War Comes to Norwegian Grove
by Gene Estensen
The Minnesota River begins its journey to the Mississippi in west-central Minnesota. It flows south and west then turns sharply north and east toward St. Paul. At the sharp bend in the river is a natural crossing that the Sioux Indians (Dakota) called Oiyuwege, meaning "the place of the crossing". French explorers would call it Traverse des Sioux, or "crossing place of the Sioux". For centuries the great buffalo herds migrated across the plains of present day Minnesota and Traverse des Sioux became a crossroads and meeting place for people of many cultures. To the west, the Great Plains was the home of the Sioux Indians and for centuries and they lived in harmony with the buffalo and other wildlife. However, to the east were the pioneers from Scandinavia and Germany and they were moving ever westward onto the plains. The two cultures would clash in southern Minnesota in 1862 resulting in the loss of life of nearly 1,000 settlers and Indians. In 20 Minnesota counties, bands of Sioux warriors swept down on isolated farms and settlements, killing the men, capturing women and children, and burning or plundering property. About thirty persons were killed in Nicollet County. This is the story of Norwegian and Swedish pioneers in one county (Nicollet) and one township (New Sweden) that got caught up in the war. The letters written to Norway from Nicollet County, and translated for this article, describe the terror that filled the Minnesota River Valley in the fall of 1862.
The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux
In 1851, at Traverse des Sioux, the Sioux Indians ceded 24 million acres of tribal land to the U.S. Government. This land was opened to settlement in 1853, leaving 7,000 Sioux living on a narrow reservation of two million acres along the Minnesota River. In 1858, the Sioux ceded an additional one million acres of land. At the same time the government tried to turn the nomadic Sioux into farmers. This divided the Sioux into two groups, those that took on the ways of the whites, and those that remained faithful to traditional tribal ways. This division would impact the outcome of the Sioux Uprising of 1862.
Norsemen come to Traverse des Sioux
Before Minnesota became a state, and just as settlement in southern Minnesota was allowed for the first time, a wagon train moved slowly westward from the Norwegian colony of Muskego in Wisconsin. In the year 1854 , after a journey of seven weeks, the families of Norwegians Torstein Østensen Bøen of Tinn, Telemark, Johan Tollefson of Totten, and Lars Svenson Rodning of Hallingdal (a single man) crossed the Minnesota River at the Traverse des Sioux. They climbed the far shore and settled near what is now St. Peter in Nicollet County. This became known as the Norseland Settlement. Torstein Østensen settled at Scandian Grove in Lake Prairie Township. About a year later, on October 7, 1855 a group of Swedes joined him at Scandian Grove. Andrew Thorson of this group would write, "It was a beautiful fall season. During the winter we lived among Indians who were numerous in our woods. Four or five Norwegian farmers were living in the vicinity. We were the first Swedes at this place". Thorson reported that the Swedes spent the first winter in a house that stood on some land "now occupied by Annexstad" (Author, this would be the Torstein Østensen Bøen farm). The next year, on June 17, 1856, Ole Østensen Bøen and family from Tinn, Telemark joined his brother Torstein at Nicollet County. Accompanied by Gunder Nereson and Swenke Torgerson, they settled near a grove in the northern part of what is now New Sweden Township and named the area "Norwegian Grove".
To protect the early settlers on the Great Plains, a fort was built in Nicollet County. In 1853, the U.S. military started construction on Fort Ridgely near the southern border of the new Indian reservation and northwest of the German settlement of New Ulm. The fort was designed to keep peace as settlers poured into the former Sioux lands. It was substantially completed by 1855. This fort would play a great role in the war to come. With the protection offered by the fort, settlers poured into the Minnesota River Valley. By 1858 thirty-one families resided at Norseland.
Pioneer C. C. Nelson found mostly Indians when he came to what is now New Sweden Township in 1858. "We lived among the Indians four years. They visited us frequently and occasionally stayed all night and we accommodated them the best we could, although we didn't find them very pleasant or agreeable. However, we tried not to cross them for fear they would attack us at any time".
War comes to Norwegian Grove
By 1862 the Sioux were near starvation. Food and clothing were on hand in a warehouse at the Indian Agency near the present town of Redwood Falls, but had not been distributed. To make matters worse, the customary payment date to the Sioux from the Congress of the United States was missed by two months. Now the Sioux would desperately try to drive the white people out of the land given up in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851. War broke out on August 17, 1862 when a small band of Indians shot and killed four or five settlers in Meeker County, near Acton. A war council was held the following day under the leadership of Little Crow, Chief of the Mdewakanton Santee Sioux, and the decision was made to go to war. Little Crow had been to Washington, D.C. in 1854 thus knew of the vast number of white people to the east. He gave an impassioned speech to his followers:
"We are only little herds of buffaloes left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. See! The white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one - two - ten; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one - two - ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count……….Braves, you are little children - you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when they hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon (January). Ta-o-ya-te-du-ta is not a coward; he will die with you".
The war soon spread across the entire Minnesota frontier. Major battles were fought at Fort Ridgely and at New Ulm in Nicollet County. Life and death struggles occurred in the townships like New Sweden.
Dr. Asa W. Daniels wrote in his Reminiscences "The news of the Indian Uprising reached St. Peter during the night of Monday, the 18th of August". Dr. Daniels went north and west on Tuesday (toward Norwegian Grove) to warn the settlers and on his return found "the refugees were already pouring in, and by noon the village became crowded with men, women, and children. Some had been attacked on the way, and bore their wounded with them. All were in the most pitiful condition, having in their haste taken little clothing, and no provisions".
The war reached New Sweden Township on August 23, 1862. A band of Sioux warriors moved from south to north through the township, through the farms of many Swedes and directly to the Norwegians at Norwegian Grove. Sections 18, 8, and 4 saw the most destruction. Before the approaching Indians, the Larson and Carlson families fled in terror in a horse-drawn wagon. As they approached a curve in the road at Norwegian Grove, they appeared to be doomed. The Sioux warriors took a short cut across the prairie to get ahead of the Larson team. They would have succeeded if it had not been for a strong built rail fence. The Indians turned back and began to search for the Erik Johnson (Swedish) family who had abandoned their wagon. Years later, at the age of 73, in 1920, Inger Johnson Holmquist wrote her story about the encounter at Norwegian Grove:
Indians Murdered my Mother and Brother
" It was on the 23rd of August that the Indians murdered my mother and brother. I was 14 years old. We met the Indians. Father turned and drove to the end of the pasture. There he stopped while we jumped off the wagon and hid in the grass. The Indians took our horses and were pursuing my brother and a neighbor. They shot a neighbor boy, John Solomonson through the wrist. Then they came and found mother, one brother Pehr, twelve years old, one brother 10 months old, and myself. They shot mother in the chest. The last words she said were 'Lord Jesus receive my soul'. Then they kicked my twelve-year-old brother and told him to get up. Then they kicked me and said get up. I was in a trance and could hear and feel, but could not move or see. They asked my brother if I was dead. Do not remember his answer." The Indians took Pehr and led him away. It appeared that they intended to kidnap him but he refused to go so they shot him dead. After a long day, night came and Inger heard her baby brother crying. She found her mother dead and the baby crying in her arms. They hid through the night. Inger's father later returned and found Inger and the baby hiding under a haycock.
Herman Solomenson later recalled an incident regarding the fence at Norwegian Grove. "This fence was close to a Norwegian settler's home. The wife, hearing the noise, picked up a small child and ran outdoors to see what was going on. She came face to face with the Indians who did not molest her". (Author: I will always wonder if this woman was my great-great-grandmother Astrid Johnsdatter Bøen, wife of Ole Østensen Bøen. The child could have been Østen, age 6, or Nils, age 4).
The next day soldiers came out from St. Peter and were unable to find anyone at New Sweden; they had fled to St. Peter or the Scandian Lutheran Church. The Indians had burned several houses. They belonged to the Swedes Carl Nelson, Pehr Carlson, Swen Benson, John Johnson, and Lars Solomenson. In addition, losing their houses and their grain were Pehr Benson, Peter M. Fritioff, Joran Johnson, Erik Johnson, J. Larson, Johannes Ecklund, and Lars Solomenson.
