Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Nigerian civil war story untold until now & my emotional reaction January 31, 2017

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

The Disturbances is told in both book and film.

I NEVER EXPECTED to find myself on the verge of crying while watching a documentary about a civil war in Nigeria in 1966. But I did on Sunday afternoon as I viewed The Disturbances at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Owatonna.

Produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics, the film tells the stories of missionaries and their families who, caught in the middle of a civil war, helped save the lives of Igbos, a tribe victimized by genocide. Thousands upon thousands of tribal natives died, many hacked to death by machetes.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the mission field in Nigeria.

The letter calling the Rev. Paul Griebel and his family to the African mission field.

I’ll admit, I’m not the best with history and geography and, until recently, knew nothing of this strife in Nigeria 51 years ago. But then my pastor-friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel of Redeemer, alerted me to the documentary. He was an “MK,” as missionary kids were tagged, living in Nigeria with his Lutheran Church Missouri Synod pastor father, mother and five siblings at the height of the violence. He was only eight when his family arrived from Minnesota, thus recalls little.

But plenty of others do remember the civil war and spoke openly about it for the first time in The Disturbances, the film titled after the code name the missionaries gave to the conflict. Their experiences were horrible. And memorable. Even 50 years later, their words and faces reveal the trauma of witnessing such violence.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, had gotten in Africa.

Artist Susan Griebel crafted this quilted art from fabric her mother-in-law, Margaret Griebel, acquired in Africa.

The featured missionaries (including pastors, teachers and others from many denominations) lived in and around the city of Jos, a cultural melting pot and the epicenter of the violence. They were warned, “Tomorrow there will be trouble.” The next day the phone rang followed by a three-word declaration: “It has started.”

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

A beautiful carving from Africa, among those the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel brought back to the U.S. from Africa.

And so the stories emerged of Igbos hiding in fields and in rafters of the church sanctuary and in a store room. Stories of Igbos escaping with the help of missionaries. Stories of missionaries hiding a body in elephant grass. Stories of murdered Igbos picked up by trash trucks and buried in mass graves. Stories of the teen children of missionaries tending the wounded inside a police compound. Stories of missionaries lighting a runway with the headlights of their cars during an evacuation effort.

As I listened, I felt my grief rising, heightened perhaps by the unsettling current events in our own country regarding refugees. I wonder what stories they might tell, what violence many have fled/desire to flee for safety in America.

Two stories in particular imprinted upon me from The Disturbances. A victim of the attacks asked a young woman tending him whether she would be his daughter. His entire family had been slaughtered. She agreed, reciting Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd…) and The Lord’s Prayer to the dying man. The woman, 50 years later, still remembers his final words. “I’m going home, my daughter.”

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria with teacher Carl Eisman in the back row. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

And then there’s the story shared by Carl Eisman, a Lutheran teacher at Hillcrest School (a boarding school in Jos) and friend/co-worker of the Rev. Paul Griebel. After evacuating children from a hostel, the two men remained hidden there with tribal members. As an angry mob approached ELM House, Eisman hid in the shadows with a hunting knife. And, as he recounted, Rev. Griebel sat at a nearby table reading Scripture and praying. Eventually, the mob dispersed and the men emerged to find a body, one they temporarily hid in elephant grass.

My friend, the Rev. Kirk Griebel, doesn’t recall his father (or mother; both now deceased) ever talking about the violence they witnessed. He remembers only an angry mob and waiting outside a fenced police compound where the injured and dying were taken.

This close-up of Susan Griebel's Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as

This close-up of Susan Griebel’s Nigerian-themed art shows the dove she incorporated as representing the Holy Spirit. In the film, one interviewee said the missionaries had only one resource–that of prayer.

The film explains why the missionaries didn’t speak openly about the violence, even to family and church staff back home. They felt caught without resources in the middle of a civil war. As foreigners, they thought it best to lie low. They desired, too, to protect the children, to normalize their lives. And so they remained mostly silent. Until now and the documenting of their experiences in The Disturbances.

