The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 14 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
We had not been molested by the Indians and I was on the point of persuading the fugitives to return to their homes, when one evening about a dozen Irish families fled to our camp and begged for shelter. They were the same whom, in company with Father Alexius Roetzer, I had visited several times before at their settlements. They told us, that early in the morning of that day an aged Indian informed them by signs that they with their cattle must flee to the north (the direction in which Richmond lay) if they wished to escape death. None of these families was acquainted with the other; they lived widely apart and amidst Norwegians. They had met during the flight. The burning houses of the Norwegian settlers increased their terror and accelerated their escape, although they carried their possessions with cumbersome ox-teams. The distance to Richmond was from 15 to 20 miles from their homes. A great part of this country was inhabited by non-Catholics; no house was spared until within the immediate vicinity of Richmond.
A few hours before the arrival of these fugitives, a German family, which had not practiced their religion for some time, appeared before our earthworks and sought for protection. They had joined the Methodist church, but on the morning of that day, when they beheld the burning homes and mutilated bodies of their unfortunate neighbors (for very few succeeded in concealing themselves) their conscience upbraided them and they vowed to become practical Catholics once more if God rescued them from these terrors. They were saved, but their dwelling was burnt.
Since we were now aware that the Indians were carrying on their work of devastation and murder within five miles of Richmond, a great panic seized the encampment. No one dared entertain the idea of leaving the fortification.
A small farmhouse beyond the Sauk River, inhabited by the owner and family, and defended by twelve of our home guard, served as an outpost. One morning the farmer opened the door to pass some fresh air through the small room. The fire in the stove had been kindled to prepare breakfast and cast a beam of light through the open door. Scarcely had the door opened when eight or ten reports crashed through the quiet morning air, and man bullets riddled the cooking utensils and stovepipe, and shattered one corner of the stove. It was a ghastly "good morning" (Indian fashion). Although the home guard force together with the family numbered some twenty persons confined within this narrow space (the house was 16x20 ft.) and the farmer stood at the threshold of the open door, no one was injured. The guards rushed out to defend themselves, but saw no Indians, owing to the fog. We had heard the shots in our fort and twenty armed men were detailed on horseback to assist the outpost. They found vestiges of the presence of Indians, among other things a moccasin and a blanket, but no Indian hove in sight.
When the news of the raid on the so-called Norwegian and Yankee settlements reached St. Cloud, a force of thirty men, whom Father Eberhard Gahr accompanied as chaplain, set out on teams for the scene of desolation, to rescue what was still to be rescued and to bury the dead. On their route, they passed a solitary house, which had not been set afire but bore marks of pillage. They called and were answered by groans from within. The door was burst open; on the floor lay the owner of the house and his wife, both wounded in several places by bullets and suffering from fever in consequence. Their wounds were hastily bandaged and they proceeded to explain how they had been attacked in the morning and defended themselves. The farmer had two guns. They were charged by his wife, and he fired on the Indians from the window with some successes trail of blood the premises evidenced. He was provided with sufficient ammunition to keep up fire for half an hour. The Indians probably suspected the house concealed a greater number of settlers than they imagined, and deemed it prudent to desist from exposing themselves to so much danger. The Indians had, however, responded to his volleys and wounded both husband and wife. Desperation had sustained them during the attack, but when the savages had departed, they sank upon the floor exhausted from the loss of blood and pain. For four days, they were in this painful situation without as much as a cup of water to moisten their lips, and with un-bandaged wounds, when the force from St. Cloud had discovered them. I was informed some time after, that they both had died, despite attendance. The St. Clouders proceeded on their errand of mercy and daily found dead and mutilated corpses. All had been scalped; some were nailed to trees and pierced with bullets, women and children massacred in an indescribably horrible manner. Even domestic animals were killed. The St. Clouders buried the dead and returned to their home with two suffering victims of Indian wrath.
It was a matter of surprise to me that this settlement had been singled out for such terrible carnage. On investigation, I learnt that several years before, an Indian had been presumably murdered in the vicinity. He was missed by the tribe; they sent scouts to search for him and there lost all trails in the neighborhood of the settlement. They could not complain to the authorities that one of their number had been murdered, but it was remarked that every year, on the recurrence of the anniversary of the mysterious disappearance of the Indian, a while man fell slain by some invisible hand. This continued to the time when the general uprisings gave them the means of wreaking vengeance on the entire settlement.
While Father Magnus Mayr was constructing fortifications at Richmond, the government authorities caused several log huts to be erected near Richmond on the Sauk River to serve as barracks for a military company. It was not, however, until after the terrible massacre just referred to, that a company of some Wisconsin regiment came to Richmond. This company arrived late in the evening of a rainy day and without a captain. The women and children in our encampment had struck quarters in the church and some lights were kept burning. But a few guards were out on duty. The lights brightened the church windows and discovered our whereabouts. Before a warning could be given by the guards the soldiers (some 80 men) were within the works and took possession of the church although they did not resort to bloodshed. I explained to the lieutenant in command that barracks had been erected for the soldiers about half a mile from the village and requested him to betake himself thither with his men. His principle at the time evidently was, might goes before right, and he did not comply. The force was drenched with rain and found welcome quarters in the church. Though, to all appearance, but lately drafted they showed the coarseness of habituated old soldiers, by entering the church, driving the women and children out under the rain and taking possession of the beds. I was angered at these unceremonious proceedings and reasoned, that if might preceded right, wit might have the better of violence. I sent for one of our corporals, Mr. Baeumler, and detailed him with some dozens of young men to carry on a sham engagement outside the walls and to utter appropriate yells and groans. I advised the women in the fort of the ruse, and instructed them to shriek and lament as soon as they heard the firing. The uproar, which soon followed, brought the soldiers to their feet. They proceeded to the supposed place of danger with a detachment of our home guard. The latter easily found their way back to the fort, while the soldiery misled by blind firing of our pickets strayed about a good part of the night. As soon as the soldiers had departed from the church, women and children rushed back into the edifice and extinguished the lights lest they might be driven out into the uncomfortable darkness for a second time. At dawn, the soldiers struck the barracks, which had been prepared for them and took up quarters there. Two days later the captain also arrived and daily ordered a patrol of two men to reconnoiter the vicinity. Strange to say, not a man returned. They were found shot. The soldiers refused to patrol under such circumstances. The captain, to inspire them with boldness, ventured out himself. His horse returned rider-less. The captain too had been shot. Whether the lieutenant had received special orders or not, never became plain to me, but one morning the barracks were found abandoned. The farmers had in the meantime taken advantage of the favorable weather to gather their crops. No Indian was in sight, not a man was lost, while the patrols had so mysteriously been removed.