- Ferdinand and Antonette Borgmann

A History of the Borgmann Family

Author unknown*

Ferdinand Borgmann was born May 24, 1825 in Westphalia, Germany. He was the son of a tailor, and learned this trade. In the summers he often spent time on his uncle's farm which was located on the Rhine River. He enjoyed country life more than is tailor trade. Here he learned about animal husbandry and the raising of grains and vegetables.

Ferdinand spent four years in the army, seeing active service in 1848-49. Disliking the military he immigrated to the United States in 1852. He worked his way to Toledo, Ohio, where he worked in a saw mill for about two years. From Toledo he moved west to Guttenberg, Iowa, where there was a large German community. The area was very wooded and he did not desire to clear the land for farming so he traveled west for prairie land. He spent some time in Lincoln, Nebraska, but was not satisfied with the locality. Where there he had his first experience with the Indians, who were preparing to go on the warpath and planned to attack the white settlement. Through the persuasion of Ferdinand and a bribe of sugar, he delayed the attack and the settlers were able to pull up stakes and depart.

Borgmann returned to Guttenberg and married Antonette Schurmann on October 4, 1855. (In Guttenberg he became an American citizen which was required for a land grant.)

Antonette Schurmann was born in Reclinhausen, Germany, on April 18, 1835. At the age of 18 she immigrated to America with her parents and their thirteen children. Her father disliking the political climate, wars and conscription, decided to take his large family to America. They did not come for financial betterment, as the left wealth and security behind. Antonette told of a castle on the hill, with servants to do the field and household tasks. A seamstress came twice a year to make the women's wardrobe in the best of styles. Her background did not prepare her for the rugged frontier life.

Journey from Iowa

Free land in Minnesota! In the fall of 1856 Ferdinand Borgmann made his decision. He would go to Minnesota to homestead. Antonette Borgmann, young and untrained for the hardshi0ps of pioneer life resigned herself to her husband's will, and with a sad heart began the necessary arrangements for the long journey. Ferdinand full of excitement transferred his small savings into a team of oxen and a covered wagon, farm and carpenter tools, and whatever he deemed necessary in their new life. They began their journey with all their worldly possessions. The wagon was loaded! A bed was made on the floor and every space utilized. Two young heifers were tied to the wagon. They strained on their halters to feed on the dry grass as they traveled along the trail.

Antonette, although four months pregnant, alternated between walking beside her husband and riding in the wagon. The nights, already cool, were spent beneath the open skies, if a homestead or town did not provide shelter.

The rolling hills of southern Minnesota proved a contrast to the flat lands of Iowa. As they traveled north, the lakes were more plentiful. From time to time they sighted Indians and fear gripped the heart of the young bride. Her husband walking beside the oxen exchanged his whip for his gun. He had encountered the Red men in Nebraska, and although he was not yet familiar with their ways, he determined that their presence would not deter his resolve for his own home in the wilderness. He sympathized with his wife's anxiety and fears, although he could not quite understand them. Whatever problems were to be met, worry did not solve them, and his cool and collected mind had no time for them.

They reached the mighty Mississippi and followed the guiding stream until they came to St. Anthony. The town was a thriving one: stores, flour mills and saw mills and the railroad gave it an air of speed and bustling that they had not experienced since leaving Des Moines. The couple rested a few days while Ferdinand sought directions, and made friends. The area was studded with lakes and he fell in love with the country. Here a man could seek his fortune and become his own boss. A dream was about to become true. The long journey across the ocean and the years of working for others were consummated. He was a free man in a free country! With confidence in Divine Providence, he made ready for the remaining trip. His wife, although rested, was not in the same frame of mind. The unease that filled her when they had left Iowa still weighed heavy upon her. There was but one bright spot in the journey. In St. Cloud she would meet her sister, Catherine Herberger.

