The Earliest Years of Saint John's Abbey, 1856-1862

Part 15 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)

Soon after the refugees from the southern county returned to their homes, not however without making some heartrending experiences. Some of them returned on the day after their departure from Richmond and related the terrible death of settlers at the hands of Indians on the day previous. But their fears were soon quieted and they departed once more. Also, the farmers from the vicinity of Richmond returned to the arts of peace. The experiences of the war taught them confidence in the providence of God and renewed the slackened faith of many.

At the beginning of our missionary activity in Stearns County, where the Chippewa still maintained campfires and hunting grounds, the venerable missionary, Father Pierz, had given us much useful information on the disposition and customs of the Indians. Among other things, he advised us that, in case Indians became obtrusive or impudent in their demands, or took apparently hostile attitude, we should not raise firearm or weapon of defense against them, since the Indians would consider us as enemies and would not hesitate to use arms, with which every Indian, man and woman, is well supplied. The only weapon the Indian fears is a stick or cane. When he is struck with a stick, he imagines he has been degraded and has lost his dignity as a warrior, a loss he regrets more than death in battle. I instructed my people as to this curious trait, with surprising results, of which I shall instance several.

A few years before the great outbreak, the Chippewa and Sioux had some differences. They met near the Minnesota River not far from Shakopee and engaged in a bloody battle, which lasted throughout the afternoon. Some of the settlers of Shakopee supplied the Sioux with ammunition. The Chippewa were defeated and fled northward pursued by a party of Sioux warriors. They fled at high speed, for toward noon of the following day they reached the Sauk River and ran through St. Joseph, yelling fiercely for anger at the whites who had caused their defeat by supplying their enemies with ammunition. The villagers had not forgotten my instructions and stood at the doors armed with sticks and cudgels. Despite their rage, they fled at the sight of the sticks. The only shot fired killed a hog belonging to one of the farmers. No further harm was done.

There was midnight Mass on the first Christmas day we celebrated in these parts. All families were represented among those present. We remarked that there was rather a slim attendance at the second and third Masses and this was enigmatic. After noon, one of the settlers from the "bush" called at the rectory and brought the news that Indians had encamped within the settlement and had erected a palisade around the wigwams. No white man dared to leave his premises. I dispatched messengers to all the settlers of the prairie to attend Mass on the following day well armed with sticks. After service, I proceeded with about twenty-five men, with these strange weapons, to the camp of the Indians, which we struck about three fourths of a mile north of the present Collegeville station. There were no warriors visible in fact; the only representative of the band was an aged squaw who did not leave the spot. We indicated to her by signs that their departure was very desirable. She appeared to comprehend, for on the same evening the encampment had disappeared.

While we were negotiating with the squaw, we heard a babe cry near us. Looking about we beheld a papoose, with a shred of raiment, strapped to a slab and suspended from the limb of a tree. It was a child about three months old. Upon hearing the cry, the squaw took down the child, chafed its tiny body with her hands for some time and replaced it in its primitive cradle. We looked in astonishment now upon our warm clothing and again upon this frail form, which so early became inured to hardships.

Let me illustrate some other traits of Indian character.

On the day of the flight just referred to it happened that one of the brothers drove a team with victuals from St. Joseph to the monastery land. All of a sudden, he was surrounded by Indians who, quicker than he thought, fell to ransacking the sacks in the wagon. It was quite a delight for the Indians who had not seen a meal for thirty hours or more and had besides covered a distance of some sixty miles in their flight after a battle lasting six hours. The wagon was speedily relived of its provisions and the captors disappeared. The brother returned to St. Joseph to tell me of his adventure. A few weeks later, while several of us were driving from St. Joseph to the farm, we noticed a solitary Indian sulking along the road to the farm. Some days later, the brother met the same individual. He told the brother by signs that he had taken part in the plunder of the wagon and pressed a silver coin into his hand by way of payment of what he had taken. He did not know where the brother lived and had concluded to await his passage on the same road, to make restitution as well as he might. How many white men would have been as conscientious!

During the grasshopper plague, and the ensuing misery, a famished Indian came to a settler and begged for something to eat. It was a wintry day. Husband, wife and three children were crouched about the humble hearth. There was but one loaf of bread in the house. Touched by the request of the poor savage the lady divided the loaf into six parts one of which she gave the Indian who was much pleased to be considered an equal with the members of the family. When he had partaken of this charitable gift and had thoroughly warmed himself at the fire, he went his way. A week later, he came back and gesticulated to the settler to accompany him. The settler reluctantly followed for about a mile, when the Indian climbed a tree and brought down a deer he has shot near the spot. He divided the deer and shared with the settler, at the same time informing him that he was the same Indian with whom he had shared the last loaf of bread. The settler was much touched by this act of gratitude, shouldered his share of the booty and carried it home to his famishing children. Dread hunger was banished for a few days. I also was presented with a handsome piece of meat and on the same occasion heard the narrative of this touching incident from the lips of the delighted settler.

Many Chippewa had been converted by Father Pierz. Whenever they passed through St. Joseph and beheld the cross on the humble church, they did not omit to enter and pray with exemplary devotion. One day several Catholic Indians entered the church during service and fell down upon their knees in the aisle, where they remained motionless unto the end of the Mass. After service, they came to the parish house for refreshments, as was their custom. One of them spoke English sufficiently well to explain his wants.  After much usual questioning, he asked me, "Father, do these white men who were in the church also want to become Christians?" I was somewhat embarrassed by this puzzling question, and tried to evade by asking him, "How is it, you ask such a question?"

"The behavior of those pale faces, who were always looking about, laughing and giggling while the Indians were kneeling before the altar, tells me that they have not yet learnt much concerning religion and it will take a long time until they know enough to be admitted to the Church."

I was humbled by this simple and unvarnished criticism of my congregation from the lips of an Indian. I could not give him a satisfactory answer. And even to this day (thirty years have passed since) I have not forgotten the lesson taught me by this uneducated Indian. We must not forget what devotion and recollection is demanded of us while we are in the house of God, for our conduct, there will stamp us as a reproach or as an honor to our holy religion.


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