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A Glimpse of Lake Shetek


November 9, 2019 by Pamela Nowak

Lake Shetek was home to the Dakota long before discovered by White settlers. The name comes from a native word (either Ojibwe or Dakota—both are cited) for “pelican” and had a variety of spellings during the early years of settlement. One of a group of lakes (Fremont, Bloody, Fox, Smith, and Park among them), Shetek is the largest, at 1100 acres and is the headwater of the Des Moines River. For the Dakota, it was visited for hundreds of years by the Dakota and was an area of bountiful game. Shetek is located some 70 miles west of New Ulm.   For those native to the area, the lake’s abundance gave it an honored, if not sacred, status within Dakota culture.

Explorers, perhaps even the painter George Catlin, may have passed by the Lake Shetek in the 1830s and fur trappers soon gravitated to the lake to reap the beaver. By the 1850s, two established “roads” passed near the lake, the Nobles Trail crossed about seven miles north of the lake and the Post Road angled from New Ulm to Sioux Falls, crossing near the south end of the lake. By the 1850s, several trappers had built temporary cabins at the lake and a settlement called “Cornwell City” was promoted near present day Currie with over 100 inhabitants reported on the 1857 territorial census (the town never existed) and the mail route was planned accordingly.

The earliest permanent settlers began arriving at Lake Shetek around 1857, many attracted by the Dakota Land Company, which was selling land near the non-existent Cornwell City (said to be where Currie is now located) and Saratoga, which was advertised northeast of the lake, along the Nobles Trail. Surveyors came to the area in 1861 to lay out the mail route.  The Myers family settled at Saratoga along with a few others who gradually left the area until only the Myers family remained.

Permanent settlement at Lake Shetek began just before 1860. In 1859, Aaron Myers moved his family to a spot north of the lake, on Lake Fremont. Wat Smith and his wife had settled on what was then known as Beauty Lake (now Smith Lake). A young German couple that had been living east of Shetek, at a place known as “the walnut grove,” relocated about the same time and chose a site south of Bloody Lake (named for the red hue of the water caused by exposed willow roots). By 1862, the Hurds had taken land at the north end of Bloody Lake; the Irelands south of Armstrong Slough; the Eastlicks north of today’s Park Lake (man-made in more recent years); the Duleys on the point that is now Lake Shetek State Park; the Wrights near the mail route at the south end of the lake; and the Everetts on the Des Moines River to the south. The nine cabins stretched along the east side of the lake with around fifty persons. A few bachelor trappers occasionally visited the lake and Dakota hunting camps were frequently made near the Myers and Wright cabins.

For the most part, relations between the Dakota and the White settlers were amicable. Aaron Myers was known as an herb doctor and treated many of the Dakota. John Wright traded with them, though he had a reputation for being unfair and providing whiskey to them. The only negative incidents that had occurred in the area were the killing of one of the bachelors in 1858, apparently related to him running whiskey into the area, and Voigt’s 1862 mocking of a Dakota woman by shooting at her feet. Voigt was new to the area, having arrived with E.G. Koch to open a trading post—he was living at the Hurd cabin in August of 1862, which he had agreed to purchase. Mrs. Hurd traded butter and cheese with the local Dakota and Mrs. Wright interacted with them frequently with a reputation for much more fairness than her husband.

On August 20, 1862, unknown to the Whites at Lake Shetek, tensions were high among the Dakota camped near the lake. For years, there had been issues with corrupt Indian agents disrupting food supplies promised by the treaties of the 1850s and redirecting cash annuity payments to traders. With the start of the Civil War, the annuities were delayed for months and food supplies, which had arrived, remained locked in a storehouse. The storehouse had been stormed and arguments with storekeepers had erupted into shooting. Several bands of Dakota had met on August 17 to discuss options. With many White men away fighting in the Civil War, there was a push to take advantage of their absence to eliminate the families that remained on the frontier. Some leaders wanted to pursue war, killing all Whites while others favored sending them away. Those differences of opinion were echoed among those Dakota at Lake Shetek as the sun rose that morning.

A group of Dakota at the Myers farm rode through his fields but left when Myers reminded them of his past friendship. At the next cabin to the south, a group visited Almina Hurd, whose husband was away scouting for new land in Dakota Territory. Voigt (who was buying the Hurd property) was shot, likely because of his ill-treatment of a Dakota woman a few months earlier. Almina was told to take her two children and head east. Shortly thereafter, Charlie Hatch (bachelor brother of Mrs. Everett) found Voigt and started to run south to warn the others. At the Koch cabin, Christina’s husband was shot; Christina escaped to warn others—she was likely just behind Charlie Hatch who had witnessed the attack on their cabin from the woods. Hatch warned the remaining settlers to the south. Mid-morning, the oldest Myers son discovered Voigt and the Myers family began packing their wagon to head east. The other settlers congregated at the Wright cabin, which was the largest.

Midway through the morning of August 20, the White settlers jammed into the Wright cabin at the south end of Lake Shetek began to negotiate with the Dakota. Old Pawn (Across the River) and Julia Wright played major roles but Lean Bear (Grizzly Bear) held the position of authority for the band. By this time, other bands had also arrived at the lake and the predominant opinion was that the Whites should be killed. Finally, the settlers were given permission to go east but were told to take nothing with them. The group, reasoning the children could not walk the entire distance to New Ulm, sent Charlie Hatch to get a wagon.

The group set out along the mail road and met the wagon a short distance from the cabin. At that point, the Dakota became agitated, arguing. The setters were near a large slough, about three miles from the cabin, when the Dakota began shooting. The settlers abandoned the wagon and ran into the slough with the Dakota firing over their heads. When several of the Dakota, including Lean Bear (Grizzly Bear)—leader of one of the bands—began to take the horses from the wagon, four of the White men shot them. At this point, a battle began, with most of the settlers being killed.

At the end of the day, three White women (Laura Duley, Christina Koch, and Julia Wright) and seven children were taken captive. A few men had fled; the other settlers were dead or dying. Lavina Eastlick was among those left for dead. Almina Hurd and her two small children, sent east that morning, were abandoned on the prairie.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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