The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862
Part 12 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)
During the time I was stationed at Shokopee with Rev. Cornelius occurred the presidential election which brought the Republican party to power for the first time. From earliest youth I was accustomed to be wide awake to all that happened about me. I have previously related my experiences with members of secret societies, who with all their boasted personal liberty are the pitiable slaves of those who command them.
Scott County was at that time a stronghold of the democracy, and the Republicans employed manifold intrigues to convert the country to their party. Personal experience and observation taught me the following: There was in Shakopee a lawyer, an apostate Catholic and a member of a secret society, which gave him much invisible power and protection. He was commissioned by the leaders of his party to republicanize Scott County and, in case the party carried the election, was promised the position of Indian Agent among the Sioux Indians as a recompense. He also received money and began to canvass the county. He freely dispensed liquor as an earnest of his sincerity. Wherever I came on my missionary trips I found liquor flowing in streams which never seemed to run dry. This lawyer knew how to win friends in his cause. He made contracts with several parties well known to myself. To one he promised the position of agency physician, to another that of a druggist, to others that of tinsmith, wagon maker, tailor etc. with salary. The baseness of this proceeding is seen from the fact that none of these parties was compelled to go among the Indians. Every one remained at his old trade, was merely required to sign fictitious reports of the agent, and drew his salary. No wonder these men were won to the political cause. The warnings of the priest were in vain, as were threats of divine retribution, which was actually accorded some of them in a short time.
The Republican ticket was victorious and the lawyer was appointed Agent of the Sioux. The annual pay day of the Indians was at hand, and according to existing laws every member of the tribe, young or old, was required to be personally present at the distribution of the annual pay, rations and blankets at Fort Ridgley above Mankato. The lands in the vicinity of the fort had in part been turned over to the white settlers and the Indians who supported themselves by hunting and fishing could find no sustenance there. The Government authorities had stored away the provisions etc., in the warehouses situated within rifle shot of the Fort. The moneys had also been delivered to the Agent in coin. The Government had already begun to gladden the country with a flood of paper money. Gold now stood at a premium of 8 or 10 cents. The Agent whose chief aim was to realize as much as possible for his own purse, exchanged the gold for paper and intended to retain the premium for himself. On the day appointed he wished to distribute the money to the Indians. They had never seen paper money, and were not sufficiently steeped in civilization to understand, as we do, that a promise on paper is as good as real gold or silver. Hence they were not willing to accept paper and demanded coin. According to the letter of treaties made with them they were entitled to payment in coin. The agent would not give up his funds but expected to realize still more. Under various pretexts he demanded time, hoping that scarcity of food would reduce the Indians to submission. He calculated they would then accept of paper money and purchase provisions of him. Here he was mistaken. The poor Indians who could not leave for hunting grounds unless they were satisfied to lose their rations and pay remained quiet for three days in spite of pressing hunger. On the fourth day the chiefs demanded of an officer on guard that the government should serve out to the sufficient food to satisfy their hunger for the present. The officer was not empowered to act at variance with the Agent's instructions, but advised the guard of the wareroom to remain passive. The chiefs opened the warehouse, took out as much as was necessary, locked the warerooms and instructed the officer to arrest any Indian who should appropriate any of the stores unless authorized by the chiefs.
Here I ask, when would civilized men have remained as quiet, peaceful and respectful as these men whom we are accustomed to call "savages?" What impelled the founders of our republic a century ago to take up arms and cast off the existing government? The people felt they had been unjust in their national rights by urgent taxation imposed by England. This was highly laudable!? But that uncultured savages protected their very title to existence so nobly, was a crime(!), for the calculating agent disappointed in his designs hastened to St. Paul to secure aid in the shape of a company of regulars from Fort Snelling who were to chastise the "savages."
The poor Indians were without provisions for four days more, patiently awaiting satisfaction of their demands, until the arrival of the troops convinced them that they must not expect justice at the hands of the pale-faces. How easy it would have been for the Indians to attack this body of fatigued settlers, before they could ever see the interior of the fort? How easy a task to overpower the small garrison at the fort? I ask again, would white men have borne such treatment without bloodshed? The poor Indians again took to parleying with the officers, in hopes they would soon receive their property. They again approached the fort, as they had done four days earlier, to obtain rations. Volleys from muskets and cannon greeted and repulsed them. Many of them were loosed from the grasp of poverty and starvation by this salute. The merciless Indian war was declared. By whom?
