March 21, 2020 by Pamela Nowak
Over the next few weeks, I want to share a bit about the families who lived at Lake Shetek, their histories, my research into them, and the characters I created. But, I’m also leaving some holes in what I reveal. After all, I want to encourage you to read the book.
On August 20, 1862, there were nine families residing at the Lake Shetek settlement, stretched around a mile apart along the eastern shore. The Duley family was one of them. Laura Duley was among the women who survived the first day and is one of the main characters in NEVER LET GO.
When I started researching for the novel, I knew that Laura and her family resided at the lake and that Laura was among the women who survived that first day (as well as general details about what happened to her thereafter). She had been interviewed via letter by Dr. Workman, as had surviving family members. I’d read about her in annual Tracy Headlight Herald stories and heard about her from Bill Bolin. I knew nothing about who she really was or where she came from. My only clue to her personality were the strong words she used in the letter to Workman and the reference to her having “lost her mind” for two years.
As it turned out, Laura was one of the easiest of the women to research. She and her husband, William, left a trail of vital records showing land purchases. William had served in official government roles and bios written about them. They were listed in multiple territorial, state, and federal census records, had fairly accurate family trees within Ancestry and FamilySearch and family obituaries were listed on Find-a-Grave with information verified by official vital records. Additionally, there was the information in the Workman Papers and the depredation claim filed by the family. Other sources rounded out information.
As with all five women, I started research with the census records in an effort to find out where and when Laura was born and her family history. Census records provide not only critical dates but often have links to vital records that verify those dates are correct. I was able to discover that both Laura and William grew up in Ripley County, Indiana. Their families had been established there and were among the earliest settlers in that township. Local histories reveal they were prominent members of their church congregation and the community. Census records indicate they owned a significant amount of acreage as well as its worth. A conversion calculator tool translated those values to current rates and told me Laura’s family in particular was wealthy.
I used that information to imagine Laura’s personality and goals. I imagined what her expectations of life might be, given her station. This gave me a springboard to create her as a character. From there, I explored the trail of land records. Although I had no information about William’s personality other than what he revealed of himself in letters left behind and what other settlers recalled, the land records revealed he was a man who moved frequently, despite his family being stable for quite some time in Indiana. As a novelist, I would need to create motivations for him to move his family that frequently—either via his personality and life goals or via life events.
Both census records and obituaries revealed the Duleys lost children during their marriage. Though I knew causes of death, I had to create the circumstances and weave them in as factors that motivated their relocations. Though I found no evidence of Laura “losing her mind,” I relied on that seed and the events in her life to shape how she responded to crises.
Laura Terry married William Duley on April 27, 1848. She was 20 years old, had four sisters and four brothers. Her grandparents, the Sunmans, had settled the area and the township was named for them. William Duley’s father had come to Indiana from Virginia. At the time Laura and William married, William already owned land in Iowa, near the town of Bellview (now Bellevue) along the Mississippi River.
It’s not hard to imagine the reaction Laura might have had to Iowa. As a daughter in a well-to-do family, the rugged conditions of frontier life might have been an issue for her. Though there is no evidence of how she felt about this, the clues of her upbringing and the way other Shetek settlers described her provided me with clues to imagine her. I used those clues, with the trail of land ownership to map her life. William’s professions were described in obituaries and biographical sketches in books about government officials and local histories of areas where they resided.
Weather conditions were detailed in place histories and I wove those into Laura’s story as well as information about ferry boats, Beaver village, and other locations. I created a few characters, to round out Laura’s story (such as Hattie Mae Tucker) because I imagined Laura might have needed such an individual to help her with some of her conflicts).
Once the Duley’s arrived at Lake Shetek, there was an abundance of information about how they fit into the community and the larger events at the settlement. Workman asked most people about major events so we now have those memories, from differing viewpoints, within the historical record.
The Duleys arrived at Shetek along with the Eastlicks and Irelands. William Duley had made trips to the lake ahead of the family to claim land and cut hay from the prairie grasses. His plan was to farm and raise a mill. In the novel, many of the families arrive after hearing about the Dakota Land Company. Though I have no evidence whether this really occurred, there were ads about the company in many of the newspapers where the Shetek families came from and there was a fabricated Cornwell City in the 1857 territorial census. I chose to include that in the plotline of the book.
William Duley was considered a braggart by other settlers and Laura was considered weak. The Duleys had five children when they came to Lake Shetek in November 1861: William Jr. (10), Emma (8), Jefferson (6), Bell (4), and Frances (2). Frances was difficult to research since many of the settlers recalled her as anywhere from six-months old to two-years old and her brother Jefferson, as an adult, was unable to recall her exact age or even her gender. It was only via the depredation claim filed by William Duley that I was able to glean the details. There were also rumors of another child which were solved by his testimony within that document.
Laura’s children were not treated well at the slough. This is relayed in multiple accounts left by survivors. In motivating this, I took into consideration that William and Laura were likely not friendly with the local Dakota, perhaps even hostile with them. Most accounts of events in the slough point to one or more of four men firing at Lean Bear, William among them. He always took credit for the shot in his own accounts. This would certainly have been a motivating factor for revenge and I chose to utilize it in my plotting.
One of the most delicate areas I had to deal with was Laura’s short description of what happened to her after being taken captive. Since being released to the public, opinion on whether events occurred as she indicated or whether she exaggerated them has differed. I chose a middle ground for the novel. Laura was well-know as hostile to the Dakota and her recollection was no doubt influenced by that as well as the fact that William held even stronger negative opinions. It is unlikely that she would have survived the first night had it occurred as she indicated. Yet, few women in that period would have claimed to have been raped if they had not been. Into that mix, I had to consider the traditional ways of the Dakota (in which rape was not tolerated), the issues within warfare that might have altered normal behaviors, and the cultural misunderstandings related to marriage practices.
As to life after release, there was a newspaper account describing Laura’s reunification with William and there were references to where the Duleys resided through the remained of their lives. I could find no evidence of any time spent in any mental institution for Laura nor that she was unable to care for her family for an extended period of time. Therefore, I did not include that in my plotting.
William spent time and effort assisting with the memorial at Lake Shetek. Initially, he provided lumber for fencing, then petitioned the state for some sort of monument. He was among those in the original burial detail and identified the dead.
In later years, the Duleys moved to Alabama for a time then to Washington state. Jefferson served on the police force and Laura and William died there.
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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.