History Behind A Family Arrangement

As a historical romance author, I often get asked what parts of my stories are true and what parts are fictionalized. With the release of A Family Arrangement, these questions are even more important, because the story is inspired by the true events that shaped the beginning of my hometown, Little Falls, Minnesota.

First and foremost, I love Little Falls. It is my favorite place on earth and that's one of the reasons I write stories set here. I also love the history of Little Falls. When I was in middle school and high school, I spent many hours at our local county historical society in The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Museum. Later, during college, I worked for the museum for two years and I helped transcribe several oral and written histories of the area. The idea for the Little Falls Legacy Series was born at that time.

Little Falls is a typical Midwestern town on the banks of the Upper Mississippi River, yet it has a unique history. Because the history is so amazing, I've always wanted to share it with the world. Thus, the conundrum. If I wanted to simply recount the history of Little Falls, I would write a history book. But, because I love fiction as much as I love fact, I needed to try to blend them in a way that honors the past, but makes it interesting enough for the reader to turn the page.

In A Family Arrangement, I hope I've done just that. The story is largely inspired by real people and events in the history of Little Falls--yet, I created several things to make it a novel.

The Fictional Characters

Abram Cooper
Abram Cooper was born in Cooper, Michigan where his father founded a town. When he was eighteen, he moved to Iowa City where he met sisters Charlotte and Susanne Lee. He fell in love with Susanne and eloped with her. They moved to Minnesota where they eventually bought their farm on the banks of the Mississippi at Little Falls in 1851. They had three sons together, Robert, Martin and George. After George was born, Susanne became sick and died. Abram sent his sons to live at the Belle Prairie Mission north of Little Falls and he's been working hard to build his town ever since. One day, while he's working in his sawmill, an unexpected visitors arrives to bring his children to Iowa: his sister-in-law, Charlotte Lee.
Charlotte Lee
Charlotte Lee moved to Iowa City with her mother, father and sister Susanne when she was a young girl. Her mother died shortly thereafter and her father followed one scheme after another until he died, as well. At the age of seventeen, Charlotte was responsible for her and her sister, so she became a seamstress to make ends meet. She meets Abram Cooper at a ball and quickly dismisses him when she realizes he's a wanderer, like her father. Abram takes a liking to her sister Susanne, but Charlotte disapproves, and Abram and Susanne elope. Now, six years later, she has learned her sister died in the wilds of Minnesota Territory, and she's determined to rescue her nephews from the same fate. She travels to Little Falls to take them away, but Abram has no desire to send his sons to Iowa. Instead, he makes a deal with her. He will have a doctor, a preacher and a teacher in Little Falls within ten months, or she can take the boys back with his blessing. In the meantime, she agrees to stay to take care of his house and raise the boys. She fully expects Abram to fail.
Abram & Charlotte in Period Clothing
Timothy & Pearl Hubbard
Come to Little Falls in 1855 at the invitation of Abram to invest in the community.

Liam Cheney
One of the three partners in the Little Falls Company.

Reverend Ben Lahaye

A circuit minister who is a friend of Abram's. He is the son of a French Fur Trader and a Chippewa (Ojibwe) mother.

Real People

William Sturgis (Abram Cooper)

William Sturgis inspired the character of Abram Cooper. Sturgis was born in Canada in 1817, but his family moved to Michigan when he was eleven. The area where they lived was eventually named after his family and is now known as Sturgis, Michigan. At the age of eighteen, Sturgis left home and went to the area that would become known as Iowa City, Iowa. There, he was married to his first wife Dorothy, but eventually fell out of favor with the local people. In 1845, he explored the Cedar River area and took a claim at the bottom of the falls, which he called Sturgis Falls. The town was eventually named Cedar Falls, Iowa. Sturgis left Cedar Falls in 1847 and moved to what is now St. Paul, Minnesota and then eventually ended up in Little Falls sometime in 1850. By that time, he and his wife Dorothy had two daughters and a son. Dorothy's parents also moved to Little Falls and lived in a house nearby. They were the only two houses in Little Falls at that time. In 1851, Dorothy died and was buried within sight of the Sturgis house. Within six months, Sturgis went back to Iowa and married Rosanna Steele who was eighteen at the time. More is available about William Sturgis in the History of Black Hawk County.

