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The Koch Family


April 11, 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 Koch family was one of them. Christina Koch was among the women who survived the first day and is one of the main characters in NEVER LET GO.

Christina Koch’s early life proved elusive in my research. The 1857 Minnesota census lists her at Lake Shetek along with her husband Andrew (Andreas). The record lists her as “Christina” rather than “Mariah” as I’d always heard locals call her. “Christina” is the name used in every vital record I found. It may be that one of the names was a first name and the other a middle name. Germans typically named children after relatives then called them by their middle names to avoid confusion in the family. (I had already encountered that same issue in tracing my own family tree.)

From the 1860 census, I learned that Christina was born about 1827 in Saxony. Andreas was born about 1824 and Wisconsin is listed with his name. This MAY have been a language issue with Andreas relaying the place he’d moved from rather than place of birth. Andreas was known to have spoken with a heavy accent, frequently in German, and 1824 is an unlikely date for birth in Wisconsin. It is more likely that he came to Minnesota from Wisconsin. Spelling of their last name varies on all references: Koch, Kock, Cook, Tuck. I used the most common German spelling. Aside from the references in the 1857 census, I was unable to definitively trace either Andreas or Christina.

Online family trees offered information but it could not be verified and did not fit perfectly with the information in the 1860 census. There was a Maria Christina Buttermino listed on an tree who emigrated from Germany but no sources are cited. I located passenger records for a Maria Buttermino, born in Baden-Wurttenberg 23 February 1833, who came to America with two brothers. It is possible that this MAY be the correct Christina and that the census taker made errors or that there was a misunderstanding with born/came from. The birthdate fits with the date Christina gave to Workman during the interview in the 1880s, when she indicated she was born in 1834 in Baden-Wurttenberg (now part of Germany). IF Buttermino is the correct Christina, she lived in Bavaria and departed from Le Havre, France on the Carolus Magnus with her (likely) her father Peter, and brothers Johan and Nikola. Later census records for Christina cite her birthplace variously as Germany, Baden, and Prussia. In the novel, I referenced this family for her but did not provide details beyond a brief mention.  Christina’s answer to Workman’s question about how old she was when she emigrated showed some confusion and it is difficult to determine if she was speaking about age or immigration date. The interview was via written questions, with the answers recorded by a friend; answers are short and not detailed.  

I found possibilities for Andrew as well but none were exact fits. In the 1857 territorial census, there was an Andrew Kock listed as a boarder in Goodhue County (born 1829 in Germany), living as a boarder with the Lena Hoffman family. The birthdate does not match the 1860 census, though. A less likely option would be Andreas Kochner living in Nicolett, Minnesota with the William Kochner family. 

My story for Christina began with the information I found within the Workman Papers. Several accounts, including Christina’s, indicate the couple moved to the Brink cabin in either 1856 or 1857. Since there is no record of them there on the 1857 census, it is likely they moved there after early summer 1857. Reports state they were hired to hold the cabin for Brink.

I chose to start their journey in New Ulm, purely fictional since I had no evidence they ever lived there. Still, it seemed a logical place for them to start and allowed me to create a back-story for Christina from which I could develop a character arc. While I thought about using her journey to America as Buttermino, the New Ulm connection and movement away from the German community worked well for my character development.

Accounts in the Workman Papers indicate the Kochs lived at the Walnut Grove cabin until 1859 or 1860. Mentions of Plum Creek make it clear that the cabin was located in the area where the town of Walnut Grove was later established. There are references to the Reinecker incident occurring before the move to Lake Shetek. Pinpointing that date was difficult as various settlers recalled the date differently but the Kochs were settled at the lake by the 1860 census. Christina makes it clear that Andreas enjoyed visiting with the man and that his encounter with the Dakota was both unusual and upsetting.

There is quite a bit of reference in the Workman Papers regarding Clark and Wambau and the events at the Koch cabin. I used these details to round out the tensions among the settlers and the varying types of relationships they had with the Dakota.

Christina’s experiences during captivity were briefly stated in the Workman Papers and she adamantly denied being “outraged.” This is contradicted by Laura Duley’s statement (the one held from public view for many years). All statements do indicate Christina fought with Pawn and disabled him for several days. A newspaper account relates her relationship with White Lodge, her escape, and recovery at Camp Release. Reading between the lines on all of this, one can see Christina had spirit, understood the nature of her role during captivity, and thought on her feet. I incorporated all of those traits into her character as well as German efficiency and good housekeeping. Workman referred to her cleanliness as well.

As to her relationship with the Dakota, she was offered a chance to leave the lake—an indication the Dakota thought well of her though they disliked her husband. Her accounts of them hold little hostility beyond that normal to the period. As well, there appears to have been a special bond with White Lodge and it was never clear whether or not he played a role in her escape.

A good deal of information exists regarding Christina after 1863 though all of it is related to outer life. Few details are available about her private details. Though her depredation claim has been misfiled in the National Archives, the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum had a copy on their collection which allowed me to read about the events in her own words and have a sense of their property. Census and other vital records and newspaper articles track her later life in Mankato.

In the 1870 census, she is listed as the wife of Charles Heinze, a baker. Heinze died in 1883 and Christine remarried Carl Hohmuth (also Hohmith) in October 1884. Hohmuth was a laborer, then a small farmer. They resided on Front Street in Mankato. Workman visited Christina there about 1894, leaving a list of written questions for her to respond to. She died in 1907.

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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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