Given the time period and their foreigner status, I understand the guarded position. Missionaries and Nigerian pastors met, though, for two days in October 1966 to discuss “the disturbances” privately. I am thankful that these long-ago missionaries and their family members have now chosen to speak publicly about their experiences. For it is through the telling of personal stories that we learn and begin to understand suffering, courage, compassion and faith in times of violence. And for those who witnessed such atrocities, talking begins the process of healing.

FYI: Upcoming screenings of The Disturbances are scheduled in Missouri and Alabama. Click here for details. The Rev. Kirk Griebel will present the film this Wednesday, February 1, at 6 p.m. at King of Kings Lutheran Church, 1701 NE 96th St. in Kansas City, Missouri.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Documentary focuses on missionaries’ life-saving roles in Nigerian civil war of 1966 January 27, 2017

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

I’VE EXPERIENCED WAR. Not first hand, but through the words of my soldier father who fought on the front lines during the Korean War. And through photos he took. Through textbooks, too, and the stories of veterans and immigrants. And in memorials I’ve visited, poems I’ve read, songs I’ve heard.

"The Disturbances" is told in both book and film.

“The Disturbances” is told in both book and film.

Now I have an opportunity to learn more about a civil war—one in Nigeria in 1966—through “The Disturbances,” a feature-length documentary. The film is screening at 2 p.m. Sunday, January 29, at Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1054 Truman Avenue, Owatonna.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House) in Nigeria. Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their children, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo.

Missionary children at ELM House (Evangelical Lutheran Mission House). Missionary children lived in the hostel so they could attend boarding school in Jos, Nigeria. The Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel served as houseparents. Three of their sons, including Kirk, are pictured in this group photo. He is in the front row, third in from the right. Carl Eisman (tall man in the back) is featured prominently in the film. He taught at the boarding school.

What brings a film like this to southern Minnesota? The answer, in short, is the pastor of Redeemer, the Rev. Kirk Griebel. He moved, as a second grader, from Minnesota to Nigeria with his missionary father and family in February 1966. They stayed until June 1969, took a furlough and then returned for two more years, leaving in 1972. The Griebels and other Christian missionaries found themselves caught in the middle of violent tribal atrocities. “The Disturbances” is their story—the story of how missionaries and Nigerian pastors saved lives.

Back then, missionaries did not openly discuss the situation. Now they are, in this documentary produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics. The stories of missionaries from various denominations, including those of the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, are included.

I look forward to learning more about these brave souls who stretched their missionary skills beyond preaching, teaching, training and serving to acts of heroism that saved lives.

Kirk Griebel with his parents, the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel, on his Confirmation Day in 1972. The family left Nigeria shortly thereafter.

Kirk Griebel with his parents, the Rev. Paul and Margaret Griebel, on his Confirmation Day in 1972. The family left Nigeria shortly thereafter.

The Rev. Kirk Griebel plans to share memories of his experiences from that time in Nigeria. He was only eight years old when war erupted, but remembers a mob of men with clubs and machetes as the violence unfolded, according to a January 15 interview with “Faith of Steele.” I expect I will learn more about my pastor-friend who holds a strong interest in social issues. I surmise his experiences and observations in Nigeria helped shape his willingness to publicly tackle and participate in issues beyond simply preaching from the pulpit. War changes people.

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

Sunday’s screening is at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2016.

FYI: Please consider attending this free screening of “The Disturbances.” I always appreciate opportunities like this to learn and then relate what I learn to my life.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos from Nigeria are courtesy of the Rev. Kirk Griebel.

 

The patriotism of the Winnebago County, Iowa, courthouse square May 21, 2015

At the top of the hill looking down the street we just traveled to reach downtown Forest City and courthouse square.

At the top of the hill looking down the street we just traveled to reach downtown Forest City and courthouse square.

THE RED-WHITE-AND-BLUE BEDECKED gazebo caught my attention as we drove up the hill, past grain bins and Dollar General, into downtown Forest City two Saturdays before Memorial Day.

This oversized gazebo sits in the Winnebago County Courthouse square.

This oversized gazebo sits in the Winnebago County Courthouse square.

