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Bob Lind, Published December 16 2012

Lind: Descendant of French settlers takes pride in history

Claude Cossette is proud that French immigrants joined those from Scandinavia, Germany and other northern European countries in being among the first settlers in the Fargo-Moorhead region. He, after all, is a direct descendant of the first French settlers in the area.

Claude, 89, of Fargo, is the grandson of Ulphie Cossette, who was born in 1841 to French parents in Quebec, Canada. Ulphie would become a founding father of a French-Canadian community south of Fargo originally called Riceville and later renamed Wild Rice.

Ulphie was a walker, and then some. He once was an agent for the Hudson Bay Co. in western Canada. As such, he went on a walk in 1868 from what became Canada’s Northwest Territories through the wilderness to Winnipeg, a distance of some 1,500 miles.

After he left the Hudson Bay Co. in Winnipeg, he was hired to guide a group of Catholic missionaries along the Red River to the new Holy Cross mission. There, Ulphie spotted the rich land along the Wild Rice River where it ran into the Red near the mission, and decided to settle there.

But he wanted to get other family members to come, too. So he took another long walk, all the way back to Quebec, where he talked two of his brothers into joining him in the new territory.

Claude isn’t sure how the brothers, plus a child of one of the brothers, got back, but they made it to the spot Ulphie picked out, built log houses and founded the Wild Rice settlement.

In 1869, Ulphie returned to Quebec (again, Claude isn’t sure how) to marry Zoe Martel. The newlyweds then traveled to St. Paul in a way that beat walking: They took a train. Then it was on to Wild Rice in an oxen-pulled covered wagon.

In 1870, Zoe gave birth to a girl, Marie, who is believed to be the first white child born in what is now Cass County.

Zoe died in 1871. Ulphie raised Marie until she was 2. But then he walked (of course!) to Winnipeg, carrying Marie on his back, and left her in an orphanage with nuns who raised her. Marie became a nun, also.

In 1874, Ulphie, 34, married Marie Denis, 18, who lived nearby. They had 11 children. One of them was Louis, who became Claude’s father.

Blizzard baby

Louis and Claude were born in the same homestead house. Claude was born during a blizzard; a doctor from Fargo couldn’t get there until the next day.

Claude had seven siblings. He and two other boys all had Joseph for their first names, so they went by their middle names.

The family spoke French. Claude learned his first English words in first grade.

Claude’s mother died in 1925, his father seven months later.

Claude served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, was a brakeman/switchman for the Northern Pacific Railroad out of Seattle, held other jobs there, then came back to Wild Rice and bought the 16-acre farmstead from his parents when they moved to Fargo.

He was married, and had a son, Mark, now of Fargo, and three grandchildren. But Claude and his wife divorced. “I was 63 when I left,” he says. “I’m the oldest kid ever to run away from home.”

“But then I became a full-time RV-er,” he says. “I lived in my RV, and I went south for the winter. I was free.”

He did gain what he calls a “lady friend,” however. “We did lots of things together.” But he wants it made clear they had separate living quarters. That woman died about two years ago.

Claude, who lives in south Fargo, is handy with tools. For instance, he turned a stump from a 200-year-old oak tree into a chopping block.

He doesn’t have a computer – “They scare me,” he says – “and I have a cellphone, but it gives me trouble. I’m too old for this stuff.”

For sure, he doesn’t walk as much as his grandfather did.

Claude’s father told him that Ulphie “was a walker who could walk a horse to death.”

And this walker was the key figure in bringing many French-Canadians to the Wild Rice area.

If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107; fax it to (701) 241-5487; or email blind@forumcomm.com