History,  North Dakota History,  Tales of the Ranch,  The Cowboy Chronicle

The Letter

Veteran’s Day started as Armistice Day and marked the end of World War 1. It became a federal holiday in the U.S in 1938. In 1954 the lobbying efforts of veterans groups paid off, and Congress amended the 1938 act that made Armistice Day a holiday, renaming it “Veteran’s Day”. From that time on November 11 has been a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

The old trunk intrigued me. I had seen it on a previous visit and even though my aunt and I never went through it, I thought about it from time to time. During a recent visit my Aunt Helen asked if I wanted to look inside; it was an immediate yes.  The trunk had sat in Aunt Helen’s garage for 50 years.  The trunk was old and worn and as you lifted the lid you knew you were going back in time. Every type of correspondence that crossed Franklin Martell’s desk in the early years of the 20th century was in that trunk; chattel mortgages, bank records, tax returns, business letters, personal letters and more. Here was a trove of correspondence offering a glimpse into life in the vast open country of western North Dakota at the beginning of the 20th century.

As we began to take stock of all that was in there, I came across an unopened letter postmarked 1918.  At first I was spinning tales in my head as to why he would have not opened and read this letter. With a closer look I saw that it had been addressed to Pvt. Sam Dagg and was stamped “returned to writer.” Martell didn’t open the letter because he knew what was inside, he had written it. There were many other letters and papers in the trunk pertaining to Samuel John Dagg.

Sam Dagg was Martell’s friend. He was born in Michigan on January 11, 1893. His mother was a Native American and he was educated at the Indian School in Mt. Pleasant Michigan. He worked as a machinist for a while and eventually made his way to McKenzie County North Dakota where he found work and friendship with Martell and other early pioneers. Sam got into the horse business and eventually filed for a Homestead Patent. 

World War I broke out across Europe in 1914. President Wilson was determined for the United States to remain neutral and most Americans at the time supported his nonintervention policy. Sentiment started to change after the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat in 1915. Among the passengers killed were 128 Americans. Then there was news of a possible alliance between Germany and Mexico against the United States. The U.S. officially entered the war on April 6, 1917. On May 18, 1917 the Selective Service Act was enacted.

During the First World War there were three registrations: June 5, 1917 for all men between the ages of 21-31, June 5, 1918 for those who turned 21 in that succeeding year and on September 12, 1918 for men between 18 and 45. The men’s serial numbers were printed on small pieces of paper and put into tiny gelatin capsules about the size of a penny. These capsules were put into a large glass bowl and mixed thoroughly. The first drawing was held on July 20, 1917 and over 10,000 numbers were drawn. About half of all who served in WW 1 were drafted. Sam, Franklin and Franklin’s brother Ray, all registered for the draft in McKenzie County.  By the end of WW1 males between 18 and 31 had a 25 % chance of serving during the war.  After registering Sam went back to Michigan to work and visit for a while.

Feb 2, 1918: Michigan “Dear Franklin, I thought I would send you a line or two for old friendships sake…have you heard anything on the draft list of me? I have not received any notices in which class I am in. I received my questions quite a while ago and filled it out but have not got an answer….your friend Sam”

Induction centers were set up at the county seats. Samuel Dagg was inducted at Schafer, McKenzie County on March 29, 1918. Franklin’s brother Ray was inducted there on April 29, 1918. They were both sent to Camp Dodge in Iowa which processed new draftees and provided basic training. Sam departed New York for Europe on May 3, 1918

June 23, 1918: Dear Sam, I received your letter a couple of days ago, I see it was dated in May…it was sure sometime in getting here. …I suppose you are pretty busy… we rounded up all the horses south three weeks ago. I found all of yours. You sure have some fine yearlings…there was a big dance out at the Hicks last night for the benefit of the Red Cross. They took in $175 which I thought was pretty good.  Your girl was there. Ray has gone to camp some time ago, I suppose he will be going over soon. Jimmie Nelson and Jake Konstedt are gone and there’s a bunch leaving tomorrow, 55, I think…I will give you Ray’s address, he might get somewhere near you. With best wishes and good luck, your old friend Franklin

June 30, 1918: Dear Friend, I am sending you a few lines again…I suppose everybody is well and looking for a good crop…they haul their hay in small wagons and use milk cows to haul the load…send papers or magazines from out there…Sam. PS be sure and send a card or letter.

Mail was not only a lifeline between those serving in Europe and home it was actually in the General Orders in 1918. “To write home frequently and regularly, to keep in constant touch with family and friends, is one of the soldier’s most important duties. Mothers and fathers will suffer if they do not hear often from sons fighting in France….” This would not be a difficult duty for most soldiers; they also needed the words from home. The first Army post office, APO 1, was opened in France on July 10, 1917. Stationary and post cards were provided by service organizations. The soldiers were limited in the details they could disclose in their letters going home, but were able to write about their duties and encourage support for the war effort.

August 8, 1918: Dear Franklin, I received your letter with the two pictures, those are sure great pictures, and I got that letter and picture from your sister Anna, and I am sure glad your brother Ernest wrote. I cannot write and tell you much for we are not allowed….I wish I could have been at the 101 ranch celebration. I believe I could show all them boys how to ride…I wish you would send me a few more of those papers… You say France for pretty scenery, but I think we will see what Germany has for scenery before long… tell your brothers and Uncle George they have my best wishes while I am trailing abroad…Your pal Sam

Morale and purpose was boosted with the letters from home, and by the Stars and Stripes. The first newspaper named Stars and Stripes was produced in the Civil War. It was a one page paper that was only published four times. The Stars and Stripes was revived in WW1 with the first edition going out on February 8, 1918 in Paris. It was produced weekly by an all military staff. There was news as well as poems and stories written by service members and other unique material.