What a delightful, patriotic welcome to this northern Iowa county seat, home to Waldorf College, Winnebago Industries and Heritage Park of North Iowa.

The courthouse was built in 1897 for $20,496. A south wing was added later.

The courthouse was built in 1897 for $20,496. A south wing was added later.

The Winnebago County Veterans Memorial rests on the side of the courthouse near the gazebo.

The Winnebago County Veterans Memorial rests on the side of the courthouse near the gazebo.

The Union Soldier statue was purchased by the local Women's Relief Corps in 1899. The chapter was founded to care for Union soldiers and to assist their widows and orphans and to honor the dead. There are 151 Civil War veterans buried in Winnebago County.

The Union Soldier statue was purchased by the local Women’s Relief Corps in 1899. The chapter was founded to care for Union soldiers and to assist their widows and orphans, and to honor the dead. There are 151 Civil War veterans buried in Winnebago County.

This eye-catching display of American pride drew my eyes to the gazebo and then to the imposing 1897 Romanesque style courthouse. Both sit in the Winnebago County Courthouse square, graced by two war memorials—that of a Union soldier and the Winnebago County Veterans Memorial.

The vintage Sherman tank.

The vintage Sherman tank.

A Sherman tank anchors a corner of the block.

A sculpture on a corner of the courthouse.

A sculpture on a corner of the courthouse.

Aiming my camera up at the towering courthouse.

Aiming my camera up at the towering courthouse. Notice all that architectural detail.

Another courthouse sculpture.

Another courthouse sculpture.

The Union Soldier was constructed from zinc by J. L. Mott Iron Works of Trenton, New Jersey, at a cost of $155.

The Union Soldier was constructed from zinc by J. L. Mott Iron Works of Trenton, New Jersey, at a cost of $155. The monument was restored in 2005.

The fountain atop which the Union soldier stands was also built by J. L. Mott Iron Works. It is of French Victorian design. The goat head symbolizes strength and victory.

The fountain atop which the Union soldier stands was also built by J. L. Mott Iron Works. It is of French Victorian design. The goat heads symbolize strength and victory.

It was a lot to take in, to photograph. Artsy architectural details add visual interest to the fountain and courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. I only wished it had been a week day so I could have toured the courthouse interior.

I appreciated the patriotic colors on The Legion.

I appreciated the patriotic colors on The Legion.

But, since I couldn’t get inside, I focused my camera on the exterior, all the while watched by two elderly men across the street near the Legion. I expect they were wondering about the couple in the car with Minnesota plates and the woman shooting pictures with a fancy camera. Perhaps I should have chatted it up with them. The likely could have told me a story or ten.

FYI: Click here to read my first, and then my second, blog post on other Forest City, Iowa, attractions.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Honoring Minnesota Civil War soldiers via history lessons & a puzzle January 25, 2013

Attendees, including Linda Karkhoff (whom you read about below) chat at a recent Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting in Faribault.

Attendees, including Linda Karkhoff (whom you will read about below) chat at a recent Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting in Faribault. And, yes, the guy on the right is wearing a Union cap. The display shows Karkhoff’s Civil War puzzle package.

MEMBERS OF THE CANNON VALLEY Civil War Roundtable, I’ve discovered, really know their history. They rattle off battlefields and battles, dates and names and other facts with convincing authority.

To be honest, I’m a bit intimidated by their knowledge. And I’ve told them so, even called them fanatics in a joking, but not unkind, way. That didn’t stop the club president from encouraging me to return to their monthly meetings. I’ve attended thrice during the past several years—when guest speakers’ topics especially interested me.

An 1840 Philadelphia Derringer, like the pistol used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

An 1840 Philadelphia Derringer, like the pistol used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, belongs to an area collector of Lincoln memorabilia.

First-time around, I listened to an area collector talk about some of the pieces in his collection of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. That was in 2009 and I posted about it here. He asked for anonymity given the value of his collection. I thought it wise to honor his request.

Dean Urdahl has written the trilogy of Uprising, Retribution and Pursuit.

Dean Urdahl has written the trilogy of Uprising, Retribution and Pursuit.