Rosanna Steele Sturgis (Charlotte Lee)

There is no known picture of Rosanna and very little information. From what I could discover, Rosanna was considered a "replacement" bride. Sturgis went back to Iowa with the sole purpose of getting a new wife to raise his three children (seven-year-old Jeanette, five-year-old Sarah Jane, and two-year-old John who were all living at the Belle Prairie Mission like the Cooper children in the book). When Rosanna arrived in Little Falls she only had two neighbors and they were the parents of Sturgis's first wife, Dorothy. Not only that, but Rosanna could see Dorothy's grave from one of her house windows. When Little Falls began, Rosanna was pregnant with her second child. She literally watched the town be built around her house, just as Charlotte does in A Family Arrangement.

James & Pamelia Fergus (Timothy & Pearl Hubbard)

James and Pamelia Fergus arrived in Minnesota in 1854 at St. Anthony, which would eventually become present day Minneapolis. St. Anthony was only five years old at the time, yet it was already home to over three thousand people. Six miles to the southwest was St. Paul, which boasted four thousand people (and Minnesota was still a territory). Fergus quickly realized his fortunes would be made farther north on the Mississippi River. (He wasn't alone in his pursuit. During the years 1855-1857 over seven hundred towns in Minnesota were platted into more than three hundred thousand lots--providing enough home sites for 1.5 million people, though very few of those towns survived.) Fergus found a business partner in Calvin Tuttle. Together, they scouted Minnesota and agreed Little Falls was the best place to invest. Fergus was impressed with the beauty of the area, coupled with the abundant pine, maple, and white oak forests. But more than that, it was the waterpower available at Little Falls (the largest waterfall north of St. Anthony) that drew his interest. Much more is available about James and Pamelia Fergus in a book called the Gold Rush Widows of Little Falls, by Linda Peavy & Ursala Smith.

Calvin Tuttle (Liam Cheney)
Tuttle arrived in what is now Minnesota as early as 1838 to build a mill for Franklin Steele (no relation to Rosanna) on the St. Croix River. In the 1840s he laid claim to huge tracts of land east of St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River. There he built a mill and became a successful farmer, miller, bridge company partner and land speculator. Eventually, he sold the first tract of land to the University of Minnesota where they built on the east bank (Minneapolis campus). When Fergus arrived from Moline, Tuttle was ready to invest in central Minnesota. For more information on Calvin Tuttle see Como History--Calvin A. Tuttle.
Enmegahbowh or Reverend John Johnson (Reverend Benjamin Lahaye)

