the north. By morning, Tom could barely push the door open in order to fetch wood for the fire. The blinding snow masked the wood pile only a few yards from their dwelling. He wrapped his knitted scarf tightly around his face and ventured out to get enough armloads to last a few days.

“We’ll have to wait this one out, Jane,” he said to his wife. “It’s a bad one. It’s good we have plenty of fruit and vegetables stored up.”

“Yes, the vegetables will make a fine soup, and we have plenty of meat to add to it, thanks to you,” Jane commented. The baby started coughing, wheezing again. He did not sound good. The temperatures dipped way below zero, and their little dwelling was damp and cold. Jane Dean tucked the covers around her sleeping baby boy, but worried about his incessant cough. The area doctor was more than 50 miles away, at least a two-day hike, and there was no way they could get to him in this blizzard.

The snow relentlessly piled in front of the door to their dug-out for more than four days straight burying their dwelling beneath a hill of snow. All that could be seen was their stove pipe puffing out small breaths of smoke slightly above ground.

Jane Woodland & Tom Dean married in 1857. When President Lincoln signed a new bill offering free land out west a few years later, they thought this was their chance for a new life.

They packed the little they had into their covered wagon and traveled west from Wisconsin. They crossed the South Dakota border a couple weeks later, stopping in an area that looked like the perfect spot for their new home. On the northern border of South Dakota, they found land with rolling hills waving with acres of green prairie grass and yellow sunflowers and a river that bubbled as it skipped over the rocks at the base of the hill lined with oak trees. There was plenty of room to raise cattle and horses and plant a big garden. Lakes were abundant; the land was virgin soil. It was the perfect place to raise a family, and only twenty miles from where Jane’s parents, Joseph and Mary Woodland, had settled. They could make the trip in half a day by horse, a whole day if they walked.

The Deans filed a claim on their new-found land called Oak Gulch by the local Sioux. Cattle and horses could wait until later. In fact, a house would have to wait, too. The important thing was that they were together and this land was theirs. They put up a small tent and moved in for the summer. Their first baby arrived in late fall making their joy complete.

Mr. Dean a small hole dug into the hillside to store all the  bountiful vegetables from the garden. He salted meat from rabbit, squirrel and deer to make jerky. In the coolness of the hole, he knew the food would keep well for the winter and be safe from predators.

Fall comes early in the Dakotas; sometimes winter came right along with it. As the winds got colder and the months got longer, Tom Dean decided to dig deeper into the hillside, far enough back for his family to live in and be protected from the elements. He fashioned a fire pit on one end, and pushed a pipe up to the top of the hill to allow smoke to escape. He fastened the tent to the front of the cave to provide a barrier against the wind.

“It looks like diamonds,” commented Jane when snowflakes began to fall. “Brilliant white diamonds sparkling all across the prairie.” Soon the surroundings began to look the same – white everywhere.

Tom found the tent was not working well against the strong north winds. It blew away from the sides of the cave, or tear allowing the wind and snow to enter the dug-out. He decided a door would have to be built. He cut out some slabs of sod from the prairie grass to stack around the cave entrance, and then cut down one of the tall oak trees by the river. A small wooden door was erected and set into the sod. It proved to provide much better support and security to their home in the hillside. The rest of the oak was chopped for firewood.

The baby’s croupy cough worsened, then turned into pneumonia. He was weakening and his mother knew it, but there was no way to get out of their snowy prison to get the child to the doctor. Even if they could, it may be too late. The young mother pressed the baby’s little body against hers and tried to get him to nurse. The baby shook with cold and fever. He coughed and sputtered so much he couldn’t nurse. He would stiffen with pain, and then relax, only to go through the same routine again. After hours of this routine, he just quit fighting; his sick little body became limp in his mama’s arms.

“He has quieted down,” she told her husband, “I think he has finally gone to sleep.” She sighed heavily, and tucked the blankets tightly around both of them. She leaned up against the cold damp dirt wall and cradled the baby in her arms. Jane was so weary with worry and exhaustion, she soon fell asleep too.

The next morning, she awoke with a start. The once-limp baby in her arms was now completely stiff and blue. He was as cold as the icicles that clung to the door. What would they do now? She sat numbly without saying a word, but her husband saw. He knew.

Jane’s father and mother worried. This was the worse blizzard ever, and the coldest winter they had ever experienced. They had not heard from Jane and Tom in over two weeks. They worried about them having enough food or wood for fire. Joe Woodland decided to go check on his daughter and her family and bring them more supplies, even though it would take him almost two days on foot through the deep snow. When he finally arrived, the prairie looked flat and white. No buildings, no tent. Nothing. All he could see was snow for miles on end. They had to be here somewhere.

“Tom? Can you hear me, Jane?” he yelled out. Listening intently, he could hear a slight muffled sound coming somewhere deep under the snow. Looking everywhere, he noticed a small melted area in the snow where a little wisp of smoke escaped from the ground. He pushed the snow away and found the stovepipe. He was standing on top of their buried home. “Tom! Jane!” he cried out.

“We’re down here!” Tom kept calling. “Thank God, you came!” Anxious, Joe Woodland started pushing snow away with his hands, digging deeper and deeper. Between Joe digging from above, and Tom pushing through from beneath, Tom was finally able to push the door open. The young couple was rescued from their buried cave.

“I’m so glad you found us. We were almost out of wood,” Tom choked back his tears. “It was getting too cold. The baby – didn’t make it. He died- last night.” He had tried to be strong for his wife, but lost all control as his emotions overtook him. Tom broke down and sobbed.

Jane, still clutching the blue baby to her breast, sat stone-still in the shadows. Her father came to her and gently pried her fingers away from the lifeless bundle in her arms. “We need to wash the child, Jane.” Reluctantly, she released her grip. Shuddering from the cold and her tears, they washed the little body, and then bundled the baby tightly with a sheet. Tom, only 20 years of age, but with the strength and fortitude of one much older, took down the roughly-hewn new wooden door from their shelter to built a small little casket for their baby. This would be the first burial on their new property-but not today, and not tomorrow. Not even in a couple weeks. They would have to wait several months until spring when the snow melted and the ground was soft enough to dig a hole. In the meantime, the dead baby wrapped in the sheet would have to reside in a mound of snow on the hill behind the shelter.

That winter had dealt the couple a fierce, cruel blow. They found the blizzard’s fury had no remorse, no mercy. Though saddened by great loss, they discovered another child was on the way. Their dug-out would not be sufficient for any more winters such as the one they had just experienced. When the summer arrived, they built a much warmer Soddy and planted a bigger garden. New life on the prairie was hard, but life would go on, and there would be better times ahead.

**This story is true:  Jo and Mary Woodland were my great-grandparents. Tom and Jane Dean were my great uncle and aunt.

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