The patient oxen slouched their way along the Red River Trail. The road was dry and rutted from the heavy wheels of the ox carts. Antonette walked to save herself the jostling of the wagon. The October breeze flipped the dust from the dry prairie grass, and it tasted rough and gritty on her parched lips. She would rinse her mouth with warm water from the jug, but it never quenched her thirst. She forsook the opportunities of drinking at the brooks and springs as they passed, and only drank when her husband stopped, for she knew of his impatience to reach their goal. Whenever Ferdinand would water the stock she would drink of the cool water and, dampening a white linen handkerchief, she would wash grime from her sunburned face. She didn't dare look at herself in the mirror; the stiffness of her face told her that her bonnet was no match for the wind and the sun. It felt leathery and glancing at her hands confirmed it. They were chapped and red. She stared and wondered how they, who had known nothing of work except that of a needle, would accomplish all the work that was in store for them. Silently she said a prayer, knowing in that alone her strength would lie.

St. Cloud, the city of granite, is reached. The Borgmanns made their way to the Herberger home and the two sisters embraced amid a flood of joyous tears. Conrad slaps his friend on the back and talked of the young couple's future in the New World, the risks and opportunities. His blacksmith trade made an ample living for him and his wife as they began their young family.

St. Cloud to Lake George

After resting in St. Cloud with the Herberger family and purchasing what was necessary for the journey and for their life at Lake George, they traveled east to Sauk Rapids to ford the Mississippi at its lowest point. The wagon was filled with their household needs: a carved hardwood bed with twine crossing back and forth to hold a straw mattress, bedding, pots and pans for cooking on the iron wood stove (which would also heat their cabin), flour, cornmeal, potatoes, and other staples. A cow and two young heifers were haltered and tied to the wagon. On fording the river a young calf broke loose and was lost downstream.

They followed the ox cart trails for some 40 miles to their 160 acre claim. The land chosen by Ferdinand was half wooded and half prairie. There were two cabins already at the location, built by William Fehling and Gerhard Stahlberger. These two men had prepared hay for the Borgmanns but a prairie fire had destroyed it. Before beginning his log cabin, he had to cut enough wild hay to carry his livestock through the winter. The couple lived in the covered wagon until the cabin and barn were built. It was a long Indian Summer, but before they moved into the cabin, snow had fallen. In true pioneer spirit his neighbors helped in the work. Mother Stahlberger took the young bride under her wing.

February 21, 1857, Antonette, the first recorded white child in Stearns County, was born to Ferdinand and Antonette Borgmann.** Frau Stahlberger assisted at the birth. (Note: St. Cloud at the time was located east of the Mississippi River and was not in Stearns County.)

In the spring of the year, Antonette was taken to St. Cloud for baptism. The journey was long and dangerous. The creeks and rivers were swollen with the runoff of melting snow. Young Gerhart Stahlberger, jumped down on the thongs of the oxen to keep the oxen and wagon from going downstream. Frightened and praying, the young mother was ever grateful to the young neighbor who risked so much for their safety.

Spring planting (1857) resulted in a good crop of oats and wheat. They survived the winter with potatoes, bread and wild game that was so plentiful. Grandma told of flocks of pigeons so dense they darkened the sun. Wild turkey and venison graced their table. Hazelnuts and cranberries (fall crops) were made into puddings.

The winter of 1856-57 was very severe. The Sioux and the Chippewa Indians were at war. The chief of the Sioux, Little Crow, came to the Borgmann cabin, cold and hungry. Antonette gave him bread, and from then on they were friends and he stopped for food and to rest. With sign language he would indicate how many braves they lost to the Chippewas. The Sauk River was the boundary for the two tribes. The Chippewa lived in the woods and hunted small game and fished the lakes and streams. The Sioux, the superior warriors, roamed and hunted on the prairie. By 1856-57 the buffalo were gone from that area. Elk and deer were plentiful. Wild turkey, grouse, pheasants and pigeons graced the pioneer's table. They learned much from their Indian neighbors. What wild plants were edible and what to avoid.

