John Fairfield Lowell: A Short Biography

NOTE: In this biography, three different individuals are introduced who have a first and last name of "John Lowell." To avoid confusion, I have used the first and middle name for each of these men:

John Fairfield (1837-1908) is the patriarch who arrived in Dakota Territory;

John Russell (1869-1956) is John Fairfield's son;

John Franklin (1906-1989) is John Russell's son.

John Fairfield Lowell, his wife, Viola, and their two children, Minnie and John Russell, settled in Minnehaha County, Dakota Territory, in 1884. Five years after their arrival, on November 2, 1889, Dakota Territory was divided into two parts, north and south, and South Dakota became the 40th state of the Union. John Fairfield would become the patriarch of three generations of Lowells who farmed the land in Minnehaha County, South Dakota, and of successive generations who scattered further west. According to the History of Minnehaha County, written by Dana R. Bailey, and published in 1899, John Fairfield Lowell owned 240 acres of land and had a “good farm with substantial buildings.” He was described as “an industrious farmer, and a good citizen.”

John Fairfield Lowell.

John Fairfield’s six-greats grandfather, Percival Lowle, arrived in New England in 1639, at age 68 He and his family sailed on the ship “Jonathan” and settled in Newbury, Massachusetts. Accompanying Percival to the Colonies were his wife, Rebecca; his sons, John and Richard; and their wives. Percival Lowle was a wealthy merchant who owned a large mercantile establishment in Bristol, England, under the name “Percival Lowle and Co.” Genealogists researching the Lowell family use the names of Percival’s two sons to describe descendants as being from the “John” line or from the “Richard” line. The majority of the descendants of the Richard line were farmers and ship builders who settled primarily in Maine. John Fairfield was in the Richard line.

Born on May 17, 1837, in Chesterville, Farmington County, Maine, John Fairfield was the last child born to Samuel Lowell (1799-1838) and Hannah Lowell (1799-1871). John Fairfield’s granddaughter, Flora McCartney Luker, in a biographical sketch of her grandfather, incorrectly wrote that Samuel and Hannah were not related; they were, in fact, first cousins. John Fairfield’s great grandfather was Reuben Lowell (1739-1824); Reuben was the patriarch of multiple generations of Lowell descendants in the Richard Lowle line, who settled in the Farmington area of Maine in 1794, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Founder Percival Lowle was Reuben’s great-great-great grandfather.

Six of Samuel and Hannah Lowell’s eight children survived to adulthood: Charles (b. 1824), William Franklin (b. 1828), Hiram, (b. 1830), Hannah Elizabeth (b. 1835), Harriet Jane (b. 1835) and John Fairfield (b. 1837). Two siblings had died prematurely after birth: Charles (1823-1823) and Harriet Butler (1826-1829).

Samuel died when John Fairfield was only a year and a half old. The cause of his untimely death is unknown. After his death, Hannah attempted to maintain the family, as reflected in the 1840 U.S. Census. However, in the 1850 U.S. Census, Hannah was described as “insane” in the census, even though she was still nominally head of the family. Her two youngest daughters were still living with her. However, her youngest child, John Fairfield, was living with his late father’s first cousin, Timothy B. Lowell, at the Lowell home place built by Reuben Lowell in Farmington Falls, just outside Farmington, Maine. Ten years later, John Fairfield had begun his westward migration and was living in the town of Oshkosh, Winnebago County, Wisconsin at a boarding house, working as a lumberman, according to the 1860 U.S. Census. At some period prior to migrating to Wisconsin, John Fairfield spent an unknown amount of time in the Merchant Marines, sailing to the West Indies. His granddaughter stated that John Fairfield found the Negroes there to be “huge and ugly-looking, with huge noses and large lips.”

John Fairfield’s granddaughter also stated that John Fairfield paid $800 in order to buy a substitute for him so that he would not have to fight in the Civil War. No documentation has been found yet to confirm this substitution. At some stage between 1859 and 1863, John Fairfield spent time in Illinois, but no detailed information has been located regarding his stay there.

In 1863, John Fairfield returned to Farmington, Maine, with plans to marry his sweetheart, but discovered that she had married someone else. On September 14, 1863, he married Wealthy Viola Furbush, (known as “Viola”) who was born on February 8, 1844, in Rockland, Knox County, Maine. By 1860, Viola, her parents, and her siblings had moved from Rockland to Freeman, Maine, a small community in Franklin County, north of Farmington.

Viola’s ancestry in the United States goes back as far as her husband’s. Her 4xgreats grandfather, William Furbush, was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He emigrated to the Colonies before 1648 and settled finally in Kittery, Maine (now called Eliot, Maine). At the beginning of the 1800s, Viola’s ancestors relocated to the town of Lisbon, Maine, in Androscoggin County. Her father left Androscoggin County, settling temporarily in Rockland, Knox County, Maine, where Viola was born. The family then relocated to Freeman, Franklin County, Maine.

