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Using Depredation Claims as a Research Source

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July 18, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

The Depredation Claims filed by the survivors of the Lake Shetek settlement provided a host of clues to their lives, personalities, and served to verify facts that were otherwise in dispute. Taken together, the claims establish dates families arrived at the lake and the timeline of events on August 20, 1862. The clarification of the timeline was important since other historians had believed events began around seven or eight o’clock in the morning. Witness statements in the claim support references to “sunrise” and “six in the morning” made by Myers. Since sunrise times can now be researched easily, we can use that to establish dawn at 5:26 a.m.. This resets the timeline by about two hours.

Secondary accounts regarding the Duley family offered varying information about the youngest child, Frances. In some accounts, this child was listed as a boy while others reported it was a girl. The age was stated anywhere from “an infant” to “age two.” There were also secondary accounts that stated Laura Duley was pregnant at the time of the attack. Some sources listed two young children. Even Jefferson Duley was unable to accurately recall Frances’s age or gender when interviewed many years later (which is not surprising given that he was just six in 1862). William Duley filed a depredation claim not long after events occurred. In it, he listed his children, identifying Frances as a two-year-old girl (which would agree with the spelling of the name). No younger child was listed nor was there any reference to Laura being pregnant—a detail he would have been sure to list given the other detail he provided. The tone of the claim also confers William as a man who held deep hatred for the Dakota and who held a high opinion of himself.

Lavina Eastlick’s claim includes a statement from Thomas Ireland which confirms the names of those who were killed and those who escaped the settlement. John Wright’s statement reflects the length of time he had known the Eastlicks, helping to clarify when they arrived at the lake (and thus when the Duleys arrived). The events cited by the witnesses in her claim support the details offered in her published booklet. 

Almena Hurd’s depredation claim contains interesting details about her personality. Her claim listed not only the household losses (property owned by Phineas) but her personal property, among which were milk cows, butter, and cheeses. This supports the references to her butter-making skills but goes on to establish that she was independent and the she and Phin regarded the dairy enterprise as her own, the property involved in it her own, rather than his. 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. As well, the amounts of butter and cheese listed was far more than a family would need, confirming that she sold and traded her dairy products.

Almena’s account is very detailed, a refection of her, and confirms dates of their arrival at the lake, Phin’s departure to Dakota Territory, and the items he took with him. She includes very specific details about the arrival of the Dakota on the morning of the attack saying, “at about 5 o clock [sic] in the fore noon about twenty of said Indians came to the residence of this deposent [sic] at Lake Sheteck [sic] as foresaid, one of them, who is called “Iltemony” as nearly as this deposent [sic] can pronounce the name, then and there was mounted upon and rode one of the horses of said Phineas B. Hurd and which was in his possession when this petitioner last saw her said husband.” 

I made choices not to utilize some of the information Almena and her witnesses included. She stated that she recognized Phin’s dog and asked about it—that discussion was too long for the scene and omitted. John Wright, in his witness statement, indicated the Hurds had been at the lake three or four years but that he had known them about five or six years. It’s likely they met in La Crosse, Wisconsin but lacking detail on the nature of the relationship, I did not include scenes reflecting it. 

Although Christina Koch’s depredation claim could not be located in the National Archives due to filing errors, a listing of her property from the claim was available in the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum. This provides a good comparison tool to indicate the Kochs status to be similar to the other families at Lake Shetek, although Christina appears to have had a few luxuries such as a French Marino dress and some silk items. It also confirms her name as “Christina”, important since locals to the area continue to refer to her as “Mariah.” The property list includes the yoke of oxen which Charlie Hatch was on his way to borrow on the day of the attack.

John Wright’s claim helped to frame issues about his rumored divorce from Julia shortly after she gave birth to a mixed-race baby after her captivity. John filed his claim in July 1863 and she is listed as his wife at the time, providing testimony and signing the document as his wife. This was nine months after her release. It is unlikely that if John held such prejudices, he would have remained with her beyond April of 1863 since he would have known by then that any such child was not his. If she had given birth to a child prior to July, he would have likely divorced her already. For my story, I had to make a choice about the rumor and I balanced “likelihoods” against the date of the claim to do so. It remains possible that Julia may have been barely pregnant at the time of her release and that she had not yet given birth at the time the claim was filed or that she had recently given birth and that John filed the claim prior to filing for divorce but there are not records to verify any birth.

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As I count down to my January 2021 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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