A description of the cabin: It was built of oak logs, cut from the claim. These had to be notched and fitted together. Sod was used to fill in the cracks. The hard wood bed, brought from Iowa, filled one side of the cabin; the iron cooking stove, the opposite wall. Dishes and cooking equipment was on shelves and pegs on the walls. Clothing was stored in chests. A trap door, covered over with a rug, led to a root cellar where potatoes, onions and turnips were stored. The frontier "medicine" brandy was hidden here.

The Indians had a keen nose for "fire water", and would use force to get it. It was probably in the winter of 1858 that a roaming band of Indians entered the Borgmann yard, took a young steer from the barn and proceeded to sharpen their knives. Ferdinand took his gun from the wall and, ignoring the pleas of his frightened wife, went out to confront the thieves. The Indians took his gun from him and surrounded him and the steer. With broken English and signs, they told him the government would pay. They burchered the animal, dividing the meat among themselves and giving him a portion. Of course the government never paid. He was fortunate to come out of the experience without a scratch. His gun was returned to him and he returned to the house, much to the relief of his wife.

Life on the frontier was not easy. Planting and harvesting of grains and vegetables, and the cutting and stacking of hay, had to be done by the family. There was no hired help available. Husband and wife worked side by side. Ferdinand would cut the grain with a scythe and Antonette would deftly tie, with a weavers knot, strands of grain, and encircle the grain, and tie it into bundles.

Responsibility was learned at an early age. When young Antonette was five years old, her mother showed her that when the hands of the clock were in a certain position she should bring the baby to the field for her mother to nurse it.

Sometime within the early years at Lake George, Ferdinand traded his team of oxen for two ponies. This speeded up his journey to the village of Sauk Centre where he had his wheat ground into flour, and corn and grains into feed. The distance was probably fifteen miles [one way].

A roaming Indian stole one of the ponies and Ferdinand mounted the remaining horse and rode in pursuit, overtaking the thief and recovering his property.

In spite of a few isolated instances of thievery, the settlers at Lake George lived peacefully with their [Indian] neighbors, whose land they shared. One very cold and stormy winter, the Sioux chief Little Crow came to their house half starved. He had been there many times before, but this time he brought a pair of moccasins as a gift, in gratitude for the food he had bee given. When he was offered a loaf of bread he would only accept half, pointing to the children, that it was for them. There was a mutual respect between the two races.

Spring time was difficult for traveling. There were no roads, just trails, and the melting snow made them almost impassable. Returning from business in Sauk Centre, Ferdinand came across two men whose horse and wagon were stuck in the mud. With the three men working together they regained solid ground. Thus began a lasting friendship with Borgmann, Governor Alexander Ramsey, and James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad.

Fort Ambercrombie

During the early days of the Civil War, word came to the settlers at Lake George that the soldiers guarding [Fort Ambercrombie on the Red River] were ill and starving. Ferdinand, filled with compassion for the soldiers, tried to interest his neighbors in taking food to this northernmost outpost. It was a journey of 125 to 150 miles through wilderness and Indian country. No one was willing to take that risk. He determined to go alone. He told his wife he could not let these soldiers die of starvation. He packed his wagon with potatoes and onions, hitched up his ponies and began the long journey. He would camp out at night under the stars and kept a wood fire burning to keep off the timber wolves. One night a pack was particularly aggressive and there was no sleep. The wood fire had to be kept blazing to keep them at bay. His gun ever ready, the night passed, and the dawn and daylight brought safety. Arriving at the fort, the gates were opened and a cheering crowd of soldiers greeted him. The wagon was unloaded and he was paid in gold. The next day he began the long journey home, satisfied that he had done what was needed. Welcomed back by his family and friends, the friends impressed by the gold, wanted him to take their produce and to reap a similar reward. He was not interested.

Antonette, frail and timid, also had her experience with the timber wolves of the region. Rising before daylight she walked alone [on Easter Sunday] to Richmond where the only Catholic Church was located. This was probably about twenty odd miles. The trail was through the woods and over streams; not an easy walk. She arrived in time for the Easter Sunday Mass, and did not take nourishment until after the Liturgy. After eating and resting a few hours, she began her return journey. This was not without event. Nearing home and passing through a wooded area, she met a mother wolf with her cubs. Terribly frightened she resorted to prayer. The animals were not hungry and did not attack.