After their marriage, John Fairfield left Maine and, with his wife, Viola, returned to Wisconsin; he ran lumber camps and farmed, with Viola cooking for the boarders, when lumber camps were operating. According to his son, John Russell, John Fairfield was an expert log roller on water, wearing clamps on his shoes.

While in Wisconsin, the couple had two children: Minnie E., born on February 27, 1865, and John Russell, born on April 16, 1869. Both children were born in the small town of Ostrander, located in Waupaca County, Wisconsin, on the banks of the Little Wolf River, about 5 miles from Royalton.

The railroad played a critically important role in enabling settlement of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. Yankton was a small town in south-eastern Dakota Territory. Yankton business interests chartered the Dakota Southern Railway Company in 1871 to connect Yankton with the existing railroad lines in Iowa. Construction began in June 1972 and was finished by February 1873.

In 1873, enabled by the newly-constructed rail lines, John Fairfield began to make a series of expeditions to the southeastern corner of Dakota Territory, traveling on the Dakota Southern Railway to Yankton and then to Sioux Falls by wagon. He made seven trips in all. While there, he hauled supplies for C. K. Howard and merchandise and groceries from the train’s terminus in Yankton to Sioux Falls. On a number of these trips, his son, John Russell, accompanied him.

John Fairfield’s first real estate “acquisition” was a tree claim filed on land near Salem, South Dakota. Congress had enacted the Timber Culture Act of 1873 whereby settlers were given deeds to public lands to grow trees. Initially, the Act gave 160 acres to a settler; the settler had to cultivate trees on at least 40 acres. The Act was amended several times. By 1878, the required acreage of planted trees was reduced from 40 to 10. The Land Revision Act of 1891 repealed the Timber Culture Act of 1873, because of accusations of fraud and land speculators’ manipulations inherent in the Timber Culture Act. John Fairfield abandoned his tree claim, perhaps because of his disenchantment with the area, given the challenge associated with attempts at growing trees in the arid grasslands of much of Dakota Territory.

On December 3, 1877, John Fairfield purchased the land that would become the Lowell home farm, paying $200 in cash for the 160 acre farm On December 15, 1879, the official patent record was issued and recorded with the Register of Deeds, Minnehaha County, South Dakota. This land was in the rich, black-earth area of southeastern Dakota Territory, and was acquired through preemption. Father and son built the house before the entire family moved to their new location.

In June 1884, the entire John Fairfield Lowell family left Wisconsin permanently and continued their westward migration. To reach Yankton, Dakota Territory, the family rented a box car on the railroad, loaded the bottom portion of the car with Wisconsin lumber to expand their new home, and used the remaining space for their animals, farm machinery and all of their furniture and possessions. From Yankton, oxen were used to haul their goods the last fifty miles to reach their new home farm about 12 miles west of Sioux Falls in Minnehaha County.

John Fairfield Lowell sitting outside in front of his home in Minnehaha County, South Dakota

The family prospered; like all pioneers, they enjoyed the bounties and endured the hardships of living on the Plains. Daughter Minnie taught at the country school that was located one mile north of the farm. Son John Russell farmed with his father. John Fairfield’s land holdings expanded as he purchased property across the road from his original farm, and additional property southwest of the family farm, in the far northwest corner of Lincoln County. This Lincoln County property was used for hay and had no house or other out-buildings.

December 12, 1888, Minnie married George A. McCartney and moved to Parker, South Dakota, with her new husband. George A. McCartney was the son of Judge John McCartney, a prominent and wealthy man, who in 1888, moved his family from eastern Iowa to National City, in southern California. The couple had one child, Flora Georgia, born on September 24, 1889, John Fairfield’s first grandchild. Tragically, George McCartney died six months later, on March 25, 1890, from diabetic complications that were brought on by over-exertion on George’s part, while attempting to save records before they were consumed by fire as the Turner County Courthouse burned to the ground the previous day, March 24, 1890. Minnie never remarried and moved to a farmhouse that was built for her on property that she purchased from her father, John Fairfield, that was across the road from the original Lowell family farm. Flora inherited her father's share of her grandfather's estate, upon the death of Judge John McCartney. Prior to his death, Judge McCartney provided financial assistance to Minnie. After completing high school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Flora was admitted to Stanford University where she earned her undergraduate degree. Flora attended Stanford along with a number of her cousins, children born to the sister of George McCartney.

