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The Wright Family


April 19, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared 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 Wright family was one of them. Julia Wright was among the women who survived the first day and is one of the main characters in NEVER LET GO.

Of the women living at Lake Shetek, Julia was the one who intrigued me the most. In researching life and events at the lake, there were numerous clues to her personality, though little information about her life prior to moving there and virtually nothing about her life afterward. She played a strong role on the day of the attack and there were various rumors about her later life. I set out to dig into her with a great deal of enthusiasm.

As with all the women, my research started with census records and family trees, then expanded into other vital records. The Wrights were listed on the 1860 census at Lake Shetek as was the Lamb family. I knew from the Workman Papers that Julia Wright and Laura Lamb were sisters and this would be a helpful clue as I researched other census records since I would be able to identify Julia’s family easier with her sister.

John Wright was born about 1834 in La Crosse. Family trees did not trace his heritage nor was I able to identify which of the several Wright families he came from.  There were simply not enough clues or vital records available.

Julia Ann Silsby was born February 23, 1838 in Hanover Township, Jackson County, Michigan. Her parents were Elijah and Temperance (LaDue) Silsby. Laura Lorenza was her oldest sister (born 1824); Julia was the youngest child of eight. The family came to Michigan from New York (where Laura had been born). As late at 1845, when Laura married George Lamb, the family was still living in Hanover. By the 1850 census, they had moved to Scipio, (Hillsdale County), Michigan. Julia was 11.  There were a number of Silsby families in the Hillsdale area, several with daughters who had similar names to Julia (variations of Julie/Julie and Ann/Anna/Anne) so the clue of Laura was vital to tracing the correct family. The many possible Julias in the area would complicate research about her later life.

Records identify several LaDue families in New York and Michigan but census records for periods/areas involved did not identify children by name so it was impossible to verify any of the Ancestry records. However, the LaDue name shows up frequently in histories about the area of New York where Laura was born as related to trappers. It would be plausible for Julia’s ancestors to have been fur trappers and to have intermarried with Natives in the area. I chose to weave that into her fictional family history as a mechanism to create a character familiar with Native American cultures. 

At some point, Julia Silsby met John Wright. The two were married on June 29, 1856 (Ancestry lists the date as June 22). Their oldest child, Eldora (Dora) was born in La Crosse on September 24, 1857. I found no record of Julia’s sister for this time period but it is reasonable that the Lambs may have moved to the La Crosse area, taking Julia with them, and that she and John met there. I chose to start Julia’s story with her marriage to John and to put Laura (I called her by her middle name, Lorenza, in the book to eliminate another “Laura”).

Both the Wrights and the Lambs settled at Lake Shetek by 1860. Though none are of them provided direct information to Dr. Workman, others related that the Lambs arrived first and that George Lamb was a trapper. There were recollections that the first child born at the lake was a Lamb and that the baby died there. No exact date is known for the arrival but because the Lambs and Wrights were mentioned in relationship to others, I was able to tract them. There is a reference to baby George Wright being born at the lake but a vital record search indicated he was born in Mankato in March 26, 1859 (there are two birth records for George Wrights in Mankato that year; it is most likely that George Eli Wright is Julia’s son since Elijah was a family name). Aaron Myers recalled that John Wright came in 1858; it is possible that he may have come ahead of Julia.

The Wrights settled at the south end of Lake Shetek, near the mail route. There is no definitive clue to the location of the cabin beyond that it was south of Beauty Lake (now Smith Lake) and near the trail. In touring cabin sites with Bill Bolin, he told me he felt the cabin was a bit farther south than current signage indicated, closer to the trail. The cabin was either one-and-a- half stories or two stories and the largest cabin at the lake. It is here that settlers gathered on the day of the attack.

There is no record of what type of relationship John and Julia had. However, there are clues to John’s personality in the Workman Papers. None of the Wrights responded to Workman’s letters but other settlers recall John as a man who was rumored to have filed a claim in his father’s name (a claim was filed on the island across the lake under the name George Wright) and that he was involved with Bill Clark and Charley Wambau who were suspected of being thieves. There were also numerous references to John Wright cheating the Dakota and supplying watered down whiskey. The Dakota called him “Tonka Tensena” (Big Liar).  It seemed, from this, that John was not an ethical man.

From the clues to Julia’s personality (her good relationship with the Dakota, evidence that she was respected and trusted by both Whites and Pawn/Across the Water, her ability to stay calm during the attack and provide direction to the others gathered at her cabin), it is highly likely that John and Julia did not see eye to eye and that their relationship may have been strained. I chose to incorporate that into my telling.

Several settlers told Workman about the incident involved Charley Wambau and Bill Clark, which occurred in either 1858 or 1859. I chose to include this in my story since I felt it was a vital part of life at the lake as well as in defining John Wright’s personality. It also helped to forge Julia’s character and I found it significant that none of the settlers held her responsible for any of the events related to these men thought they did hold John accountable.

Julia played a significant role in the events of August 20. In every account, she was recognized for her courage and calm, level head. She took a lead in communicating with Pawn and in making decisions that day. Based on all that others said about her, I felt it important to reexamine the motivations survivors ascribed to Pawn. It didn’t ring true for me that Julia could have mis-judged Pawn and this forced me to dig deeper into Pawn, his previous relationship with the settlers, and the layers within the Santee leadership and Dakota culture.

Julia’s leadership was also cited as important during captivity and all survivors spoke of her with kind regard. I represented her as a woman concerned with the welfare of others but knew there had to be a great deal of inner struggle for her in that role.

No one knows what happened to Julia after the release of the captives. Her widowed sister returned to Hillsdale, Michigan and married George Covell there in July 1863. Julia was in Minnesota in July 1863 and provided sworn testimony for the depredation claim filed by John Wright on July 8 signing the document as his wife. In February 1865, the death of her daughter Dora was recorded in Minnesota. There is no record of her after that date.

Lillie Everett, in her later years, told Workman there was a rumor that Julia’s husband divorced her shortly after her release when she gave birth to a child that was part-Dakota and that she then returned to the Dakota. Research pokes holes in this rumor since she was still with John in July 1863 as his wife (she was rescued in mid-November 1862) and no birth is recorded in either Minnesota or Wisconsin. The divorce rumor may have originated with an account left by one of the men who escorted her to Fort Randall after her rescue in which he relayed that she was worried that her husband would divorce her. I could locate no divorce records for the Wrights. There were later marriage records for John Wrights but no way to determine if this was the correct person since it was a common name.

An online family tree lists her as the second wife of James Cart Cast (dying in 1882 in Silverton, CO) but Colorado marriage and death records list this wife as Annie Julia Coal aka Aimee Julina Kohl (married Cast in 1877 and died in 1880). Nothing in the records indicate this was Julia Wright. A search of census records revealed no Julia Silsby or Julia Wright that exactly matched her.

While I itched to follow one of the rumors as a story thread, I could not justify doing so. I chose to end her story with self-realization instead.

* * * *

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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