January 11, 2020 by Pamela Nowak
The Dakota Conflict began for the settlement at Lake Shetek just after sunrise on August 20, 1862.
The settlement consisted of nine cabins stretched along the east side of the lake, the cabins being approximately one mile distant from one another. The nine families and four bachelors had settled at the lake over a period of four years. The nearest town was New Ulm, located 70 miles to the east.
For the most part, their interactions with the local Dakota, Sissetons from five villages scattered around the area, had been peaceful with trade interaction and relationships developed. Aaron Myers, at the north end of the lake, was known as an herb doctor and frequently treated ill and injured tribal members. The Wrights, near the south end of the lake, were engaged in trading with Julia Wright often compensating for her husband’s mistakes with them. Prior to the attack, a small group had been camped near the Myers place and another group, Pawn (Across the River) among them, was camped near the Wright cabin.
On August 18, leaders from several of the Shetek villages had attended the council to discuss the war. Included were Lean Bear (also known as Grizzly Bear, chief of Old Sleepy-Eye’s band), White Lodge, the son of Limping Devil, and Blue Face. All were in agreement that Whites in the area should be killed. However, sentiment among others in their villages was not fully in support. Many had forged relationships with the Shetek settlers and urged they be allowed to flee to the East. Accounts given by survivors indicate they were still in disagreement on the morning of the attack.
Around sunrise on August 20, 1862, a group of Sissetons rode into Aaron Myers’s fenced field at the north end of Lake Shetek. Myers yelled at the riders, asking they not destroy his crop and reminding them he had always offered medical care to any Dakota who needed it. The riders departed without further incident. Later that morning, Myers’s son would discover what happened at the Hurd cabin and the Myers family would flee toward New Ulm.
At the same time, Almena Hurd, at the second cabin, was milking cows when a group of Dakota approached. Almena’s husband was missing, after leaving nearly two months before to scout land in Dakota Territory. Two bachelors had purchased the Hurd property and one of them, John Voigt, was staying there. Almena had a good relationship with the local Sisseton, having frequently traded butter and cheese with them. She invited the group to breakfast with her. Voigt had an uneasy relationship with the Dakota and had shot at a Dakota woman in the weeks before. When Voigt exited the house, he was shot by Dakota who had hidden in the trees. Almena was told to take her two young children and go eastward. She was escorted onto the prairie and left to walk to the nearest settlement.
At the Koch cabin, a mile or so to the south, a smaller group of Sisseton visited. Andreas Koch, who spoke with a heavy German accent and had little tolerance for the Dakota, accompanied the men to a target-shooting area away from the house. He was shot. Christina (Mariah) Koch was told to go east but chose instead to run southward down the lake to warn the other settlers. Charlie Hatch, a brother to Mrs. Everett, on his way from the south end of the lake to borrow an ox from Mrs. Hurd, arrived about that time and saw Koch on the ground. Hatch immediately ran southward to launch his own warning.
One by one, the Ireland, Eastlick, Duley, Smith, Wright, and Everett families received warnings. They fled via short-cuts down the lakeshore as Dakota approached from the longer route they’d taken around smaller lakes and sloughs. The settlers assembled at the Wright cabin, which was largest, had a partial second-story, and believed to be the most defensible.
It was roughly around 8:00 a.m. on August 20 when the settlers gathered at the Wright cabin. John Wright was away at the time and the practical Julia Wright set about organizing the settlers. Familiar with the Dakota who often traded with her husband, she also served as a go-between with the small encampment near the cabin. Pawn/Across the River offered protection to the settlers and the men in his group were provided ammunition to help defend the group. Historical accounts regarding Pawn have alleged that he tricked the settlers but his true motivations and role may have been more complex. Given that the settlers to the north (Myers, Almena Hurd, and Christina Koch) who had relationships with locals were allowed to flee without harm, it makes sense that Pawn would have desired to spare those with whom he had relationships. Julia Wright left no account—a loss for historians—but kinship values would have created a bond between her and those who were well-known to the Wrights.
