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Fargo man chronicles life and death on the Northern Plains in ‘Dakota Death Trip’

Derek Dahlsad writes a blog, "Dakota Death Trip," devoted to odd items from North Dakota newspapers from the 1870s to the 1930s. He uses some of his own old newspapers as well as reading old newspapers on microfilm at the Fargo Public Library. Dave Wallis / The Forum

FARGO – Derek Dahlsad finds himself drawn to reminders of a time when life on the Dakota prairie could be capriciously cruel in surprising ways.

The Fargo man writes a blog called “Dakota Death Trip,” which describes its mission as chronicling “Tales of the tragic, harsh, strange, and amazing lives of those brave enough to claim the Northern Plains as home.”

Life was hard and sometimes tragically short during the settlement era, from the 1870s through the 1920s, as hinted by the headlines he’s resurrected from obscurity:

“Found Lying on the Prairie.”

“Scalded to Death.”

“Tortured by Robbers.”

“Dynamite Lets Go with Dire Effect.”

“Parents See Son Ground to Death by Motor Truck.”

Dahlsad, an aspiring freelance writer who works for a Fargo computer systems firm, scours North Dakota newspaper archives for items he contributes to “Dakota Datebook,” a daily history program on Prairie Public radio.

He started to compile the odd tidbits that didn’t make the cut for the show, but that struck him as revealing glimpses of days gone by.

“I started putting aside interesting and terrifying and sad stories of North Dakota history,” he says.

There was, for instance, the unfortunate man who deserted a wagon train in 1877 that left from Bismarck, bound for the Black Hills. His body was found, “gnawed by prairie wolves.”

And there was the girl who stood too close to the railroad tracks in Fargo in 1909 and was struck in the face by a switchman’s swinging lantern as a train passed, leaving her face bleeding as the “highball” disappeared in the gloom of night.

A 5-year-old Pembina boy died hours after his father gave him a dose of carbolic acid, which he mistook for castor oil in 1908.

Dahlsad named his blog “Dakota Death Trip” as a tribute to Michael Lesy, who wrote “Wisconsin Death Trip,” a book with a quirky compendium of newspaper articles and historic photographs that has developed a cult following.

The “trip” designation for Dahlsad evokes slang from hippy culture of the 1960s.

‘Sudden slice of life’

As Dahlsad perused old newspapers on microfilm, he was struck by the prose, which tended to be less inhibited and more opinionated than contemporary newswriting.

In reporting the 1922 suicide of a farmer, for example, the Ward County Independent wrote about his wife, who dozed off while watching over her husband. He was sick with the flu and despondent over lack of feed for his livestock and heavy loss of cattle from blizzards:

“It was 4:30 before sleep defeated her, she told the coroner. Dozing for but a moment, she awakened when she heard her husband open the door. She saw him with the shotgun and frantically called to him. The slam of the door and the gun’s discharge was her answer.”

A 1922 article in the Bismarck Tribune about a 20-year-old woman’s suicide attempt by drinking Lysol commented on her appearance – “She is, in her way, attractive” – and suggested the motive was that she was jilted by a man.

“It’s much more like reading literature than just reading the news,” Dahlsad said. “Today the news is ‘just the facts, ma’am.’ ”

Newspapers years ago seemed to devote more coverage to what Dahlsad calls “the sudden slice of life.”

“They had column inches to fill,” he said of the small-town newspaper editors of years ago.

In 1911, the Bismarck Daily Tribune wrote about a stray dog that was taken in by a farm family near Goodrich, and possibly saved their lives by summoning help after they became ill. With a note attached, the dog returned to his home at a neighboring farm.

The neighbor “arrived at a critical moment” and “gave every assistance possible to the family and also to the starving livestock.”

Dahlsad publishes items on his blog daily, posting old photographs on Sundays, and also has a Facebook page. The website has attracted a small audience of readers, most of them history buffs or newspaper buffs.

To find its way into “Dakota Death Trip,” an old news article has to capture Dahlsad’s fancy.

“If it’s really too plain that probably doesn’t make it,” he says. “It has to be that little snapshot of history. That’s what makes it into ‘Dakota Death Trip.’ ”

Dakota Death Trip blog:

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to