Father Pierz, a missionary to the Native Americans, traveled the trails from St. Cloud to the border of Canada. When in the area, he would stop at the Borgmann home for a few days of rest and home cooked food. He had many stomach problems from eating the Indian diet for so many years. He would celebrate Mass for the settlers, baptize babies and take care of their spiritual needs. Before his departure, his clothes would be washed, mended and sometimes replaced.

There were no schools in this wilderness area. One winter day a wandering German schoolteacher came to their door. He was cold and hungry and seeking shelter. He was taken in, and for his board and room he was to teach the children. This was the older children's first experience with a German reader and arithmetic. Only after moving to Sauk Centre was formal school available.

The Indian and Civil War Period

In the summer of 1862 the Federal government was making an effort to draft troops into the army to take part in the Civil War. Men were prone to leave their homes and families because of the danger of an Indian uprising. Governor Ramsey appealed to President Lincoln for the staying of the draft in Minnesota. In a letter dated August 27, 1862, Lincoln replied: " Attend to the Indians. If the draft cannot proceed of course if will not proceed. Necessity knows no law. The government cannot extend the time." Signed A. Lincoln.

In the summer of 1862, rumors circulated of the unrest of the [Sioux] Indians. The government had not kept their promise of aid, and food was scarce. The men of the area met to evaluate the situation and see what options were available. They had lived for years on friendly terms with [the Sioux] and many believed that it would continue. While [the men were meeting], the women of the Lake George settlement gathered at the Borgmann cabin. The day dragged on and the anxious women kept watching for the return of their husbands. An Indian was spotted coming up the path and stopping at the gate. Antonette, carrying the baby and Frances clinging to her skirts, went to meet the man. Many times she had hosted such visitors, always giving them food and listening to their woes. This time was different! The man, a half-breed, told her in broken English and signs, that he had escaped from his Indian captors by digging his way out of a dirt floor shack, had stolen a canoe, and crossed the lake to warn them that the Indians planned to attack the white settlers. The man was hungry and exhausted. Antonette, motioned him to follow her and she would give him food. They started up the path, but before they reached the cabin, the women within had fled taking young Antonette with them. One of the women in the group was the young girl's aunt, so the mother knew she was safe. Her guest fed, and sent on his way with additional food, she anxiously awaited the return of her husband. Sighting him coming up the road, she rushed out to tell him the news. It confirmed what had been decided and the couple immediately prepared to leave. The ponies were hitched to the wagon, and food, clothing and all necessary articles that would fit were packed in.

The stock were let loose, and they drove southeast towards the army fort in Richmond. They caught up with other caravans but young Antonette was not re-united with her parents for several days. The influx of settlers in the small village of Richmond led to much confusion. Here they found friends who had a far more horrible experience; their settlement was set afire.

They stayed at the fort a week and then returned to their home. They found all intact, nothing was disturbed. They moved their household goods into the cabin and Ferdinand rounded up the live stock and the chickens. Life was back to normal! In a few days their Native American neighbors would return to tell them that they were friends and no harm would come to them.

(NOTE: More information about this era can be found in the Sauk Centre Herald Scrap Book, pages 2, 3, 4, 4A, 4B, 6, column 3, 10 and 13.)

We have no date when Ferdinand was drafted for the Army of the North, but, fearing to leave his wife and children alone in the wilderness, he arranged for a substitute. A single man returning from active duty was willing to take Ferdinand's place for the payment of $500.00. The payment was made, but the war ended before the substitute returned to active duty. Ferdinand was out his money.

