Very few people have been more responsible for the birth and early growth of a city than Joel Weiser, a founder of Valley City, N.D.

He was the second person to build a house there, and he also established the town’s first store, gave the town its current name and served as its first mayor. When Barnes County was organized, he helped get Valley City named as the county seat, and after the city was awarded a college at the 1889 Constitutional Convention, he introduced the bill that provided funding for the college.

One historian wrote that Weiser “felt no fear of the unknown and welcomed the opportunity to leave the home of his parents” while still a teenager. He faced a number of dangerous and challenging situations before settling down in Barnes County.

Weiser was living in Shakopee, Minn., when that area became an epicenter of the Dakota Uprising in 1862. He fought in the Civil War, where he became ill with a severe case of malaria that almost cost him his life. In 1877, he moved his family to northern Dakota Territory, where his older brother, Josiah Weiser, had been killed 14 years earlier.

Joel Schroeder Weiser was born on Aug. 13, 1834, in Berks County, Pa., to Samuel and Mary (Schroeder) Weiser. Samuel was a miller who owned a small farm near Reading, where the Weisers tilled and lived on the land. When Joel was 15, he traveled to Amity, Pa., with his mother and worked as a “tobacconist,” a dealer in tobacco.

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Joel Weiser. BluMoKitty / FindAGrave / Special to The Forum
Joel Weiser. BluMoKitty / FindAGrave / Special to The Forum

William Weiser, Joel’s oldest brother, was working on a farm near Danby Station, Ill., and in 1850, Joel joined him there for a month. The two brothers then journeyed to St. Paul and found temporary employment.

A new settlement called Shakopee had been established southwest of St. Paul, on the other side of the Minnesota River. This site had been the traditional home of many of the Mdewakanton Dakota Indians, but through treaties, was ceded to the U.S. government through treaties, which opened it up to new settlers.

Joel and William relocated to Shakopee, and with many other settlers moving there, Joel found plentiful work as a mason and plasterer. In early May 1854, Joel returned to Pennsylvania to marry Louisa Cleaver, and also because he wanted to encourage his parents to move to Shakopee since the health of his father, Samuel, was rapidly deteriorating.

After Joel and Louisa’s wedding on May 10, the couple went to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, and Joel’s parents, Samuel and Mary, traveled by riverboat up the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to join their two sons and daughter-in-law in Shakopee. However, before arriving, Samuel died aboard the riverboat on May 17. Since Joel and his mother had always been very close, Mary remained with him until her death in Valley City in 1877.

After receiving his medical degree in 1855, Joel’s other brother, Josiah, also relocated to Shakopee and began treating patients, both settlers and Native Americans from the nearby village. During the first few years in Shakopee, the three Weiser brothers were doing very well and made many friendships with other settlers and Dakota Indians.

Then, in 1861, everything changed. The Civil War began, and the peacekeeping Chief Shakopee II died. The chief was replaced by his son, Shakpedan, who was determined to rid the area of the settlers that had encroached on the land once controlled by the Dakota Indians.

Soon after the start of the Civil War, William enlisted with the Union Army. On Oct. 17, 1862, Josiah was inducted into a local Minnesota army, commanded by Gen. Henry Hastings Sibley, to pursue the Dakota Indians responsible for some of the egregious actions taken during the Dakota Uprising. Then, on Sept. 31, 1864, Joel enlisted with the 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and “was at once ordered to Memphis” to engage in fighting the Confederate forces.

For the next 11 months, his unit pursued the Rebels through Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, often engaging in battle with bushwhackers who shadowed the Union army’s movements. Not only were Joel and his fellow soldiers frequently harassed by bushwhackers, but they also had to contend with heat, humidity, and the ever-present mosquitoes that inflicted half of the soldiers with malaria during the Civil War.

Shortly before the close of the war, Joel came down with a severe case of malaria, which nearly cost him his life and caused his black hair to permanently turn white. Joel returned home to Shakopee to recuperate, was mustered out of the army on Aug. 24, 1865, and discharged in October. Joel returned to his work as a mason in Shakopee until 1870, when he was offered a contract to do construction work in St. Paul. With the completion of his contract in 1874, he relocated 12 miles east of St. Paul to work on a farm.

Then, in the spring of 1877, he and his family packed up their belongings and traveled by train to Worthington, a railroad stop located 60 miles west of Fargo. Joel filed a homestead and tree claim of 320 acres, 4 miles northeast of the railroad stop, and built a log cabin in Worthington, which was the second house built there. Joel would later change the name of Worthington to Valley City.

Worthington, named for George Worthington, was located next to the Sheyenne River in Barnes County and had been named Wahpeton when the land company for the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) began to plat it in the summer of 1872. In December 1873, a few months after the NPRR began to lay tracks to the site, George Worthington and L. D. Marsh bought a section of land from the NPRR with the intention of selling lots. However, because of severe winters, bad droughts, and a depression, they were unable to attract any settlers.

We will conclude the story of Joel Weiser next week.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist