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

Part 13 of 16
by Fr. Bruno Riss OSB (1829-1900)

To return to the council of war. I was sent to Stearns County in the early days of the war. Father Pierz had been staying with us for several days for a rest after this straining missionary work. An Indian courier from Crow Wing arrived to see him. It was a Catholic Indian who had heard of the council and expected nothing good to come of it. For this reason he had recourse to the priest, aware that the priest would give only good council to the poor Indians. He told the priest what he knew of the designs of the council. Father Pierz saw it was high time to interfere, if, perhaps, it were not too late. He immediately started out with the courier to the camp. Toward evening of the next day he arrived at the forest where the council was to be held. He was already within a quarter of a mile of the spot, when he was confronted by a sentinel who drew a line on the ground and told him, no stranger could be permitted to pass. The zealous priest asked the guard, who was a Catholic: "Am I a stranger" Am I not a friend of the red man? Have I not been always with you?"

The child of the wilderness found no reply and permitted the priest to pass.

But they had not proceeded far, when other marks on the ground, and sentinels were at hand who informed him, that they must shoot every stranger, even an Indian who went beyond this inner line. Now his wits were at an end: all persuasion was in vain. No protestations, that he must see the chiefs, were of avail. The guards had strict orders to allow no one to pass. But God's help was not distant. One of the Indian guards, a Catholic, took recourse to a ruse.

"We have orders," he said, "to allow no man to go beyond this line; now, the black-robe says he must see the chiefs. There is no other way of evading orders: we must carry the black-robe into the council. He thus does not go, but is carried, and that has not been forbidden."

The others seemed satisfied, and Father Pierz was carried into the encampment. It must be ascribed to his priestly zeal, and eloquence, inspired by God, that he succeeded in dissuading the Chippewa from entering an alliance with the Sioux against the whites. Peaceful attitude on part of the Chippewa was thus secured, and the chiefs returned to their homes. A solitary chief, Hole-in-the-day, (who had been educated in a Protestant college) went, or intended to go upon the war path with his band, but was disabled by a bullet shot on the first day as he was attempting to cross the Mississippi in a canoe. The whole tribe, in consequence, abandoned hostilities and remained friendly to the white man to this day.

How noble is the example of this heroic priest who braved death to rescue many of his fellow men, Indians and white men, from the terrors of the war. I would on this occasion request the considerate readers of The Record, especially the Minnesotans, to offer a fervent prayer for this heroic priest. If he is still in need of aid, certainly he is deserving of such a kindness.

But a reward such as our government so frequently bestows was not withheld from the good Indians. Petitions were sent to Washington, requesting the authorities to remove sectarian ministers and to replace them by Catholic priests and Sisters. They even asked that funds for the support of these be subtracted from their annuities. Commissioners were sent by the government to investigate. They saw and were convinced of the shameful conduct of the ministers towards both the Indians and the government. The just petitions of the Indians were not granted. One of the commissioners was so edified by the zeal of Father Pierz and the exemplary character of the Catholic Indians, that he shortly after became a convert to the Catholic faith. The exertions of this man, presumably on account of the latter incident, were in vain, "Fiat justitia [Let justice be done]!" Oppress the weak, and doubly, if they are Catholics, seems to be the policy as shown in the treatment of the Indians, as late occurrences witness.

As I above stated, I was ordered to Stearns County at the beginning of the outbreak. An indescribable terror prevailed in the country among the farmers. The stirring reports from the southern part of the state were indeed calculated to cause fears with the solitary unprotected settlers. It was an Indian War. The Indians will fight the white man only under extreme pressure or in battle. The war was a matter of revenge upon the pale faces, a desire of procuring as many scalps as possible without exposing themselves to great danger. They had therefore separated themselves into small band and spread their operations over the whole territory. At day they lay concealed; at night they prowled about the primitive log structures of the unwary settlers. When dawn broke and the inhabitant ventured out to his daily work the cruel missile of the savage stretched him dead. On hearing the report and shriek of the victim, the other inmates ventured out and fell victims to a similar doom. It thus happened that numerous settlements were entirely wiped out and but few settlers who were prudent enough to conceal themselves escaped the fury of the enraged savages and spread the reports of their terrible cruelty.

The Benedictines in Stearns County did what was in their power to protect the individual settlers as well as their congregations. Classes at the college in St. Cloud were dismissed; the director, a civil engineer and zealous priest was stationed at Richmond (Torah) to reside there in a log-hut near the church. No priest had resided there previously, Father Clement Staub and myself were in St. Joseph; Fathers Benedict Haindl, Anschar Frauendorfer and Eberhard Gahr in St. Cloud. We invited families to leave their homesteads and to establish temporary residence in the church, schoolhouse, stables, etc. As St. Cloud had grown to the proportions of a town, there was room for the farmers of that congregation. The village of St. Joseph consisted of five houses and could not give shelter to the eighty families of the vicinity. We therefore placed our extensive stablings, schoolhouse and even the church at the disposal off the fugitives. The men capable of standing under arms patrolled the vicinity during the night with orders to fire a shot as soon as an Indian was noticed. The church bell was then to give the alarm and the townsfolk were to place themselves in defense. Occasionally a timid or imaginative militia man mistook a stump for an Indian; a sharp report sounded through the quiet night and who might describe the agony and shrieks of the terrified women and children? My pen is inadequate. On such occasions there might have been twice our number of priests at hand to calm and console the terrified settlers.

At Richmond Father Magnus Mayr distinguished himself as an engineer. The settlers with their families, cattle, provisions and utensils occupied the church, schoolhouse and stables. The priest's house, a log-hut 16x20, was inhabited by the priest, and occupied the attic. Father Magnus caused the prairie about the church, school, etc., to be plowed and earth-banks seven feet high to be thrown up. Loopholes were pierced at intervals in the ramparts; two wooden pump shafts were metamorphosed into field pieces, having been well hooped by the blacksmith. Luckily they were never put to use; they would have been of more harm than use to the artillerists.

These preparations, however primitive, allayed the terror of the frightened settlers who thought, they were now perfectly safe. Father Magnus was recalled to the monastery and I was sent to Richmond. There was lack of arms and ammunition. I drew up a list of all available fighting men, had officers chosen and reported to the Governor that I with these constituted a home-guard, with the request to furnish us arms and ammunition. The request was willingly granted, and we were furnished with a quantity of muskets (with the Austrian coat of arms on them) also several casks of powder an shot. This infused new courage.

Now victuals grew rare. No one ventured to drive to the mill. Happily some of the women had brought their coffee-mills to the camp. People are apt to smile at the predilection women have for coffee (but their foresight went a great way with us). The women and their daughters were kept busy plying the mills at grinding, not indeed coffee, but wheat which had been hurriedly gathered during the flight. Thus they were enabled to bake bread. The entire camp formed a mammoth family. Every one contributed what provisions he had, to the common store and no one famished. At this time harvest was due. Crops stood promising, awaiting the reapers, but none dared to depart for the fields and gather in the plenty. Our supplies were nearly exhausted; cattle lowed piteously for food. The muskets had fortunately arrived. A number of women and girls were instructed how to cast bullets and fill cartridges. Under armed cover the farmers proceeded from one field to another. United forces made short work. One crop after the other was thus secured, and men and beasts again found nourishment.

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