Title Reviewed:
A Frontier Family in Minnesota: Letters of Theodore and Sophie Bost, 1851–1920

Author Reviewed:
Ralph H. Bowen

Joan Gundersen


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 78, Issue 4, pp 358-359

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

A Frontier Family in Minnesota: Letters of Theodore and Sophie Bost, 1851–1920. Edited and translated by Ralph H. Bowen. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981. Pp. xxv, 391. Maps, illustrations, notes, index. Clothbound, $25.00; paperbound, $12.95.)

A Frontier Family in Minnesota is more than a translation of Charles-Marc Bost's French edition of letters from Theodore and Sophie Bost to Theodore's family. Ralph H. Bowen has added more letters, an introduction, and new notes to make the American edition richer than the French.

Theodore Bost came to the United States in 1851. His most successful venture was courting Sophie Bonjour by mail. They married the day after she arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, from Switzerland, in 1858. Sophie acted as ballast for Theodore's swings in mood, and her hard work compensated for his frequent ill health. Excepting Theodore's trip to France to see family and get medical treatment in 1871, the couple worked together for sixty-two years. The letters span seventy years, beginning with Theodore's farming apprenticeship in Switzerland and ending with a letter from Sophie describing his death.

Women's historians will appreciate seeing the same events through both Sophie's and Theodore's eyes. Sophie took a much different view of childbirth, farming, their neighbors, and events than did Theodore. For example, while Sophie dreamed "that my children were butchered before my eyes" (p. 214), Theodore claimed "we were sleeping peacefully in our isolated house" (p. 212) at the height of the Sioux uprising in 1862. Immigration and Civil War historians will find Theodore's opinions interesting. His criticism of American culture, the weather, and other immigrants reveals the difficulty of adjusting to a new home. As a staunch antislavery Republican, Theodore's comments shed light on support for Lincoln's war measures.

The letters provide insight into the frustrations of those who expected to achieve a comfortable life on the frontier. Bost's brothers were merchants and ministers in Europe. The Bosts moved out of their leaky log cabin into a frame house and purchased a piano and sewing machine for Sophie only with financial help from his family. They scrambled for a better income by keeping bees, renting rooms in the summer, and teaching. Despite his status as a justice of the peace and a tax assessor, Theodore's income was never secure. In 1874 he gave up farming, borrowing the money from his brother to open a store in Excelsior, but after five years Sophie and Theodore returned to farming. Six years later they left Minnesota for California. The few letters written after 1878, especially those few from California, add little to the book, except to bring Theodore's life to a close.

The collection is clearly edited with detailed notes and introductions which fill in the gaps between letters. The volume is not compelling reading, but it is a useful addition to the literature on early Minnesota and nineteenth-century life.

St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. Joan Gundersen

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.