Murder of homesteader in 1902 resonates through generations

Chuck Wickenhofer
Carl Okeson, murdered in 1902, left behind a widow, Hulda Julene Okeson, pictured here. The farm they started in the Adams/Edmore area over a century ago is still in the family.

Thirteen years after North Dakota became a state, homesteader Carl Okeson ventured out from his farm with a couple of friends in search of a beer or two.

Although grabbing a couple of pints after work is a routine way to unwind these days, back then Okeson was breaking the law. North Dakota’s constitution, written in 1889, included a statewide prohibition of alcohol.

The solution for thirsty farmers and opportunistic bootleggers was the blind pig, a term for an illicit bar where the whisky and beer flowed - along with blood from fracases between hardened men.

Five years after Okeson moved from Sweden to stake his claim in North Dakota, his journey to a blind pig in Edmore would result in his death.

According to a report from the Devils Lake Inter-Ocean, the former name of the Journal, the blind pig was run by an unsavory Frenchman named Frank Peltiere. The Inter-Ocean described Peltiere:

“(Peltiere) was about 40 years old, of French parentage, and bore a reputation as a pigger and all around tough. It was well known that Peltiere was a desperate character and frequently made the assertion that no one or more men of (the) community were able to place him under arrest no matter what he did.”

Though attempts to locate surviving members of Peltiere’s family were unsuccessful, Okeson’s great granddaughter, Jackie Flaten, said that she has been interested in this aspect of her family’s past her entire life.

“It was something that’s been a part of our family legend; I’ve heard it since I was a kid,” Flaten said. “I just loved finding out about my great grandparents. It’s always been a passion of mine.”

What was discovered during a search of the Journal archives revealed to Flaten some of the details of her ancestor’s death:

“Carl Okeson, in company with three other men, went to the blind pig of Peltiere, who was conducting his business in a thresherman’s cooking car, and asked for a bottle of beer. Peltiere, under oaths of threats and defamatory utterances commanded the men to leave the premises. As the men did so and were passing along the side of the cooking car, a bullet came crashing through the wall, striking Okeson in the face just below the left eye, and taking a downward course, lodged in the back part of the man’s neck.”

Naturally, after well over a century, the story told within the Okeson family has veered from the original report.

“When I was growing up, I heard that great grandfather was walking by the blind pig and the guy inside starting going nuts and shooting, but the article says that he and his friends went in and started buying beer,” Flaten said. “It’s funny how family will clean up your history for you, for the kids.”

In fact, Flaten says that her family has always believed that her great grandfather was killed in 1903. However, at the time the report was written in August of 1902, Okeson’s fate was unknown:

“Okeson was taken to the Deaconess hospital at Grand Forks, and is expected to recover, if blood poisoning can be avoided.”

The details of the article apparently surprised Flaten based on her familiarity with her family’s story.

“My great grandfather’s tombstone says 1903, but it doesn’t say the month. Everyone thought that great grandfather was shot and killed, but the article (was published) in August 1902,” Flaten said. “What does that mean? We always learned that he died of a gunshot wound. It makes me think that it was a horrible four months before he died; he didn’t die right away. We thought he got shot and that was the end of it.”

Although the exact circumstances of Okeson’s final days will almost surely never be known, his grandson, Lee Okeson, detailed the trials that Okeson’s widow and young son faced following the incident.

“(My grandmother) had a lot of adversity,” Okeson said. “She fell on a sidewalk and broke her leg. After an extended time in the hospital, they had to amputate the leg just below the hip. She kept farming because there wasn’t any other means.”

Both Flaten and Okeson have since moved to northern California, but Okeson reports that the farm that his grandparents established remains in the family.

“My nephew and his family are on the home farm, so (we’re) getting into the fourth and fifth generation there,” Okeson said. “The farm is a North Dakota centennial farm; it’s about 112 years old or thereabouts.”

Peltiere, who was reportedly killed during the incident after being shot by a local sheriff, had no known family, according to the Inter-Ocean’s report, leaving him a barely remembered relic of North Dakota history. Conversely, Okeson’s family persevered over time through trials that few today could imagine.

“My father, who was ten years old, and his mother were left on the farm to do the best they could,” Okeson said. “It was a real hard time, but then I guess that was fairly ubiquitous. They did without a lot of things and did a lot of things that are pretty hard to believe.”