This past May, I heard Minnesota State Representative Dean Urdahl, a retired American history teacher, writer and co-chair of the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force, speak about the U.S. Dakota-War of 1862 and his trilogy of historical fiction novels. (Click here to read a post from that event.)

And just recently, educational consultant Quintin Pettigrew read excerpts from A Personal Narrative of Indian Massacres 1862, the diary of Lake Shetek Massacre survivor Lavina Eastlick. I’ve since acquired a copy of that survivor’s diary and will post about it at a later date.

Before Pettigrew took the floor at the recent Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting, Owatonna resident Linda Karkhoff spoke briefly about a Civil War related project she’s undertaken. She’s created a 550-piece limited edition (1,000) commemorative jigsaw puzzle honoring the 2nd Regiment, Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.

A close-up of the 2nd Minnesota Civil War puzzle, made to commemorate Wasioja Civil War Days.

The photo shows the design of the puzzle Linda Karkhoff created as a commemorative piece for Wasioja Civil War Days. The puzzle honors the 2nd Minnesota Regiment, comprised of soldiers from southeastern Minnsota. Just note that lighting conditions were not good and I could not avoid glare reflected on the framed piece.

The 18 x 24-inch puzzle features, along with a U.S. map tracking the movement of the 2nd Minnesota, an imprint of a flag given to the regiment by the Loyal Ladies of the Louisville Soldiers Association.

Intrigued, I found an online copy of a letter presented to the Minnesotans along with that flag. Nanette B. Smith, president of the Loyal Ladies wrote:

Louisville Ky Feb 17th 1862

To Col Van Cleve 2nd Minnesota Regt

Sir I transmit to you a Flag to be presented in the name of the Loyal Ladies of the Louisville Soldiers Association, to your Regiment, designed to commemorate the battle of Mill Spring 19th January, and as a testimonial of our appreciation of the participation of yourself and those under your command in the glorious victory of that day.

Each Regiment is equally entitled to like honor; but the gallant conduct of those who come from a distant State to unite in subduing our rebel invaders excite the warmest emotions of our hearts.

I offer to you our congratulations and my individual acknowledgements of the important service rendered to our State by your command.

Very Respectfully Nannette B. Smith Prest L.S.R.A.

Now puzzle designer Karkhoff, who is a carpenter by trade, did not read that letter to attendees at the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting. But she did summarize that the Loyal Ladies’ flag was a thank you to the soldiers for pushing the Confederates out of Kentucky, thus saving Kentucky as a Union state.

She also shared that members of the 2nd Minnesota, comprised of soldiers from southeastern Minnesota, marched 6,000 miles—that’s walking—in four years. The unit’s drummer boy, she said, kept a diary, and survived the war. Such survival, she explained, was unheard of given drummer boys figurativley marched with targets on their backs.

This cloth bag holds the puzzle pieces and informational sheets.

This cloth bag holds the puzzle pieces and informational sheets.

You’ll find more information about the 2nd Minnesota, life as a Civil War soldier and the puzzle itself on informational sheets tucked inside the cloth bag holding Karkhoff’s puzzle. Even the bag is significant, similar to what a Civil War soldier would have carried for his tobacco and writing utensils, Karkhoff said.

A history buff, Karkhoff came up with the puzzle idea after she and several traveling friends discovered a lack of commemorative puzzles specific to an area or site they visited. She eventually formed Puzzled@ LLC and designed the 2nd Regiment puzzle.

The puzzle, she said, teaches history and geography and encourages teamwork, making it both educational and fun.

Now I’m one of those people who doesn’t care for puzzles. I’m too easily frustrated, don’t have the patience and, well, would rather read or write than puzzle over a jigsaw.

But for those of you who enjoy puzzles and/or are Civil War fanatics, and I mean that in a kind way, check out Puzzled@ by clicking here.

Puzzles may be purchased directly from Karkhoff (contact info is on her website; tell her I sent you); at Little Professor Book Center or the Steele County History Center in Owatonna; or at the Rice County Historical Society or Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault.

