It was a tale of intrigue, romance, and secrets. It was also a tale of female pioneer strength and of community service. But if you were going to categorize it, you'd have to call it a mystery.
There was something different about Freide Werner from the time she was a child. The daughter of a minister in Bitterfeld, Saxony, her intent desire was to become a doctor, but it was unheard of for a young woman in 1850s-era Germany to be accepted into any medical school.
Her father was no stranger himself to traveling the hard road – he was the first Baptist minister in an area where Baptists weren’t particularly welcome, but he persevered. He arranged for his daughter to study medicine privately with Dr. Lautze, who himself had studied under Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathic medicine.
Meanwhile, as Freide tended to her studies, young Captain William Feige, stationed at Magdeburg, was being transferred to the town of Bitterfeld. He boarded next door to the Werner family, and 15-year-old Freide caught his eye. While just 20 years old himself, he approached Freide’s father asking for her hand in marriage when she became of age, and her father accepted the proposal – all without Freide’s knowledge or consent, and the notion of being married did not go over well with her. However, Capt. Feige was “charming, highly educated, and handsome” – and over the course of the next three years, she warmed up to the idea.
However, Capt. Feige’s family did not. Vehemently opposed to the engagement, the Feiges, who had ties to the Prussian royal family, had made other marriage arrangements for their son. After their wedding, William and Freide had to immediately board a ship bound for America to escape the fallout.
The year was 1862, and the newlyweds made their first home in Albany, New York. William was interested in preaching and missionary work, and took that as his vocation. Freide meanwhile, gave birth to their first child in 1863. When the call went out for soldiers to defend the Union, William answered. He sent his wife and daughter to German friends in Missouri. While awaiting the end of the war, Friede began providing medical services to those in need.
While Freide tended to the sick in Missouri, her soldier husband was having his own health problems. In April of 1865 during the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia, he became ill from an unknown malady, and like so many other soldiers, afterward suffered from chronic diarrhea as well as rheumatism. He would never again be the same.
After the war, William went to Missouri to fetch his wife and family, and they lived in various other communities in Missouri and Iowa. For a while, he worked as a teacher. But his religious calling moved them to Marengo, Iowa, where he worked as a preacher and Freide built up a rather large medical practice. By this time, Freide’s parents, brothers and sisters had also come to America. After Marengo, it was Sac county, and then Spirit Lake, where William was called to be the first pastor in a newly-organized church. They spent four years there and had a total of eight children, and then William had a strange idea.
He decided to be a farmer.
Not such a strange idea in and of itself, but factor in that neither of them knew the first thing about farming, and William was dealing with a disability, and it becomes a rather curious notion. Perhaps his disability clouded his thinking, or perhaps he overestimated what he was able to do. He took up a claim in Dakota Territory, in Beadle county in late 1882 and moved his family there in February of 1883. Freide had saved some money from her medical practice in Iowa, and it was enough to build a small house for the family of nine. She did much of the lathing and plastering with her own hands, when she wasn’t busy with the children or tending to sick patients. Despite being new to the area and people, her medical services out on the prairie were in demand, day and night. The roads were often poor, or there were no roads at all; and typically she made her house calls on horseback. At night she used a compass, or tried to follow the railroad tracks to keep from getting lost.
With the exception of occasional preaching, William was unable to work much once the family moved to the homestead, so Freide’s medical practice became vital not only to her patients, but to her family as well.
And then, her story takes a turn. There is curiously little written about her personal life during this time. One biography, however, mentions that she was “left a widow.” She and her children moved into nearby Huron and she went on to marry Henry Van Dalsem, a local publisher. The Widow Feige was beginning a new chapter in her life. There was only one problem.
To be continued... Part 2