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Anniversary Volume Gives New Voice To
Pioneer Accounts of Sioux Uprising

Date: Aug. 21, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos: Courtesy of Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, Minn.
Archive: Research News

The recent PBS series "Frontier House" tried to give modern Americans an idea of what pioneer life was like. The movie industry has also offered its versions of America's expansion westward in scores of films. This summer, a new book translated and edited by Don Heinrich Tolzmann of the University of Cincinnati offers a view into that time period from two women who actually lived in it. Both were German immigrants who survived the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.

Book coverThis month marks the 140th anniversary of the uprising. Tolzmann, director of UC's German American Studies Program and the curator of UC's German Americana Collection, translates into English the eyewitness accounts of two young pioneers who were among the survivors, but who lost family members in the conflict.

During the uprising, 23 counties of southwestern Minnesota were deserted as the Sioux rebelled against broken promises of the United States and its reservation policies. Some 40,000 white settlers fled their homes during the five-week conflict from Aug. 18 to Sept. 28, 1862. As many as 800 white settlers and soldiers died during the month-long uprising.

"It was exceptionally rare to find something by pioneer women," says Tolzmann, himself a native of Minnesota. Tolzmann's great-grandfather purchased the Schwandt family farm in Renville County eight years after the uprising.

It's the same farm that was owned by the family of Mary Schwandt, author of the first narrative in Tolzmann's book, "German Pioneer Accounts of the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862." Schwandt recounts how she left home to work at the Reynolds house, where travelers often stopped. Because of her job, she was not at home when Sioux warriors killed all of her family members, except one brother.

Mary Schwandt SchmidtThe uprising began on Aug. 18. Just 14, Schwandt fled from the Reynolds house with companions as soon as word reached them that some Native Americans had begun a rampage. Traveling by wagon with a horse exhausted by the speed of their flight, she watched as the pursuing tribesmen shot three men traveling with her. She tried to run away. "Some bullets passed through my dress, but I was not hit," she recalls. Instead, Mary and two other young women who worked with her were taken prisoner until their release about five weeks later.

During her captivity, Schwandt recalls being frightened as a chief brandished his tomahawk at her, but found protection with an old Indian woman and her daughter. The older woman and her daughter "were both very kind to me, and Maggie [the daughter] could not have been more kind to me," Mary wrote in her account, dated 1894.

The second account in Tolzmann's book was written by Wilhelmina Busse (also Buce), who was 9 at the time. She described watching both of her parents and two of her sisters killed in a field as the family tried to flee.

Wilhelmina Busse CarriganAccording to Busse, the relationship between Native Americans and her family was cordial for the first two years after her family moved into Minnesota from Wisconsin. Her parents both learned to speak Sioux quite well, while the children learned a bit. Native Americans visited the farm every day. Then, she notes, in spring 1862, sentiments changed.

The "Indian" neighbors became "disagreeable and ill-natured. They seldom visited us and when they met us, passed by coldly and sullenly and often without speaking."

Tolzmann includes an introductory explanation written in 1927 by Marion P. Satterlee to help explain the Native Americans' change of heart. Native lands taken in Minnesota were supposed to be purchased for 10 cents an acre, largely payable in annuities. But payments were often stolen in graft, taken by traders, or paid in salaries to white employees and merchandise supplied by white contractors. The winter of 1861 proved to be harsh, and the annuity payment of 1862 had been delayed. Finally on Aug. 17, five whites were killed at Acton and the violence escalated.

To those who decide to read the translations of the two settlers' accounts, Tolzmann offers words of caution. "...These are accounts written by survivors who had witnessed the slaughter of their friends, family and other settlers, and their reports not only document their experience, but reflect their antipathies and hostilities toward the perpetrators involved in these particular acts."

Tolzmann theorizes about why the Sioux Uprising has received so little attention historically. He notes that it happened during the Civil War when the divided nation's attention was elsewhere. That same month, the Second Battle of Bull Run resulted in the loss of 800 soldiers' lives. Also, many of the families involved were recent immigrants who did not speak English. "Their stories did not get told beyond the confines of their own immediate communities, and only later did some of them find their way into local and regional histories," he says.

"If something like August 1862 were to happen today with 800 deaths, there is no question that it would become a media event of international proportions with round-the-clock coverage," he says.

Booksigning Scheduled for Sept. 27

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