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How the Lake Shetek Story Stayed Alive

2

November 16, 2019 by Pamela Nowak


That we know so much today about the events that occurred at Lake Shetek during the Dakota Conflict is a bit of an oddity. It was a small settlement, isolated miles from the nearest town. The story of what happened there should have disappeared into history given that so few survived. Yet it didn’t.

The events of Lake Shetek were reported extensively in newspapers of the time, in large part because there were survivors and those survivors were interviewed by reporters with their accounts reprinted throughout Minnesota. Chroniclers, such as Charles S. Bryant and Abel B. Murch compiled the reports into a book in 1864: A History of the Great Sioux Massacre by the Sioux Indians in Minnesota with Lake Shetek having its own section. The book, like many of the newspaper accounts, was highly sensationalized, as was the custom of the time. Bias was rampant and some of the more extreme stories were repeats of accounts popular in 1857, after the attack of Spirit Lake in Iowa, with only the names changed. The book was not an accurate portrayal of events but it did include some fact among the sensationalism and was one key in recording the history for future generations.

That Dakota Conflict chroniclers Beard and Murch knew about Lake Shetek at all was largely due to Lavina Eastlick. Lavina was the woman left for dead near the slough. She’d been shot multiple times and beaten with a rifle stock. Yet, Lavina suspected some of her children survived and crawled east, finally meeting the mail carrier who transported her to safety. In the years just after the events, Lavina wrote A Personal Narrative of Indian Massacres 1862. The small booklet was published in 1864 and she toured with John Stevens, an artist who had created a touring panorama: paintings that depicted scenes of the conflict. The booklet helped support Lavina and her surviving children but also provided history with a detailed account of events at the settlement.

In addition, survivors Thomas Ireland, Aaron Myers, and Charlie Hatch frequently provided extensive interviews to newspapers. Those accounts were reprinted across the state.

In the 1880s, a Lake Shetek area doctor, Harper Workman, decided to collect as much information as he could about the history of the settlement and the events of 1862. He recognized that details would not survive for future generations unless recorded. He conducted extensive interviews (in person and via mail) with those who had lived at Lake Shetek. The information was gathered together and dedicated to his son; it was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1930. The collection was never meant for publication—only for his son—but Workman recognized the value in preserving it. It is a vital core of knowledge.

Workman wrote about the history of the settlement, its value to the Dakota, the early trappers and explorers, and the settlement history in addition to the details of August 20, 1862. His interviews included trappers who had left prior to 1862 as well as those who had survived the conflict. He included names and details not reported by Lavina Eastlick as well as glimpses into personalities and motives conveyed to him via letters and interviews. As well, he cited census records and accounts of life at the settlement. Finally, he attempted to provide details on what happened to survivors after 1862.

Neil Currie, founder of Currie, Minnesota—the closest town to the lake—assisted Workman in his efforts in later years. Currie’s work is also now part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection.

For many years after Workman and Currie conducted their research into Lake Shetek, the history of the small settlement was forgotten. This changed when Frederick Manfred decided to write a novel about the Dakota Conflict (then known as the Sioux Uprising). Manfred’s original name was Frederick Feikema and he wrote several books under that name before changing it to Manfred and penning Lord Grizzly in 1954. Ten years later, he published Scarlet Plume. The novel was a fictionalized account which centered on a small settlement in western Minnesota which many recognized in Lake Shetek. Manfred always maintained he’d relied heavily on the Workman Papers in crafting the story. A closer examination reveals he combined numerous survivor stories from throughout Minnesota to craft the fictional account. Still, the novel renewed interest in the events (and the women) of Lake Shetek.

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, author of young adult and middle grade fiction, also recognized the biases in history. Sneve, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Lakota), was aware the story of the Fool Soldiers had never been fully told. This group of young Lakota men had rescued the women and children who were taken captive at Lake Shetek but their story had lain buried due to military reports that down-played their role. In 1974, Sneve published Betrayed, which fictionalized the story of the settlement and the role of the Fool Soldiers.

Both Manfred and Sneve helped to renew interest in the events of 1862.

As historians of the later twentieth century became more aware of errors in interpretation and the over-reliance on sensationalized sources, scholarly research into the Dakota Conflict became less biased. A large number of scholarly works were published that dug deeper and more fairly represented the development of the hostility felt by the Dakota tribes involved.

As to Lake Shetek itself, local historians have preserved research and maintained interest. Historians John Isch (A Battle for Living) and Curtis Dahlin (Calamity at Lake Shetek) have written on the settlement, each pulling forth more detail. Jim Ketchum dug deeper into the Fool Soldiers for Minnesota Heritage Magazine and Barbara Britain created a documentary about them (Return to Lake Shetek: The Courage of the Fool Soldiers).

Those living in the Lake Shetek area also know how Tracy High School history teacher and Lake Shetek State Park summer environmentalist Bill Bolin kept the story alive. Bill’s class on Minnesota history always included a focus on the Dakota Conflict and events at Lake Shetek. He was an expert on the topic and knew locations of all the cabins and details about the settlers. Over the years, Bill collected extensive files of information about the topic and was always willing to share with anyone interested.

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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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2 comments »

  1. michelle Ferrer says:

    Wow. Sounds like the Sioux (Dakota) weren’t interested in having strangers on their lands. When did white settlement begin in this area of Minnesota? I’m more familiar with conflict between native peoples and whites in the west and the south, not so much near the norther border with Canada. This should be an interesting read.

    • Pamela Nowak says:

      The Dakota and Ojibwe lived in the area that became Minnesota for centuries after Paleo-Indians. Though there is controversial evidence (the Kensington Runestone, long considered a hoax) that Vikings COULD have reached the area in the 1300s, the first documented Europeans in the area were the French, who claimed the lands in the late 1600s. Fur trappers flocked to the area as well as missionaries. More whites ventured there between the 1830s and 1850s as the nation expanded. Minnesota became a territory in 1849 and a state in 1858. The push for statehood brought many settlers into the state with settlement expanding westward. Initial relationships between Whites and the Dakota (Sioux) were peaceful (1650s-1862) but the increasing numbers of Whites impacted game availability and the Dakota signed a treaty in 1851 which guaranteed them land along the Minnesota River. Many on the reservation lands converted to a farming lifestyle (which was alien to their culture) while some bands continued to live in villages off the reservation, growing more desperate as game grew more scarce. In 1862, the tribe was forced to sell the northern half on the strip. Crop failures and many years of delayed annuities and abuse by corrupt Indian agents set the stage for hostility. The advent of the Civil War further delayed annuities with Dakotas both on and off the reservation starving. Resentment grew as food stores were delivered to the agency but not released. It was a fuse waiting to be lit–I’ll go into more detail in a future blog.

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