BONUS: An exhibit, “Minnesota and the Civil War,” opens March 2 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. Click here to learn more about this.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Faribault: Scholar to address Lincoln’s response to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 September 5, 2012

A Lincoln postcard which a collector brought to a Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting several years ago.

THE FIRST TIME I ATTENDED a Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting nearly three years ago, I arrived expecting to view slave documents. The presenter, however, left the papers at home and brought, instead, memorabilia specifically related to Abraham Lincoln.

He did not disappoint. I viewed vintage postcards and original photos of Lincoln, Civil War buttons and replicas of Mary Todd Lincoln’s White House china, among many other items.

An 1840 Philadelphia Derringer, like the pistol used to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

What impressed me the most, however, was the collector’s 1840 Philadelphia Derringer, exactly like the pistol with which John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. The weapon was nearly small enough to hide in the palm of my hand.

Visuals like that teach me more about history than any textbook ever will. So do guest speakers. They address the monthly meetings of the Roundtable whose 25 members are interested in preserving and interpreting the Civil War.

Now the Faribault-based Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable is bringing in a scholar of Abraham Lincoln to kick off its eighth year as an organization. You needn’t be a Roundtable member to attend; I’m not.

Bryce Stenzel of Mankato portraying President Abraham Lincoln. Stenzel, among other things, directs Lincoln’s Traveling Troupe, a group of students and community actors who bring Lincoln’s life and legacy to life via a dramatic, living history portrayal and authentic re-enactment.

Bryce Stenzel of Mankato, who developed a first-person portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in 1989 and since has traveled around the country presenting, will present “1862: Lincoln Trials by Fire” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, September 20, at the Faribault American Legion, 112 Fifth St. N.E.

He will address, Stenzel says, “the ‘State of the Union’ as it existed in 1862 and Lincoln’s response to the U.S.- Dakota War, against the backdrop of the American Civil War and the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.”

It’s a timely topic given this year marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. – Dakota War.

Specifically, Stenzel details, his upcoming program “is a means for Faribault to acknowledge its unique connection to the U.S. – Dakota War by paying homage to its native son, Bishop Henry Whipple. Even though no fighting took place in Faribault, your community played an active role in influencing the final outcome.”

This historian, who has authored eight books on local historical and Lincoln-related topics, possesses an advanced history degree and has taught social studies/history at all levels, including college, has long taken a personal interest in the U.S. – Dakota War. His great-great grandmother and her two-year-old daughter escaped a band of Dakota warriors by hiding in tall prairie grasses. And his great-great grandfather served with the Fifth Minnesota Regiment and fought in the decisive Battle of Nashville in 1864.

Stenzel grew up in Mankato, where 38 Dakota were hung in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. President Lincoln commuted the death sentences of 265 Dakota.

Says Stenzel:

The central question of my presentation is why did Lincoln feel compelled to intervene at all, when he didn’t have to? In fact, from a political standpoint, Lincoln committed political suicide—most Minnesotans at the time believed it was both right and necessary to hang the Indians as a means of preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again. It is useful for the modern audience to consider that what was “politically correct” in the 19th century, is no longer. Historical interpretation changes with time.

Dan Peterson, a member of the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable who has heard Stenzel speak, fully endorses him: “(Stenzel)) reminds me of my love for Abraham Lincoln just to be in his audience or close to him. Lincoln is on our money, our named streets, one state capitol, highways, buildings, businesses, cars and more. You just cannot get away from him.”

FYI: Tickets to the dinner and program are on sale now at the Rice County Historical Society in Faribault or from Chuck Peterson (507-301-2470), Jan Stevens (507-244-0500) or Dan Peterson (507-459-3140). Cost is $22 for non-members and $20 for paid-up members of the Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable.

Tickets for the meal of pork ribs with trimmings must be purchased by Saturday, September 8. The event begins at 5 p.m. on September 20 with a social and then dinner at 6 p.m.

If you want to attend just the Lincoln presentation by Stenzel, the cost is $10 for adults, $5 for students 16 and older, and free for those under 16. The program begins at 7:30 p.m.

The Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meets the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Faribault Senior Center with a speaker at each meeting. In October, the topic will be the New Ulm raid as part of the U.S. – Dakota War; in November, the Antietam Battlefield; and in December, the annual Civil War food potluck (probably with possum soup, hardtack and more, Peterson promises).

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Bryce Stenzel photo courtesy of Bryce Stenzel

 

A Minnesota politician & writer shares his insights on “The Dakota War, a clash of cultures” May 18, 2012

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This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle ending the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.

Dean Urdahl has written the trilogy of Uprising, Retribution and Pursuit.

I COULD HAVE LISTENED to Dean Urdahl for hours. Not Urdahl the Minnesota State Representative from District 18B. But Urdahl the historian, the retired American history teacher, the storyteller, the writer.

The southern Minnesota politician, who co-chairs the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force, was in Faribault Thursday evening to talk about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and to promote his trilogy of historical fiction novels about that conflict.

Urdahl’s interest in the U.S.-Dakota War is rooted deep in family history, in the soil of Meeker County where his Norwegian immigrant ancestors settled in 1856 and where, on August 17, 1862, five settlers were killed by a small group of Dakota. That attack in Acton Township, only 1 ½ miles from Urdahl’s current home, marked the beginning of the war.

Urdahl’s great-great-grandfather helped bury those five victims in the cemetery of Ness Lutheran Church, a country church southwest of Litchfield. A monument there honors the five who were slain. The Representative grew up attending Ness Lutheran, listening to his mother tell stories about his ancestors and the area’s history. That sparked his interest in history and specifically a strong interest in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

“What happened in 1862 (in Minnesota) is largely ignored by historians,” Urdahl said, adding that the U.S.-Dakota War “gets scant attention and deserves more.”

In 1862, a divided nation was more focused on the conflict between North and South than on the clash between cultures in Minnesota, Urdahl explained.

This historian, however, certainly drew attention to the war between the white settlers/soldiers and the Dakota during his presentation, “The Dakota War, a clash of cultures,” at the monthly Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting in Faribault in this, the 150th anniversary year of the War.

Cultures collided, Urdahl said, as immigrants settled in the native home of the Dakota and the government adopted a policy “to turn them (the Dakota) into farmers.”

Conflict also existed among the Dakota—between “the blankets,” those sticking to traditional ways, and “cut-hairs,” those turning into farmers, he said.

Speaking without notes and with the skill of a master storyteller passionate about his subject, Urdahl mesmerized his audience, sharing information and a story-style time-line of how the U.S.-Dakota War unfolded.

The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers who were killed in the area. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township.

Urdahl’s talk was a refresher course for me, a native of Redwood County located at the geographical center of the War. I’ve always been interested in the conflict and even penned a term paper on “The Sioux Uprising of 1862,” as it was labeled when I was a high school student. My maternal ancestors lived in the New Ulm area in 1862 and were warned by friendly Indians to leave; the families fled to the safety of nearby St. Peter.

“We find throughout the war, friendly Indians warning people to leave,” Urdahl said.

That, and much of what this historian said, I already knew. You’ll find it written in books. But some of what Urdahl shared I had forgotten or never heard such as…

  • A drought in 1861 left the Dakota near starvation and relying on government food. (I didn’t recall the drought as preemptive to the desperate situation among the Dakota.)
  • In late July 1862, some 5,000 Dakota gathered at the Yellow Medicine Agency ready to storm the warehouses. Agents eventually released the storehouse of grain to the hungry Dakota, thus averting the start of the war for several weeks.
  • The settlers at Acton were challenged to a target shooting contest by the Dakota before they were killed.
  • The Dakota were intent on attacking New Ulm because they thought the town was built on reservation land. The reservation covered a 10-mile by 150-mile area along the Minnesota River.
  • From 500 – 800 Minnesotans were killed/died during the six-week war, only 75 of whom were soldiers. “The rest,” said Urdahl, “were Swedish, German and Norwegian immigrants who didn’t know what was going on.”
  • Although there is not an accurate count on the number of soldiers who died in the Battle of Birch Coulee, the count of dead horses stands at 90. “They could replace men, not horses,” Urdahl said.
  • When Fort Ridgely was under attack, fort leader Lt. Thomas P. Gere was coming down with the mumps.
  • During the final battle at Ft. Ridgely, doors on both ends of the surgeon’s quarters/headquarters were opened and a cannon ball fired down the hallway toward the stables where the Dakota were stationed.
  • A Confederate officer was reportedly spotted in Little Crow’s (Dakota leader) camp. Some speculate that the Confederacy played a role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, thus diverting soldiers from the Confederate front by keeping them in Minnesota to fight the Dakota.
  • Little Crow lived in a brick house at the time of the War.

