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Jesse French

In Pioneer Girl, the man who butchered his oxen for meat during the Hard Winter of 1880-1881.

There was a yoke of cattle in town belonging to a man named French a bachelor who had moved in from his farm for the winter. They were his work team, but he was persuaded to butcher them and sell out the meat, so we had a little beef to go with our whole wheat bread. – Pioneer Girl

In published The Long Winter and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Hard Winter manuscript, it’s Mr. Foster who butchers his team of oxen for meat, yet in Pioneer Girl, the man with the oxen is said to be Mr. French.

Jesse French was born in March 1851 in Canada, coming to the United States in 1853. He had a tree claim in Kingsbury County, the SW 35-112-56, first filed on October 12, 1880. His unmarried sister was the first postmistress of Esmond (then called Sana). Homesteader Romanzo Bunn had contested a tree claim in the county and took Jesse French and Alfred Waters with him to court as witnesses on November 7, traveling to Mitchell by way of Huron after the October blizzard. This shows that Jesse French was in the area at least in the fall of 1880. Jesse French was still living a few miles north of De Smet just before he went to Illinois in February 1884 to marry his sweetheart, Jessie Sheldon, the couple returning to live on the farm after their marriage. Jessie was the daughter of Allen and Anna Sheldon of Mc Henry County, Illinois.

Jesse and Jessie French moved to Turner County, South Dakota, where Jesse was a carpenter. They had no children. Both are buried in Hurley Cemetery, Hurley (Turner County) South Dakota. Jesse French died in 1911; Jessie (Sheldon) French died in 1932. As Jesse French witnessed final proof filing for a number of De Smet area homesteaders, it is highly probable that he is the inspiration for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Mr. French” in Pioneer Girl.


Mr. French (PG), see also Foster