Rev. John Johnson Enmegahbowh (seated in the center)
was ordained by Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple,
the first bishop of Minnesota (at right). 
Rev. John Johnson Enmegahbowh (pronounced En-meh-GAH-boe), has always fascinated me. The man was known as a straight-talking, hard-working, fair-minded visionary. He was born around 1820, and was the only child of the chief of an Ojibwe Band near Peterborough, Canada. He was raised as a Christian, but was taught the ways of his people and was expected to become a Medicine Man. In 1841, he married Biwabikogeshigequay (also known as Iron Sky Woman and baptized Charlotte). She was the niece of Hole-in-the-Day. In 1851, he met a chaplain at Fort Snelling and was baptized into the Episcopalian Church. In 1859, he went to Crow Wing, Minnesota to start a church. He is part of many historical events that took place in the Little Falls area. I fictionalized Rev. Johnson for several reasons, one is that I wanted a preacher who could oversee the new church in Little Falls, and two I wanted the Native American influence in my story, since their people played such a big part in the formation of Little Falls. Go here to learn more about Rev. John Johnson Enmegahbowh or here.
Nathan Richardson
Nathan Richardson when
he was older
Where do I begin with Nathan Richardson? Commonly referred to as Uncle Nate later in life, Nathan Richardson is one man I didn't want to fictionalize in my stories. Among other things, Nathan Richardson was the first mayor of Little Falls in 1889 (when it officially became a city) and held more public offices in Morrison County than any other person. He is responsible for documenting the original history of Little Falls (which I transcribed while at the Weyerhaeuser Museum in college) as well as building the fabulous Northern Hotel which appears in A Family Arrangement. Nathan arrived in Little Falls on foot in May of 1855 at the age of twenty-nine. Previous to his arrival, he had been working with a logging crew on the Rum River about sixty miles southeast of town. His cousin, Lewis Richardson, was in charge of the lumbering operations for the Little Falls Company and Nathan apparently gained employment, as well. Soon, Nathan discovered the lack of housing and went to work building the Northern Hotel. There is so much more to Nathan Richardson. I could go on and on. If you're interested in learning more, check out A Bighearted Paleface Man, by Mary Warner.

Fictional Building

The Church

In A Family Arrangement, one of the first buildings Abram constructs is the church. This is what I picture the church to look like, however, there were no church buildings in Little Falls until the later 1850's (as far as I can tell). There was plenty of Christian activity among the Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodist, Congregationalists, and Baptists at the time, but they met in homes or at the Belle Prairie Mission and Church of the Holy Family (a Catholic mission close to the Belle Prairie Mission). I had Abram build this church as a representation of those people present and because when Charlotte considered what a "civilized" town needed, it only seemed appropriate for her to say a church, a school, and a doctor. Go here to learn more about the history of Morrison County Churches.

Real Buildings

The Northern Hotel

This picture was taken of the Northern Hotel in the 1870s. I've always loved this building. It would have sat at the very center of Little Falls (where an antique building now resides). It was built by Nathan Richardson in 1855. If I could rebuild one building in town, I think this would be it.

The School House

There is no known picture of the original school house in Little Falls, though we do know where it stood (on the corner of Main Street and Second Avenue Northeast). I've heard it was a simple log building built before Fergus and Tuttle arrived in town. For the sake of the story, I pictured it to look like the fictional church.

The Little Falls Company Store
There is no known picture of the Little Falls Company Store, however the building wasn't demolished until the mid-1980s when I was a small girl and I have a dim recollection of what it looked like. This is a picture taken in the 1870s of downtown Little Falls. Some of the buildings are from the 1850s. This is a good representation of what the town looked like during the story.

The Sturgis (Cooper) Home, Barn, Sawmill, Log Boom & Wing Dam

Again, there are no known pictures of the Sturgis property, but it was located near the current hydro-electric dam in Little Falls. This is a drawing of the dam area in 1887. When Sturgis first came, there would not have been a bridge here. The Sturgis property would have been at the bottom of the falls to the right of the picture (the east side of the Mississippi River).

The Fergus (Hubbard) Home
There is no picture of the Fergus home. It was located where the Pamelia Fergus Carriage (parking) lot now sits behind the Falls Theater. This is how I picture their house. It was a two-story frame home with eleven rooms.

Real Events that Inspired the Story

In 1848, James Green came to what is now Little Falls and took a squatter's claim on the land surrounding the waterfall. He built a sawmill and wing dam with five other investors. When he died in 1849, the investors finished the work on the sawmill and dam and sold everything to William Sturgis sometime in 1850.

Just like Abram and Susanne in the book, Sturgis and his wife were forced to mortgage everything they owned, all the way down to their boots and shoes, to stay afloat in Little Falls and see their dream of building a town succeed.