Trader Andrew Myrick refused to grant the Dakota credit, remarking, “Let them eat grass.” After an attack on the Lower Agency, Myrick was found dead, his mouth stuffed with grass.

The message on a marker near the Lower Sioux Agency reads: 75 feet north stood the building in which upwards of 100 Sioux Indians were tried by court martial, convicted and sentenced to death Nov. 1862.

As I listened to Urdahl’s presentation, I wondered how Native Americans would react to the information he shared. What perspective would they offer? Would they disagree with him, challenge his facts, voice their opinions? How would they feel?

“There are still very hard feelings on both sides,” this descendant of Norwegian immigrants told his audience. He occasionally gets e-mails from angry descendants of settlers killed during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Growing up in Redwood County decades ago, I was well aware of the animosity between whites and the Dakota passed down through the generations. I know the bad feelings still linger on both sides.

But perhaps in this 150th anniversary year, we can all (white and Dakota) strive to overcome, to understand and to, finally, forgive.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on December 26, 1862. This stands as the largest mass execution in American history. Initially, 303 were sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln approved the deaths of 39 and granted a last-minute reprieve to one other.

FYI: All of the above monument images were photographed within the past several years.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Chauncey, a Civil War soldier June 4, 2011

The grave of Chauncey Swartwoudt at the Cannon City Cemetery.

THE NAME ON HIS TOMBSTONE is barely readable as my husband, Randy, struggles to decipher the letters that form “Chauncey Swartwoudt.”

I like how the name rolls off my tongue—the Chauncey part at least. I’m unsure how to pronounce his surname.

He means nothing to me. His is just another tombstone marked by an American flag, among many in a Minnesota country cemetery.

A close-up of Chauncey's tombstone, decorated for Memorial Day.

Yet, because of the size of this grave marker and the rectangular border surrounding it, I am drawn to this spot in the Cannon City Cemetery on Memorial Day.

When I lean in close, I discover more. Or, more accurately, Randy uncovers a veteran’s star with difficult-to-read words. He decodes “The Grand Army of the Republic.” GAR equals veterans of the Union Army who served in the Civil War.

Randy pulls back foliage to reveal a GAR star with words that are barely readable and a design that we can't clearly see. Does anyone know what design graces the center of these old GAR stars?

Chauncey was mustered into the military on August 8, 1862, at the age of 22. He served as a Union Army private with Company C, Sixth Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. Two years, one month and three days later, on September 11, 1864, at the age of 24, he died at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.

He was a soldier, the son of Henry and Catherine and brother of Charles. (He may have  had other siblings, but my quick research reveals only Charles.)

Nine years after Chauncey’s death, on March 15, 1873, Charles and Elizabeth Swartwoudt named their new-born son after his uncle. Little Chauncey lived only three years.

This is all I know about the elder Chauncey who fought in the Civil War, who died far from his Minnesota home. A young man of only 24, his entire life ahead of him.

Why did he die?

Detailed artwork, in the form of a cannon and cannonballs are engraved on Chauncey's tombstone.

Why is a cannon, with stacked cannonballs, etched into the cold stone of his grave marker? I’ve visited many Minnesota cemeteries and never seen such detailed art on the marker of a Civil War soldier.

It’s not like I should care. I have no connection to Chauncey. Yet I do care. He was a soldier, a son, a brother. I am a mother and a sister. He came home in a box. And a mother wept.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling