The Warners of Chicopee Falls: John, Part 1

For those familiar with Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, in the 1880s, it probably wouldn’t be surprising to learn that some of Edward Bellamy’s neighbors were connected to manufacturing or farming.  But what about connections to the Dakota Territory and Alaska?  This is the first in a series of posts that will explore the context behind an unexpected collection of correspondence at the Edward Bellamy House, as well as the story of the family that received it.

IMG_1804_SmOn May 20, 1884, John E. Warner left his position as bookkeeper for the Lamb Knitting Machine Company in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, to “go farming.”1  The youngest of four children who lived to adulthood, seventeen-year-old John was not exactly leaving an office job for the unfamiliar: his father, Julius, was a local farmer.  However, rather than staying on the family farm, John ventured westward, working in parts of the country that had not yet achieved statehood.

John seems to have stayed in the Chicopee area for some amount of time after he decided to take up farming, as an 1885 directory lists him as living with his family and being employed by a Mrs. A. Hatfield.2  By early 1886, though, he had headed west.  In a letter dated May 16, 1886, the first of five surviving letters from his travels, he tells his father about the ranch he’s working on in Minnesela, Dakota Territory:

“They have planted about 300 acres of wheat 40 of oats [and] ar going to sow 100 of grass seed.  The ranch is all cut up with ditches by which they water the ranch, [and] they ar a darnd bother when you ar harrowing3 or plowing. They keep about 150 horses, most of which ar trotting stock, they have one clide stallion4 that tips the 1850 notch [and] he is a dandy.  You ask how I like the country in general, I like first rate but I dont think I shall ever get in love enough with it to make it my home for ever.”5

Now a ghost town in South Dakota, Minnesela was, in 1886, a growing town that had just been incorporated four years earlier.6  John reported that overalls cost $1.50 (about $42.68 in today’s money7), wheat was worth 1.5 cents per pound, and hay was worth $15 a ton.  There was rain and hail in May, and by late October it was “as cold as ice.”8

One year later, John was working on a different ranch, this time near Fort Buford.  Located near the Montana border in what is now North Dakota, the fort was established in 1866 and is best known as the site of Sitting Bull’s surrender in 1881.  Through the 1880s, and until Fort Buford was abandoned in 1895, the soldiers stationed there protected crews working on the Great Northern Railway, prevented indigenous peoples from entering U.S. territory from Canada, and policed outlaws.9

John Warner October 24, 1886 Envelope

John Warner’s letter from October 24, 1886, was sent in this envelope. Notice that the cancellation was done by hand rather than with a stamp.

While it isn’t clear exactly where the ranch was located in relation to the fort, the work kept John busy.  “I have don the cooking this summer for from two to five men, beside putting in full time in the hay field, roundups, brandings [and] driveing beef to Fort B. to feed Uncle Sam’s Swaddies {men that wair the Blue} on,” he wrote to his father in late 1887.  While he mentions a couple of friends in his earlier letters, the two letters from Fort Buford are also the first that indicate he wasn’t the only person from Chicopee Falls working in the area: the “Harry” he later talks about being “out with a bunch of sheep” is likely Harry Newell, the son a butcher who headed west around the same time as John.10

No additional letters survive from John’s time in the Dakota Territory, so it is unclear when he decided to stop farming there, or why.  What is evident, however, is that he wasn’t quite ready to return to Chicopee Falls.  The last surviving letter in the set of five, from June of 1889, was written from Alaska.  What was he doing there, and did he ultimately decide to stay out west?  Stay tuned for part 2 of John Warner’s story.


  1. “Hampden County,” Springfield Republican (Massachusetts), April 28, 1884, 6.
  2. The City of Springfield, Chicopee, Chicopee Falls, and West Springfield, Directory for 1885-86, Springfield Printing Company (Springfield, Massachusetts), 466.
  3. A harrow is a piece of farming equipment used to break up clumps of soil, uproot weeds, and cover seed.  “Harrow,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, (accessed October 18, 2020).
  4. Warner is likely referring to a Clydesdale.  This breed of horses typically weighs between 1600 and 2400 pounds.  “Questions,” Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A., (accessed October 18, 2020).
  5. John Warner, Minnesela, Dakota Territory, to Julius Warner, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, May 16, 1886.
  6. “Minnesela, South Dakota,” Wikipedia,,_South_Dakota (accessed October 18, 2020).
  7. Calculated using a formula on the website of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “Consumer Price Index, 1800-,” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, (accessed October 18, 2020)
  8. John Warner to Julius Warner, May 16, 1886 and John Warner, Minnesela, Dakota Territory, to Julius Warner, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, October 24, 1886.
  9. “Fort Buford State Historic Site – History,” State Historical Society of North Dakota, (accessed October 21, 2020).
  10. John Warner, Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, to Julius Warner, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, November 9, 1887; John Warner, Fort Buford, Dakota Territory, to Julius Warner, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, December 17, 1887; 1870 U.S. Census, Chicopee, Hampden County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Chicopee Post Office, p. 155, dwelling 868, family 1187, Smith Newell, NARA microfilm publication M593, Roll 616; “Hampden County,” Springfield Republican (Massachusetts), November 2, 1889, 6.