March 14, 2020 by Pamela Nowak
I first read the novel SCARLET PLUME when I was in junior high, having heard about it from my history teacher, Bill Bolin. It was historical fiction, inspired by real events and I read it avidly, immediately seeing the Lake Shetek story in its pages. I recognized the lake, the characters, and was drawn into the emotion of the story.
There were also elements in the novel I didn’t recognize as the history of Lake Shetek. I wondered about the love story and whether any of the Shetek women did in fact fall in love with her captor. I wanted to learn more. The researcher was there, even then. The writer was, too: I experimented with a similar story but got no further than a few pages because I didn’t know what story I wanted to write.
A few years later, the researcher in me decided to explore SCARLET PLUME more, as part of a college research project. Or, perhaps more accurately, to explore the concept of historical fiction. By this time, I recognized the novel combined facts and invented story. I wanted to know how much was factual, exactly which facts were used, and what was invented. To do this, I’d need to talk to the author.
And so began my day with Frederick Manfred.
I was fortunate that Manfred was a Minnesotan, living within an hour or so of my hometown. In March of 1983, I set off to interview him, my mom with me. I don’t recall how it was that I made contact with him; I think my college professor made the link. Manfred had taught at the University of South Dakota for about 15 years; I was a student at South Dakota State. In any event, he was agreeable to meeting and being interviewed. (Coincidentally enough, I have since learned a fellow author, K. Lyn Wurth, also interviewed him around that same time, evidence Manfred was generous with his time and knowledge).
We showed up at Manfred’s beautiful home near Blue Mounds State Park (near Luverne, Minnesota), marveling at its setting. Built into the rock hillside, it seemed part of the landscape. As to Manfred himself…it was like meeting a mountain. The author was 6’9” tall; I was not quite 5’1”. I remember how very small my hand was in his when he greeted me. He introduced himself as Feike Feikema, his original name (he legally changed it to Manfred in 1952).
During the first part of our meeting, Manfred told me about himself, his past, his family, relationships and how his journalism career led him to fiction. He wrote on a 1944 Remington typewriter. He told me about researching for LORD GRIZZLY (1954), the story of Hugh Glass, who was attacked by a grizzly in 1823 and left for dead by his companions. Glass survived, crawling his way to Fort Kiowa. Manfred talked of going onto the prairie and covering himself with a bear hide and crawling on the ground as if his leg were broken and useless.
Then, our conversation turned to SCARLET PLUME.
Manfred told me he originally planned to write a novel of the Civil War with the Dakota Conflict (at that time still referred to as the Sioux Uprising) as just a small part of the plot. He said he felt the event had been neglected by history and that he wanted to bring more attention to it. His focus shifted, however, when he discovered a letter written by General Sibley that referenced “a young lady…who preferred to go with her Indian lover into the wilds rather than go back to her husband and child…”
From there, Manfred said he spent much time thinking about how how wife or daughter might have felt in such a situation and considered the “boomer girls” spirit of independence. Manfred also said he wanted to emphasize that captives were taken to replace loved ones and that an imagining of a close relationship between a White woman and a Native man would accomplish that goal. He announced his plans for the book at the 1962 centennial commemoration event at Lake Shetek, saying he had spent eight years researching. As part of his research, he had contacted Dr. Warner Workman, grandson of Dr. Harper Workman, chronicler of the Lake Shetek history.
During my interview, Manfred related that he’d also relied on the Oehler and Heard histories of the Dakota Conflict, the captive narratives of Abbie Gardner and Mary Schwandt, and Doane Robinson’s HISTORY OF SOUTH DAKOTA.
When my questions turned to his character, Judith, Manfred identified her as being modeled after Mrs. Koch. He said his research indicated this was the woman mentioned in the Sibley letter. He maintained his source was the Workman Papers, a private version he examined which had a section which was deleted from the collection made public. Manfred said Mrs. Koch returned to the Sioux after her release from captivity. However, in an interview conducted in 1964, Manfred stated that he did not concentrate on history by, rather, on character development” for Judith. I attempted to gain more information from him to clarify but he was adamant that he had taken the story from pages of the Workman papers that were kept private.
After my interview with Manfred, I had the chance to visit the Minnesota Historical Society to investigate further. At that time, I had a copies of some sections of the Workman Papers and there was indeed a reference in the manuscript collection which said “Certain parts of the history which relate to the atrocities suffered by some of the women have been intentionally deleted.” I hoped to locate this section and see what it contained.
I was convinced that Judith could not be based wholly on Christina Koch—who had no children and whose husband was killed; she remarried and lived out her life in the Mankato area. The section that appeared to be deleted was between the account of Christina Koch and Laura Duley. Laura Duley, however returned to her husband. There WAS a rumor cited by one of the survivors that Julia Wright had divorced her husband and returned to the Dakota. I wanted to find out if the missing section revealed any information.
In my visit to the Minnesota Historical Society, I was fortunate to be assisted by Dr. Alan Woolworth, with whom my then fiancé was acquainted. In fact, we were guests at his home and Woolworth took me into the collection stacks and showed me the actual Workman papers in their entirety. Indeed, there were three or so pages that were not to be released for a period of time. But, by 1983, they had already been made public and Woolworth told me there were no other secret sections beyond that one. These involved details offered by Laura Duley and referenced her experiences during the first night of her captivity and thereafter. The account reflects a savage gang-rape; medical professionals I’ve spoken with since advise her account is likely an exaggeration since it is highly doubtful she would have survived what she claimed happened let alone be able to keep up on a forced march. There was no reference to anyone falling in love with a captor though there were details that found their way into SCARLET PLUME. No information could be found on Julia Wright at all (my recent research indicates she was still married to and with her husband as late as 1864).
As to on whom the character of Judith was modeled, I think her personality may have been inspired by Christina Koch’s spunk and drive. But many of the plot events in the novel seem to also be inspired by Sarah Wakeman and her relationship with Chaska (inspired being the key word here since she always maintained the relationship was not romantic). In truth, the character is a composite of many different women, with details taken from many captive narratives and historical accounts with a good dash of fiction added in. In fact, much of SCARLET PLUME reflects a composite of stories from the Dakota Conflict with many different stories combined throughout its plot and the love story a fictional one.
In the novel, one sees Merton and Johnnie Eastlick, bits of each of the three women captives, and the larger events and setting of Lake Shetek. Manfred never claimed it was fact. It is a novel and he clearly stated it was “fiction and fact of many different incidents.” The story of Lake Shetek and its’ settlers are one of many Manfred used and, as a good fiction-writer, he crafted dialogue, motivations, and the plot around those inspirations. While elements of Judith’s character might be based on Christina Koch’s strength and tenacity, the whole of the character was inspired by many individuals and is a created character. SCARLET PLUME is not the story of Lake Shetek; the Lake Shetek story is PART of SCARLET PLUME.
I remain in awe of Manfred for his skill in crafting such a book, for his use of literary elements, and for bringing the Dakota Conflict alive. In rereading the novel now, I am aware of the language choices Manfred made as representative of the historical period in which the book was set. I recognize the book was written fifty years ago and reflects that period as well. It is not always culturally sensitive, but that was not Manfred’s goal. It remains a literary classic and a story well-told.
SCARLET PLUME fueled my interest and curiosity. But the composite-story fiction structure did not complete the stories of the Lake Shetek women…what made them into the strong women they were and how they differed from one another and what their individual stories were underneath the basic historical facts. The story in my head all these years centered on them. They were MY inspiration and I hope my fictionalization of their stories does them justice.
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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.