The law of nations, if so it may be called, among the Indians differs from that of white men. Although even with the latter we find deplorably many instances of bloody revenge executed upon enemies. Contemporary history shows many instances among refined, Native Americans as the family feuds in Kentucky prove. Now, with the Indians every male capable of bearing arms is a warrior; however not before he has been given proofs of courage, persistency, and indifference to suffering. The law among uncivilized Indians is, that if an Indian, be man, woman or child is killed in time of peace, every warrior of the same band or family is bound to kill a member of the family of the murderer and to produce the scalp of the victim. The warrior who fails of success in carrying out this vendetta is excluded from the privileges of warriors, is contemptuously called squaw and treated accordingly.
With this principle in view it is not difficult to understand why the Indian war in Minnesota turned out so bloody. They had been attacked by the pale-faces, with whom in spite of famishing hunger, they intended to remain at peace, and in consequence of the loss of life at the attack, the majority of the warriors were compelled to undertake bloody revenge. That they knew no distinction between soldier and settler, is not surprising. Pale-face was pale-face, and the Indian reasoned: One for all, all for one.
Who bears the responsibility for the streams of blood which flowed during this Indian outbreak? for the desolated homesteads, and for the sufferings of those who barely escaped the knife of the maddened Indians? When was the originator of this revolt called to account? When was the matter impartially investigated? Whither did the money, etc. due the Indians disappear? This latter question did not affect the Government, as it held the receipt of the agent. A scapegoat had been found: The poor Indians; common sentiment at the time favored the annihilation of the aboriginal race.
The secret agitators had obtained their coveted object, war, and it was on hand in the South and in the Northwest. War clouds lay heavy over the country, and cloudy sky is favorable for fishing. Privileged parties found a gold mine in these troubles. The agitators had attained another end, they had endangered enmity and war against the Church. This was clearly proved in wartimes, when they supposed they need not fear the Catholics. How many Catholic institutions, despite their willingness to bring sacrifices for the common welfare, were turned from their purpose or entirely destroyed. Were the perpetrators of such injustice ever drawn to account? And still the Church ceaseless performs its mission of peace, averting dangers from people and nations.
The Sioux were on the war path against the pale-faces, and had massacred a great number of frontier-settlers; the rest had fled. Indescribable fear seized even the most courageous settlers. The aid furnished by the Government was of no avail; all serviceable powers were in the field against the Southern Confederacy. The confidence of the Sioux increased with each day. The design of recovering their ancient possessions of which they had been deprived by ignominious treaties, and of expelling every white man from Minnesota presented itself as possible. They wanted but the cooperation of the Chippewas. Thousands of settlers would have been cut off in flight and massacred if the allied forces had pursued a common design. Alone they were unequal to the task. The Sioux therefore issued secret summons to all the Chippewa chiefs in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Canada, to attend a great national war council. The white men were not apprised of their proceedings. The bare idea of it would have driven many from the state. The Chippewa chiefs actually assembled in council of war not far from the Crow Wing. Here it was that a humble Catholic priest, whom no one probably thanked for it, averted a calamity from the early settlers of Minnesota. This noble priest and benefactor was the late Father Joseph Pierz, who died in his native land Krain, Austria, in December 1880.
Father Pierz had for years spent an active life in the missions of Michigan and Wisconsin, where he converted and civilized numbers of Chippewas whom he induced to live in villages and devote themselves to agriculture. This work he continued in Minnesota. But he could not proceed in the work of civilization, since the Indians were continually removed from one place to another. The labors of the missionary were nevertheless not in vain; thousands were converted and these, award of the disinterestedness of the Catholic missionary, clung to him confidently. Recent negotiations with the Indians have given evidence of this; the Government could not conclude a treaty, despite Commissioners and sectarian influence, until Bishop Marty made felt his influence with the Sioux and Father Aloysius Hermanutz, OSB, succeeded in inducing the Chippewas to accede to the treaties.