An Irish pioneer in Dakota Territory

Dear friends I met during my year of volunteer service in Slovakia have one of the best couple stories I’ve ever heard of how they met and married. He is Swedish; she is Slovak; and their courting all took place in English — neither of their first languages (I won’t say second, as they both speak quite a few languages). 

They met while he was on a service trip in Slovakia, and after he returned home, during subsequent correspondence, the misunderstanding of the grouping of the words “big buddy” (she was referring to a young friend she taught at Sunday school, and he assumed there was some competition on the dating field) caused him to speed up his efforts to make sure no one else would steal her heart! Their wedding had to be translated into several languages, to ensure that legally, each had full understanding of exactly what they were vowing, and they now reside on his family’s farm in Sweden, their home filled with representations of each of country’s cultures and their children speaking multiple languages.

I love hearing their stories of what it was like to live in the other’s country and learn the language, nuances, and systems necessary to move comfortably through society, and it’s given me greater appreciation for anyone, in the past or present, who has taken on such a challenge. Many people in this area can trace their family trees to places all over the globe, having histories of being considered the outsider at some point before settling in and becoming a part of the community.

I read about an Irish immigrant to Dakota Territory in 1880 who was described in his obituary in the Feb. 17, 1911, edition of the Watertown Public Opinion as “one of the oldest settlers of the county” and one of the county’s “most prominent citizens.”

Lawrence J. O’Toole, born June 16, 1860, left County Carlow, Ireland, when he was 11 years old, traveling by himself to New York. He lived with his sister there and became an apprentice to a stonecutter, according to a “Dakota Images” article by Michael J. Bugeja in a 1982 “South Dakota History” publication.

When he was 17, O’Toole moved to Minnesota to work as a farmhand and attend school, and he moved to Dakota Territory in 1880, taking a homesteading claim in Fuller Township, Codington County. He married Della S. Grammond on Feb. 16, 1885, and O’Toole would have three daughters and six sons by 1908.

“By 1885, according to his diary, O’Toole was already acting as clerk of a rural school district although he was not officially elected to such a post until 1 May 1889,” the article states. By then, he was also serving as assessor of the Fuller Township and also as postmaster of Esterly, which was a position assigned to him by Postmaster General William F. Vilas on Aug. 3, 1887.

O’Toole acquired more land when the Sisseton-Wahpeton reservation was opened to white settlers on April 15, 1892, as the reservation bordered his land. “To stake his new claim, he walked across the line and turned a shovel of dirt,” the article describes.

In 1908, O’Toole strained his back while lifting sacks of grain with his older sons, causing him to give up farming and move to town in Watertown, and the move caused him to become interested in politics. He ran as a republican for country treasurer that year against N.F. Marx, a democrat, and O’Toole was elected to the position with 1,768 votes in his favor, versus 694 to his opponent. 

O’Toole was reelected two years later. “However, shortly after he began serving his second term, a heart ailment clamed his life on 12 February 1911,” the article states. 

It perhaps best describes how O’Toole’s life “is representative of the lives of many pioneers who came west in search of new economic and political opportunities.”

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