The settlers crowded into the Wright cabin while the more hostile group, led by Lean Bear/Grizzly Bear arrived. There were several shows of power and exchanges of indirect gunfire as well as negotiations between Pawn and Lean Bear. Lean Bear was in a position of power. He had attended the council on August 18 (advocating for killing all the settlers) and was recognized as the leader of his village. The leaders of the other local villages, White Lodge among them, had also attended and agreed with Lean Bear. Pawn would have been respected among his people but not in a leadership position at the time.
After several back-and-forth discussions over the course of a couple hours, Pawn returned to the Wright cabin and informed the settlers that they would be allowed to leave, to walk to the east, but that they must take nothing with them nor resist in any way. There was much disagreement among the men in the group but they ultimately left the cabin on foot, walking along the mail route toward New Ulm. A few of the men sent Charlie Hatch down the shore of the lake, to the Everett cabin, telling him to get a team of horses and a wagon and meet them on the trail.
Meanwhile, Christina Hurd struggled to find her way east, alone on the prairie with a baby and a toddler, none of them with shoes, food, or water.
As the Lake Shetek settlers departed the Wright cabin, they were watched by Lean Bear’s group, who climbed onto the roof to monitor the departure. About three miles to the east, near a large slough, Charlie Hatch met the group with the wagon and as many women and children as possible clambered aboard. Progress was slow, given the weight, and the Dakota at the Wright cabin became agitated then pursued the group. As the Dakota neared, shots were fired at the settlers (all accounts indicate the shots were fired high, over their heads). The settlers abandoned the wagon and fled into the tall grasses of the slough. Three of the men continued through the slough and on to the east.
Once the Dakota arrived at the slough, several of them began to unharness the horses from the wagon. At this point, shots were fired by at least three of the White men and four Dakota fell, village leader Lean Bear among them. Accounts of the initial shooting vary and it is unclear which group fired the first shot or who killed Lean Bear but the reports of the aftermath are consistent. The Dakota began firing from a hill into the slough. By all accounts, the Dakota had the tactical advantage and the settlers were fired upon for hours. It was an open warfare situation and there is little doubt that revenge played a role. As the day wore on, the killings became more brutal and personal. The Dakota eventually were able to enter the slough and attack hand-to-hand. Many of the Whites who died at that point were family members of those who fired the shots at Lean Bear.
By mid to late afternoon, thunderstorms were forming, many of the settlers were wounded, some were dead. Pawn, who had moved into an unofficial leadership position, asked that the women and children surrender. Julia Wright and Almira Everett were selected to represent those still alive to negotiate an end to the fight.
At the end of the afternoon on August 20, 1862, negotiations at Lake Shetek reached a conclusion. Women and children without critical injuries would be allowed to surrender and would be taken captive by the Sisseton bands at the lake. The men were excluded from the offer as were those who were too injured to travel. Julia Wright, Christina Koch, and Laura Duley were taken captive along with eight children. Almira Everett, who was to be included, chose to stay with her dying husband.
Lavina Eastlick was initially among the women to be taken captive. The wife of one of the men who shot at Lean Bear, she was severely injured with gunshot wounds. Lagging behind, trying to locate her children, she was beaten with a rifle butt and left for dead. In the days following, she would crawl across the prairie toward New Ulm.
During the next three months, the captives would be divided among several captors and traded often for convenience or food/supplies. They would travel nearly a thousand miles on foot, zig-zagging through Minnesota, then Dakota Territory. Christina Koch escaped with Jefferson Duley while still in Minnesota. The youngest Duley child died in captivity. The remaining captives were finally ransomed in late November along with six part-Dakota women (nearly forgotten by the historical record). The effort was accomplished by a group of young men from a Yankton band dubbed the “Fool Soldiers.” Led by Martin Charger, the youths felt it was dishonorable for women and children to be held as captives in a war that should be fought by men. The Fool Soldiers were largely forgotten by history until recent years; credit for the rescue was claimed by General Pattee, who had been en route to rescue them. The military took custody of the captives and delivered them to Fort Randall. By January, they had been reunited with surviving family members.
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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.
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