May I never again have to See such Terrible Sights
One settler, E. O. in St. Peter, wrote his family in Stavanger, Norway on September 9, 1862:
"I will now describe everything to you as thoroughly as I am able, and as far as my heart, which is trembling with fear, will allow me. That which I suspected and wrote about in my last letter has come about. The Indians have begun attacking the farmers. They have already killed a great many people, and many are mutilated in the cruelest manner. Tomahawks and knives have already claimed many victims. Children, less able to defend themselves, are usually burned alive or hanged in the trees, and destruction moves from house to house. The Indians burn everything on their way - houses, hay, grain, and so on. Even if I describe the horror in the strongest possible language, my description would fall short of reality. These troubles have now lasted for about two weeks, and every day larger numbers of settlers come into St. Peter to protect their lives from the raging Indians. They crowd themselves together in large stone houses for protection, and the misery is so great that imagination could not depict it in darker colors. A few persons have their hands and feet burned off. May I never again have to see such terrible sights".
Scandinavian farmers quickly united to secure their defense. "All the settlers in that neighborhood, and the western part of New Sweden, gathered to work on a stockade. They decided to put up sod walls. The wall was built six feet in height. Their stockade stood there many years". The settlers formed groups of citizen soldiers to protect themselves. They gave themselves names like the Le Sueur Tigers, St. Peter Guards, and the Scandinavian Guards of Nicollet County. Also, soldiers rushed from St. Paul to defend the counties of southern Minnesota. An experienced Norwegian-American soldier, originally from Hol in Hallingdal, by the name of Asgrim Skaro trained the group named the Scandinavian Guard of Nicollet County. Skaro went on to become a Civil War hero and was killed at the Battle of Nashville. The Scandinavian Guard of Nicollet County was organized in Nicollet County, Minnesota on the 27th day of August 1862. Gustaf A. Stark became their captain and they patrolled the prairie around Nicollet County for three weeks. He was killed by the Sioux later. Captain Skaro's name is preserved to posterity for it was chosen as the name of the Grand Army of the Republic post of St. Peter. Below is an excerpt from a second letter to Norway, from St. Peter, Minnesota, dated September 9, 1862 and translated by the Vesterheim staff for this article:
There have been Terrible Murders
" ----- But here in our neighborhood we have not seen any of those appalling things, thank God. But about 300 miles west of here there have been terrible murders and atrocities- the worst the world has ever seen. For we have talked to people from that area and also seen letters, written in a grieving state of mind so that it makes it hard to even talk about how the Indians had rampaged. They don't do like other warring powers; they go from one farm to the next, committing atrocities against women and men, wives and children, and they came like thieves and murderers, taking with them everything they could, and what they couldn't take, they set on fire, such as hay stacks, wheat stacks, buildings, and fences, and they didn't kill like other murderers; they would take young and old and bang them against a wall, leaving them half dead in a pool of blood, and others they would take and attach to fences and buildings, and others again they would stab with spears and knives in the outer part of the limbs. I heard of a child who had been stabbed 11 times and still lived for a while, and 12 miles from here there is a girl who was able to escape, but her husband and children were killed there on the farm, and she had to witness it. She also was knocked down by a couple of heavy blows and was left on the farm, half dead, along with her smallest child, and when she came to again, she set out with her little child who had been lying by her side and had also been hurt and was half dead. You can imagine what kind of misery that poor woman has to suffer through, losing both her husband and her children, and there are many more who are going through hardships equally terrifying. Young and attractive girls were herded together and had to go along from one camp to another, and you can just imagine what kind of misery and grief those poor girls had to go through, having to be with such people, because they were just like wild animals, and their faces were red, black, and blue, and I must tell you that they have had a tremendous effect, and the reason for it is that people didn't know a thing until they were coming over them, and secondly because all soldiers have gone south to fight against the southern powers, and consequently they had a good opportunity to advance before people had time to get together. But then the soldiers came, and they received the same gifts back as they had been handing out earlier, and they deserved nothing better. On the 2nd day of Christmas 39 Indians were hanged, and the ropes were made so that they all had to give up the ghost at the same moment, and 600 are in prison for life, tied together two and two with iron chains. This curse against humanity took place in August and September. But for a while now, the Indians have been completely quiet. However, in the south there have been great battles with casualties as high as 20,000 in one battle --------- neither the North nor the South has been winning ------------. May God be with you, that is the wish of your sister,
Helga Knudsdatter Hegtvedt
(Author: Helga Knudsdatter left Tinn, Telemark for America in 1843 with her brother Ole. She was born February 18, 1817 and was the daughter of Knut Olsen Heggtveit and Aase Halvorsdatter Gøystdal).
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