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Lake Shetek Chroniclers


March 8, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

A number of historians have written specifically about events at Lake Shetek during the Dakota Conflict. I’ve mentioned them in prior posts but thought I’d explore them in more depth this week.

According to information in TRACY HEADLIGHT HERALD articles, Dr. Harper Workman came to Tracy, Minnesota in 1880 or 1881 and spent his life as a physician in the community. Workman was a history buff and was passionate about recording what happened to early settlers at Lake Shetek. His goal was to assure his children would know what occurred there but Workman also provided his information to the Minnesota Historical Society, where it was preserved for the public. The entire collection has now been digitized and is available online.

Workman attempted to track down all of the original settlers, usually exchanging letters but interviewing some of them in person. By and large, he avoided paraphrasing and reported information as it was conveyed to him. He often included the actual letters received and the collection is generally devoid of bias and stereotyping in Workman’s summarizations. It does, however, exist in the primary accounts (first person letters) he included.

Neil Currie (Currie, Minnesota pioneer) took up Workman’s efforts, attempting to fill gaps and reach out to those whom Workman had not reached. His collection also resides with the Minnesota Historical Society. It, too, has been digitized and is available online. Like Workman, Currie avoided putting his own interpretation into events and simply collected information and recorded it.

During the late 1800s, there were gatherings of those who survived the events of 1862. Their reunions at Lake Shetek provided opportunities for interviews and recording of other information.

To modern researchers, the collections left by Workman and Currie are invaluable resources. They provide a glimpse of what life was like prior to the events of 1862 as well as the events during and after the Dakota Conflict. However, the collections must be examined in their totality since those interviewed often mis-remembered when events occurred and who was involved. Since the information was collected more than 20 years after events happened, this is not surprising. Individual accounts must be compared and vital records consulted to reveal clear timelines and sort out discrepancies. The natural tendency of individuals to project themselves in a positive light must also be considered.

Unfortunately, there are also holes in the collection. Some survivors either did not respond to Workman and Currie or could not be located. At that time, it was, of course, much more difficult to track down those who moved a lot or who did not wish to be found. The Wright family virtually disappeared from history with Julia Wright’s personal experiences never being recorded and no record of what became of her. History has instead been left with reports of gossip that largely were unsupported by any vital records.

As well, period terminology and lack of honesty were likely involved in the accounts left by Christina Koch and Laura Duley. Because Workman and Currie were both men, it is unlikely that there was a discussion of what happened to them physically during their captivity. Laura’s letter includes a highly sensationalized version of events for her first night as a captive—so much so that she would likely not survived had it occurred as she reported. Notes on Christina’s interview comprise just three pages. She said very little about her captivity except “I was NOT outraged.” Workman failed to define what she meant and period terminology leaves the meaning of the statement vague with some historians interpreting this to mean she was not forcibly raped while others have taken it as an indication she never had intercourse at all during captivity. There was also a lack of clarity in when she to the United States, likely due to translation issues and Workman failed to ask about her life prior to coming to the Shetek area.

Several of the Shetek survivors recorded accounts after events.

The most widely know account is that of Lavina Eastlick, who published a booklet and toured in the years just after events in order to earn money for support her family. A PERSONAL NARRATIVE OF INDIAN MASSACRES 1862 is highly detailed but must also be read with an eye to bias, stereotype, and exaggeration. Eastlick used language of the day and thought she interacted with the Dakota, she is not sympathetic to them. She doesn’t shy from derogatory statements and projects all events in the slough (known as Slaughter Slough) as brutal and hostile. Her representation of numbers of Dakota involved (200) is thought to be an exaggeration.

Yet, Eastlick’s account provides a good summary of the timeline of events and her personal agony. When reviewed in conjunction with other accounts, discrepancies can be isolated and examined for accuracy. Each individual would have seen events unfold differently and the researcher must keep that in mind with this highly detailed account. In addition, one must keep in mind that Mrs. Eastlick’s purpose was to attract a paying audience and that sensationalism would have helped in reaching that goal.

A vital piece of the Lake Shetek captives’ story is the role played by the Fool Soldiers. This group of young Lakota men ransomed Julia Wright, Laura Duley, and the remaining children. There was little record of their involvement save for the report of Major Pattee, the commanding officer of Fort Randall, who was en route to them with the same objective and who largely took credit for the ransom.

Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve published BETRAYED, a novel about the Fool Soldiers, in 1974 and revealed their role. For years before that, members of their families had shared the stories, leaving oral history recordings, housed at the University of South Dakota Oral History Center in Vermillion (“South Dakota Oral History Project,” Institute of American Indian Studies). Filmmaker Barbara Britain’s documentary RETURN TO LAKE SHETEK delves deeper into the Fool Soldier’s role and history via interviews.

This collection of remembrances provides vital clues about the ramson of the captives. The collection requires the researcher to be aware of whether an interviewer (and sometimes translator) were involved in which case there were errors in translation (such as “when the snow ended” being ambiguous to end of a blizzard or end of winter) and paraphrasing of actual accounts. As well, because these were one or two generations removed, stories were altered and each person’s relative often featured as prominent in the stories left. Like other accounts, they must be compared to one another and examined.

The National Archive also provided clues. Though Major Pattee’s account was most frequently reported in books, others recorded the events of the ransom, offering a clearer picture than Pattee’s report with himself at the center.

In recent years, historians Curtis Dahman and John Isch have re-examined Lake Shetek events. Isch’s A BATTLE FOR LIVING delves into Lavina Eastlick’s account as well as her life in general. Dahman took another look at the overall events in CALAMITY AT LAKE SHETEK. Both historians do an excellent job of presenting events without the bias and sensationalism of early books.

MINNESOTA’S HERITAGE (vol. 4, July 2011) offers a number of articles on Lake Shetek as well as the Fool Soldiers that are well-researched and valuable as resources.

As more and more resources become available, information will be uncovered and examined. Today’s researched owes a debt to the chroniclers who have stepped forward thus far. I know I do—I couldn’t have written NEVER LET GO without them.

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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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