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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 28 2012

Eriksmoen: Queen Victoria’s dresser moved to Dakota Territory

Hollywood is fascinated with King Edward VIII of England, who gave up his throne and residence at Buckingham Palace to marry the woman he loved. Last year, the movie “The King’s Speech” was released, and this year “W.E.” hit the theaters. Fifty years before the king’s abdication in December 1936, Marie Downing changed her residence from Buckingham Palace to a 16-by-20-foot log cabin in northern Dakota Territory so she could marry the man she loved.

Marie started dating Harry Williams in 1879 when they both lived in London. She was Queen Victoria’s dresser, and he was a valet and butler for well-to-do families. Marie spent much of 1880 in Africa when she was loaned by Victoria to accompany Empress Eugenie, who was obsessed with finding where her son was killed during the Anglo-Zulu War.

Marie and Harry continued their romance when she returned to Buckingham Palace. Harry, learning that free land was available in America, dreamed of being a member of the landed gentry. The plan was to have Marie join him in America as soon as he settled on a farm and built a house. The two lovers got married secretly in London because Marie could not continue in Victoria’s service unless she was single.

Harry sailed to America in 1882, landing at Quebec. He took a train to Toronto and then went by boat through the Great Lakes to Duluth. He boarded the Canadian Pacific Railroad and traveled to its westernmost terminus at Brandon, Manitoba.

Harry found land about 17 miles west of Brandon and filed for a homestead. Canada had the Dominion Lands Act, which “was modeled on the U.S. Homestead Act” and gave 160 acres to people who would farm and live on the land. Harry borrowed $300 to buy a team of oxen, tried to plow the land, and began building a house. He wrote letters to Marie describing his progress.

Marie broke the news to Queen Victoria that she would be leaving her service to go to America and marry the man she loved. She never told Victoria that she was already married.

In the meantime, Harry was becoming discouraged with the farming progress he was making in Manitoba and decided to try his luck farther south. In 1885, through the Homestead Act, he acquired 160 acres southwest of the future town of Rolla, N.D. He hired a man to build his cabin and awaited Marie’s arrival. Victoria paid for the voyage and made Marie promise she would send to her a duplicate copy of the wedding certificate.

Marie set sail aboard the steamship Gallia on Dec. 21, 1885, landing at New York on the 28th. She boarded a train and headed west for northern Dakota Territory, arriving at Minnewaukan on Jan. 1, 1887. Harry was waiting with a horse-drawn wagon, and the two traveled 20 miles to Devils Lake so Marie could fulfill the promise she had made to Victoria. She and Harry were married a second time, and she sent a duplicate copy of the marriage certificate to the queen. They then headed north to the cabin Harry was having built.

Marie was surprised “to find no pretty cottage, but only a log cabin, in which the doors and windows were not yet in and the roof only half completed, with snow drifting in through every crevice.” Neighbors put them up until work could resume on their home in the spring. When the couple finally moved into their cabin, the walls were piled high with the trunks from the queen.

Apparently unaware of the true value of the items in the trunks, many were sold to neighbors far below the market value. In Laura Law’s book “The History of Rolette County,” people from across the area purchased different items, and some of them took the jewels out of their ornate settings and had them reset in other items, decreasing their value. With the money they obtained, Harry purchased another 160 acres of land and a team of horses.

Marie was generous and kind-hearted. She frequently provided gowns and jewelry for brides. She would also invite neighboring children to spend extended visits at their farm. When a young farm worker came down with typhoid fever, Marie took him into her home and cared for him until he recovered.

In fall 1909, Harry and Marie decided to return to England for a six-month visit. They sold their stock and farm machinery and rented their farm out for four years. They sailed across the Atlantic early in December, excited to visit Empress Eugenie and other friends. The Williams arrived in London to find that Eugenie was spending the winter in France. They returned on the Lusitania, arriving in New York on March 5, 1910.

Upon returning to Rolla, Harry and Marie rented the large Wagner house and “fitted it out as a tavern” and boarding house. At the end of four years, they returned to their farm. In 1922, they rented out their farm and moved to a “three-room cottage” in Rolla. Marie died on Dec. 5, 1933. Anna Lo, a close friend, moved in to take care of Harry. Harry died on March 23, 1940. Anna was left with many of the remaining possessions. She donated most of the paintings and photographs to a lodge on the North Dakota side of the Peace Gardens. Queen Victoria’s locket that she gave to Marie was donated to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.