On December 12, 1900, John Russell married Freda Volsch. The Volsch family had homesteaded a few miles west of the Lowell family farm. While born in Germany, at age 5, Freda came to the U.S. in 1886, where her father selected his homestead property. John Russell and Freda initially lived with John Fairfield and Viola on the home farm. On October 3, 1901, John Russell’s first son, George John Lowell, was born. John Fairfield welcomed his first grandson. John Russell built a new farmhouse on the land owned by his father across the road from the home farm, and the John R. Lowell family moved there. On March 1, 1906, in this new farmhouse, a second son, John Franklin, was born. John Fairfield now had three grandchildren.

Upon his retirement from farming, John Fairfield built a home in Sioux Falls at 926 W. Ninth St. Sadly, he only lived there for a short time. He died at age 70 on March 24, 1908 from a “cerebral congestion.” (“Cerebral congestion” was a catch-all term used at that time to describe several different problems: apoplexy, stroke, cerebral hemorrhage, depression, maniac outbursts, headaches, coma, and seizures. Such a diagnosis no longer exists given advances in medical knowledge regarding blood pressure and the brain.) John Fairfield was one of the first individuals to be buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Sioux Falls.

In Spring of 1910, John Russell and family left rural Minnehaha County, and moved into town, having purchased an existing home at 1201 N. Lincoln Avenue in West Sioux Falls. On November 17, 1910, at 1201 N. Lincoln Ave., a third son and final child was born to John Russell and Freda-- Charles Edward Lowell. Charles was John Fairfield’s fourth and last grandchild. However, John Fairfield did not live long enough to witness this birth.

Now widowed, Viola continued to live at 926 W. Ninth St. She traveled extensively throughout the United States, accompanying her only granddaughter, Flora McCartney, as she began her undergraduate college education at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, and finished her graduate work at Columbia University in New York City. After Flora’s graduation from Columbia, she taught school at a number of different locations around the United States, always accompanied by her grandmother, Viola. After her granddaughter’s marriage to Benjamin F. Luker on July 11, 1922, in Illinois, Viola moved in with her son and daughter-in-law, John Russell and Freda, at 1201 N. Lincoln. She died there on October 31 1933, at age 89.

Four generations of Lowells. L to R: George John Lowell, holding his son, George James Lowell; Viola Lowell; John Russell Lowell.

Flora’s husband died at age 42 on August 11, 1929, while he was a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. At the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, Viola was living with Flora Luker in Gainesville, Florida. Flora returned to Sioux Falls and joined her mother on their farm in Minnehaha County. Minnie McCartney died on May 17, 1951, at age 86. Flora remained on the farm until she could no longer live by herself. At that time, she sold the farm originally acquired by John Fairfield for his daughter, Minnie, moved to Sioux Falls and died on June 1, 1974, at age 84.

John Fairfield’s three grandsons, children of his son John Russell, remained in Minnehaha County their entire lives. The oldest, George John, lived in Sioux Falls his entire life, working for 40 years at the United States Post Office. In the mid 1950s his son and he farmed the land that John Fairfield and John Russell had originally used for haying. This land was sold in April 15, 1997. The middle child, John Franklin, initially worked in Sioux Falls in a florist shop. He and his wife, Florence, then moved back to the farm that his father had originally built across the road from the John Fairfield home farm. Returning to the home in which he was born, John Franklin and his wife farmed that land for the remainder of their lives. John Franklin died at age 82 on January 19, 1989. His wife, Florence, died at age 96 on May 27, 2001. John Fairfield’s youngest son, Charles, never farmed. He lived in Sioux Falls, married, and opened the West Sioux Roller Rink in 1941. He died on April 17, 1999, at age 88. His wife, Gertrude, had died earlier, on February 5, 1995, at age 79.

John Fairfield’s two children and four grandchildren all died in Minnehaha County, South Dakota. A number of his great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren and great-great-great grandchildren still live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. All of the 240 acres of farmland that John Fairfield acquired, farmed, and passed on to his children has been sold and is no longer owned by any of his descendants. The city of Sioux Falls continues to expand westward, swallowing up the small family farms that stood as monuments to the settlers who came to Dakota Territory. The city’s growth westward is now ominously close to overtaking the 240 acres initially owned by John Fairfield. When that occurs, no physical trace will remain of John Fairfield’s original farms developed over 130 years ago.

Gerald R. Lowell
Great great grandson of John Fairfield Lowell
October 5, 2013

NOTE: Flora McCartney Luker, John Fairfield's granddaughter, wrote one brief history of John Fairfield and, at a later date, dictated a history to her cousin, George John Lowell and his wife, Hazel Miller Lowell. To access these two documents:

for the brief history written by Flora McCartney Luker (date of composition unknown); OR

for the recorded notes dictated to George and Hazel Lowell sometime in the 1970s.