August 20, 1918: Dear friend Franklin, I received your letter some time ago…I am well and doing pretty good. I suppose you are all through haying… …what little harvesting there is here is about all through. People harvest and put up hay quite a little different that we do…. The stock they have look pretty good. We get a New York Herald once in a while and a paper called the Stars and Stripes published in Paris….If you have Ray’s address over here send it to me…I will close with hopes of your writing soon. Sam

Sept 24, 1918: Dear Sam, Your letter and picture received…I guess you must be in the trenches helping to send back the Huns…I suppose you heard they are re-registering all the men from 18 to 45 so I had to re-register… I wish I knew where that little girl of yours was in Chicago, and I would look her up while I was here … your friend Franklin

Fourteen hundred North Dakotans lost their lives in The Great War. Over 116,000 Americans during the war died from influenza, combat or wounds received. It was actually the influenza that caused the most deaths. With the war came a massive movement of large numbers of troops and related personnel; such as the world had never seen before. Army recruits we brought together from a wide range of backgrounds and places to be in close proximity with one another in barracks, ships and trenches. With the world wide movements no one was safe. In North Dakota it is believed 3000 – 5000 people died of the flu.

October 1918: Dear Sam, I have carried this letter all the way back to ND as I did not have your address with me. We have not heard from Ray for about three months and do not know where he is at…he was in England the last we heard but I think he has moved on as some letters we sent have come back….your old pal Franklin

November 8, 1918: Dear Sam, I wrote you some short time ago when I was in Chicago. I suppose you will have received it before this reached you.  One letter came back but I am going to send it to you again…..the people around here and all over the U.S. all have the Spanish influenza, and a good many dying with it. ..these all lived near you, and a lot more whom you don’t know…They have it over in France too… I guess Ray is in the hospital now. We have heard from him in four months, only the other day, through the Red Cross… I heard the other day Frank Nolan was wounded over there… I sent you some Alexander papers the other day…well old friend I hope this finds you well. Take good care of yourself. I guess you heard the Huns are on the run now from your efforts, Hope you keep things that way and are soon back in the US. Better bring along a French cook. Your old pal, Franklin

Samuel Dagg served in the 163rd Depot Brigade and Company G 137th Infantry. He was severely wounded October 3, 1918 during the Meuse-Argone offensive.  He died on October 4, 1918 of his wounds and was buried in the AEF Cemetery at Souilly, near Verdun France.  Martell’s letter of November 8, 1918 that had been returned and put unopened in his trunk had the additional stamp “deceased verified by Statistical Division H.A.E.”

November 6, 1918: Dear Sir: On October 30 ‘18, we received information of Samuel J. Dagg’s death in the service in France who was killed on October 4… Respectfully, Samuel J. Dagg’s sister, Mrs. E.W. Peters

March 23, 1919: Dear Mr. Martell…I am very much grieved….and it is not a false report as I have received all proof from the hospital where he was cared for. It was all I could do to brave it through and I could not bear to come up there.  I shall be glad to hear from you from time to time. …You may go ahead and do the best thing at hand and settle the estate to the satisfaction of all concerned…I shall depend on you to do the right thing. Sam used to praise you as being very honest and upright and I now trust his word concerning you…Yours truly, Mrs. Julia Dagg

Many soldiers in WW1 suffered from what was then called “shell shock.” They would struggle with sleep, panic when they heard loud noises, shouting or gunshots. They could have tinnitus, dizziness, amnesia and tremors; all symptoms associated with a head injury.  In extreme cases the soldier’s ability to walk or talk was affected. As the war continued the number of cases grew. Though there were no outward signs of injury, it was at first considered to be a physical disorder connected to some kind of physical damage the men were experiencing from the explosions and carbon monoxide. The idea of its cause not being a physical injury started when troops who were not near the shelling began to report similar symptoms.

April 4, 1919: Dear Mrs. Dagg, I was very sorry to hear of Sam’s death as I thought lots of him and it sure was hard to hear the sad news and you surely have my sympathy…My brother was in France; he got shell shocked but is getting alright. I guess he is back in the U.S. but has not got home yet. We are expecting him any day…Yours truly, C.F. Martell

In 1919 the government began the enormous but little remembered project of bringing deceased soldiers back to the U.S. Seventy four thousand questionnaires were sent to families asking if they wanted their loved one brought home. Sixty three thousand answers were received by January 1920. Between 1919 and 1922, 44,000 soldier’s bodies were located, exhumed and bought back to the U. S. for burial.

June 19, 1922: Dear Sir, I have received your very kind letter of April 13, 1922 relative to the affairs of Samuel Dagg. I will say that it is hard to do much for Mrs. Dagg… Samuel went over soon after he enlisted… word came that he was severely wounded October 3, 1918 in the battle of Argonne Forest. He was taken to the Evacuation Hospital No. 7 where he had the best of care but his wounds were too severe and he sank into unconsciousness and died….he was buried with many others near Verdun…his body was brought over and buried here in Riverside Cemetery at Mt. Pleasant Michigan during the last week of 1921…I was well acquainted with the whole family being employed at the Indian School where all of the 4 children were getting their education…Respectfully, J.C. Freeman

Samuel Dagg disappeared into history. He answered his country’s call leaving behind his hopes and dreams. Everyone had a different part to play in the war we hoped would end all wars. Some remained behind and supported the war effort, some went abroad and returned with their scars, and too many like Sam Dagg gave their lives and never left the battlefield.  We can’t know the names or stories of all the Sam Daggs throughout history, but we can remember their sacrifices, and live our lives in such a way that deserves what they and all veterans have given us.

Note: The visit when I found the letters was in July 2023

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