April 4, 2020 by Pamela Nowak
On August 20, 1862, there were nine families residing at the Lake Shetek settlement, stretched around a mile apart along the eastern shore. The Hurd family was one of them. Almena Hurd was among the women who survived the first day and is one of the main characters in NEVER LET GO.
The search for information on Almena Hurd began with a review of Dr. Workman’s history and discussions with Jeff (Jesse) James, current owner of the Hurd cabin-site. Jesse has been in contact with Hurd family members and offered insight into the cabin site itself—the red color of Bloody Lake and the blackbirds. Family members have passed on that Almena was intelligent and confident and was known for her butter and cheese-making.
As with the other women, however, there was little about her life before coming to Lake Shetek. And, like the others, my research began with vital records. Almena was a fun and interesting person to research, with many little details emerging as I did so.
Phineas B. Hurd was born around 1829 and I could locate no information on the family prior to the 1850 census. He was born in Caton, (Steuben County) New York, the son of a farmer and was the oldest of four children (in 1850). His father was born in Connecticut but no record was located of him prior to 1850.
Almena Hamm was born in either Steuben County, New York (the same county as Phineas) or in Pennsylvania on September 19, around 1835 (some records cite 1834, some 1836). Her obituary lists New York as her birthplace but Pennsylvania was listed in all census records. It is likely that she was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York at a young age—some sources suggest between 1846 and 1848. Records list her name variously as Alomina, Elmina, and Almena and family lore indicates Almena was what the family called her.
Almena is listed as the eldest child of five and her mother died when Almena was ten. It’s likely the move to New York occurred around this time. When Almena was 12, her father remarried to a widow, Sarah Pew, with four children of her own. All show up on the 1850 census. The marriage heralded some big changes in the lives of the Hamm children.
In the 1855 New York census, Almena and her youngest brother Seneca were not listed in the Hamm (sometimes recorded as Ham or Howe) household. Instead, they were listed with the Miniers. By this time, additional children had been born to the Hamm household. Within the Minier household, Seneca is listed as “adopted” and Almena as “hired help.” However, the Hamm family was still listed so it was evident her father had not died or moved away.
To me, this seemed to indicate a significant life event had occurred. There was no explanation so I was left to imagine what might have happened and how it might have impacted Almena. I chose an interpretation that would shape a character that would be strong and independent as well as one that considered family to be highly important (which would be reflected later in the sacrifices Almena made for her children).
There is no record of what life was like for Almena in the Minier household save for the reference to her as hired help and to Seneca as an adopted child so I was also left to imagine that. Into my interpretation, I created characters for the Miniers and set-up the butter-making that would become part of Almena’s reputation.
I knew nothing about Phineas so I crafted him as a storekeeper who would have occasion to meet Almena. Marriage records record them as marrying in Caton, New York in 1857. Other online genealogical sites indicate they moved to LaCrosse, Wisconsin two years later (their son William Henry was born there). Find-a-Grave suggests they lived there for two years then moved to St. Peter, Minnesota before going on to Lake Shetek.
Workman and family lore indicate the Hurds arrived at Lake Shetek with Bill Jones, a business partner of Phineas. I found next to no information on Jones though there was reference to him in the Workman Papers. One of those mentions indicate there had been gossip regarding his relationship with the couple and that no one who knew Almena believed it. I chose to include that in my story by creating a scene with Bill’s ex-wife. Jones later went with Phineas to Dakota Territory.
An interesting tidbit was a listing for a Georgianna Koch, age 70, in the 1860 census at Lake Shetek. I found no record of anyone in the Koch family that would match that age. A look at census records revealed Phin’s mother was that age but she was named Lcynthia—a name completely dissimilar from Georgianna. This seemed to indicate the census taker either did not clearly record a name, misunderstood, or did not get information directly from those involved. Since neither Almena nor Christina mentioned the woman, I created a scene to offer one potential explanation, making this person Phin’s mother instead. This was one of the cases where I strayed from the written record.
Recollections in the Workman Papers helped to describe the Hurds’ life at Lake Shetek, the trip made by Phin and Bill Jones, and the blackbird problems. Almena’s depredation claim listed the amount of butter and cheese lost as well as her own personal property separate from marital property. She was the only woman at the settlement to list her own property which indicated this was important to who she was and I wove that into her story.
Almena was interviewed after the events of August 1862 and gave public testimony. The news articles and the official court records (in addition to her depredation claims) provided vital clues to when the Dakota arrived at her cabin, what occurred there, the timing of events thereafter, her journey across the prairie, and her feelings toward the Dakota. The news article employs much biased language but she left clues that she interacted frequently with the Dakota. She refers to several individuals with her spelling of their Dakota names, talks about trading with them, and relates that she was told to go to her mother (meaning to go to her people)—all of which indicates she had a good relationship with the Santee who gathered at the lake.
After 1862, Almena returned to New York state and married Elbridge George Woodward in 1864. They resided in Steuben County until 1883. The couple had five children together. After their move, they ran a boarding house and farmed in Roulette, Pennsylvania. Elbridge died in 1905; Almena in 1922 while on a visit to one of her daughters.
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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.