Alexander Moore, the founding father of Sauk Centre, kept encouraging Ferdinand to move closer to town and eliminate the long journey (15 miles or more) to have his grain ground. In the fall of 1865 a farm a mile and a half from town was for sale. There was a small log house, barn and chicken coop on the property. The Borgmann family decided to move! Immediately Ferdinand contracted with the Pangburn brick factory on the north east side of Sauk Lake to supply the material and labor for the new two story house. The price of the property was set at $4000.00. The transaction was completed with a promise of payment and a hand shake. No papers were signed. If a man was known to be honest that was all that was necessary.

The two story house was ample for the growing family. The kitchen floor was white birch and took a daily scrubbing. (The house was well built, and over a hundred years later Antonette enjoyed visiting it and recalling fond memories of her life there.)

The three oldest Borgmann girls were ready to attend the one room school house. The instruction they had received from the German tutor made the transition easy. Antonette had a love for books and learning and was an adept student. In the winter months they stomped through the snow, and when the weather was too severe they had to remain home and practiced their arithmetic and other lessons. Frances was not as enthusiastic as her older sister.

Farm chores occupied their free time. The cattle had to be fed and one story comes down to us: Frances was in the hay loft throwing down the hay for Antonette to feed to the cows. Suddenly Frances exclaimed: "There is a man up here!" and threatened to jump. Antonette said: "Don't, I will be right up." Mounting the ladder to the loft she discovered the reflection of the full moon on the hay which very much resembled the face of a man. Another story of Frances' timidness, was when she claimed she saw a ghost and on her sister's investigation it was a white chicken. The two girls were very different in temperament; the older taking after her Father, fearless and adventuresome; the other nervous and fearful like her Mother.

1867: The year of the Great Flood and the birth in April of Ferdinand Jr., the then only living boy in the family. It was reported that the rain began on July 7th and continued until the 17th, and an estimated 30 inches had fallen. The dam at the mill in Sauk Centre was washed away despite heroic efforts to save it. The water flooded the valley for miles and the downpour worked havoc with the crops and gardens. All had to be replanted when the ground had dried. Water had to be boiled for drinking as all the wells were contaminated. (More detailed accounts of the flood may be found in the Herald Scrap Book, page 12.)

Tragedy strikes the family during the diphtheria epidemic in 1873.*** The Borgmann family was returning from the village to visit a neighbor family. Louise sat on the bed of her ill classmate, not knowing the nature of the illness. A few days later she came down with a fever which was diagnosed by the country doctor as diphtheria. [Her sister] Antonette also contracted the disease. Mrs. Borgmann was carrying her 8th child, and over burdened. Mr. Henry Lye who had already lost his children came to help. One night when he was sitting with the very ill Antonette he heard this conversation: "No, don't take me, Mother needs me, take little George." There was no one else in the room and he was perturbed. He related the incident the next morning to the parents. That day Doctor Palmer called at the family home to check on the family. As a precaution he decided to swab the throats of the uninfected members of the family. Little George, then age five, bit off the iodine swab. The doctor was unable to induce vomiting and the boy died. Louise succumbed to the disease and Antonette recovered. (More about the beloved Dr. Palmer in the Herald Scrap Book on page 15.)

* Ferdinand and Antonette must have told stories of their life on the frontier to their grandchildren as there are several accounts recorded. This was written by one of those grandchildren, though which one is uncertain.

** It is doubtful that the Borgmann's first child was also the first white child born in Stearns County as St. Cloud was already a thriving community. Baby Antonette was likely the first white child born on the western frontier in Stearns County.

*** There were several diphtheria epidemics. Louise and George died in the epidemic of 1865. Louise is buried at the Catholic Cemetery in New Munich, and George is probably buried there as well, but no headstone remains. Other headstones near Louise's list three or four children from the same family who died within a few weeks in late April and early May of 1865.

Henry Borgmann died in May of 1873, and Mary Borgmann died between 1870 and 1875 (based on census records). It is believed they both died as a result of the diphtheria epidemic of 1873. A few weeks after Henry died, Mrs. Borgmann gave birth to another son, her ninth child, who was also named Henry.

Return to Ferdinand and Antonette Borgmann

Return to WINKER SITES page | Return to WINKER.NET Home Page