In October 1854, Calvin Tuttle, a mill owner in St. Anthony, and James Fergus, who had recently arrived in Minnesota from Moline, Illinois, came to Little Falls for the first time. Tuttle's financial support was essential as he and Fergus approached Sturgis to become partners. In February, 1855, a legal agreement was drawn up between the three men. They called it the Little Falls Company and Sturgis retained one-third interest, Fergus five-twelfths, and Tuttle three-twelfths. They also acquired two thousand acres of land around the falls from the United States government to build the town.

In the spring of 1855, the town started just as it does in A Family Arrangement. Many of the issues facing my fictional characters also faced the real ones, too. They hired men to construct roads and buildings, had the area platted, and began construction on the Fergus house immediately. By the end of the first year, the town boasted forty families, eight stores, three hotels, several boardinghouses, a school, a newspaper, and over a hundred young bachelors.

In A Family Arrangement, I have the floodwaters taking out $40,000 worth of logs in August of 1855. The actual event took place in the spring of 1856. It forced the Little Falls Company to form a joint stock corporation (just as they do in the book) and after that they were known as the Little Falls Manufacturing Company.

The real men struggled with how the company should spend their money, just like the fictional men do in A Family Arrangement. Tuttle  was a hundred miles away and he felt helpless to control their activities. He wanted the company to focus solely on improving the waterpower, however, Sturgis and Fergus were living in Little Falls and they felt the money should be spent to make the town more appealing. Tuttle didn't agree and it led to many frustrated arguments.

The abundant population of men was also true. Just like most frontier towns, the male population outnumbered the female about a hundred to one. I deal with this issue in Little Falls in my novella A Groom for Josette in the Convenient Bride Collection.

In A Family Arrangement, young Robert has lost his hearing. Robert is a fictional character meant to represent Sturgis's oldest child, but as far as I know, she was not deaf. I found it interesting to note that a school for the deaf had just opened in Iowa City the year the book began! It was one of those crazy-cool coincidences I love to find when I'm researching. It played perfectly into the story. Go here to learn more about the Iowa School for the Deaf.

A stagecoach line ran from St. Paul to Little Falls and beyond to points farther north. It arrived in Little Falls on Friday evenings and returned on Sunday mornings. In some of my earlier research, I read the name of the stagecoach driver was Andrew and he was known for his gossip along the trail. I can't find that information at the moment, but when I do, I'll be sure to update this post. To learn more about the network of trails in Minnesota check out The Red River Trails 1820-1870, by Rhoda R. Gilman, Carolyn Gilman, and Deborah M. Schultz.

Fact vs. Fiction

Sometimes I don't know what I enjoy more: history or writing. I feel blessed to combine the two and create compelling stories inspired by real people, places and events. I tried to keep the story as accurate as possible, but much of it is a work of my imagination. I wish I had a time machine to go back and watch the events unfold, but since that's impossible, I try to create a storyworld that makes me feel as if I'm there. I hope you feel that way, too.

My greatest desire is that after reading A Family Arrangement, you will be inspired to dig deeper into the real history of Little Falls. I believe we have a lot to learn from the people who went before us, and it's our responsibility to carry on the legacy they leave behind.

A Family Arrangement is the first in the Little Falls Legacy Series. Book #2 will release in August 2017. It's inspired by the true story of the Little Falls War that took place in 1858. Book #3 will release in December 2017.

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  1. I spent one year working for the Aiken County at their conservation education center. I too was fascinated by the history of the Brainerd Lakes area and the slogan of Aiken was Mississippi Riverboat town. It is fascinating how you mixed historical fact with romantic fiction. It inspires me to start writing again. Thanks for the wonderful book; I picked up two books at KMART for my Christmas present to myself and this was the second and best one. Thanks again for writing it.

    1. Your message makes me smile! It is always my hope that my stories will inspire others to write about or research or explore their passions. I hope you do pick up your writing again. Thank you for your kind words and your encouraging post. I appreciate that you took the time to find my website and dig deeper into A Family Arrangement. -Gabrielle

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