Her family fell, and she was captured.
Of the many personal stories from the 1862 Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, none is more emblematic of the experience of the recently arrived settlers than that of Mary Schwandt. Kidnapped at age 14, she lived to tell the tale of horror she and her German immigrant family had endured. They had been in Minnesota for only a few months when the area Sioux began spilling blood, but the uprising marked her and the region forever.
The conflict, also known as the Minnesota Uprising, lasted from August 17 to September 23. It resulted in the deaths of at least 700 settlers (probably many more than that; human remains continued to be found in plowed fields up to World War I), and led to what historian Gregory Michno has called “the largest military Indian campaign in the West” (see his list of Western Indian fights in the June 2007 Wild West). Some 40,000 people fled their homes as 23 western counties of Minnesota were depopulated, and many of the homesteaders never returned.
The Santee Sioux, comprising the Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute and Siston tribes, had reason for discontent in 1862 after dealing with a harsh winter and corrupt traders and merchants. Trader Andrew Myrick made the infamous remark that the Sioux “Eat grass or their own dung.” This was like lighting a match in a tinderbox. On August 17, several young Sioux warriors killed five settlers at Acton, Minn., and the next day, a force led by Little Crow attacked the Redwood Agency, killing Myrick (and stuffing his mouth with grass) and at least 19 other men, and taking a dozen women captives. The bloodbath continued through the Minnesota River Valley, with the Sioux mostly taking their wrath out on settlers who knew nothing about the swindling going on at the agencies.
“The courageous settlers were soon to pay for their homes, not by the sweat of their brow, but from their blood,” Alexander Berghold of New Ulm, Minn., wrote in his 1891 book (new edition in 2006) The Indians’ Revenge. “Their houses were devoured by flames, their crops ruined by the hand of the destroyer; and, instead of the cheerful harvest-song, came the war cry of fighting men, the heartrending sound of the orphan’s voice, and the doleful pleading of the dying mother.”
The Schwandt family, originally from near Berlin, Germany, had come to Wisconsin in 1858 and had settled in the spring of 1862 on a Minnesota farm in Flora Township of Renville County, on beautiful rolling hills just north of the Minnesota River. During the uprising, 39 people were killed in sections 33-35 of that township. Two monuments now border the old Schwandt farm. On the east side, a small monument reads:
IN MEMORY OF THE BRAVE SETTLERS WHO FELL AT THIS POINT IN THE MASSACRE OF 1862.
To the south of the farm, another monument tells what happened to members of Mary Schwandt’s family:
ERECTED BY THE STATE OF MINNESOTA 1915 IN MEMORY OF MARTYRS FOR CIVILIZATION JOHANN SCHWANDT CHRISTINA SCHWANDT & THEIR CHILDREN FREDERICK & CHRISTIAN JOHN WALZ, KAROLINA SCHWANDT WALZ & JOHN FRASS MURDERED BY SIOUX INDIANS, AUG. 18, 1862.
Berghold recounted what happened when neighbors came to the Schwandt farm to see if anyone was alive:
As they approached the place they saw every indication that the house had been robbed. Schwandt’s son-in-law (John Walz) was lying in the door – steps with three bullets in his body. His wife (Schwandt’s daughter), who had been with child, was found dead, her womb cut open and the unborn child nailed to a tree. Her brother (August), a thirteen year-old lad, whom the Indians thought they had killed, saw how the child was taken alive from the womb of his sister, and nailed to the tree, where it lived for a little while. This terrible deed was done in the forenoon of August the 18th. The mother was found in the field, beheaded. Beside her lay the body of their hired man, Frass. Towards the evening the boy regained a little strength and fled into the next settlement, a distance of three miles.
The mother’s head was never found. August, the surviving brother, managed to crawl half-dead from his home. Thereafter, he always wore a hat due to the scar from a toma – hawk blow to the forehead. His 14-year-old sister Mary had been at the home of neighbors at the time of the attack on the Schwandt farm. Upon hearing news of the uprising, she had fled with others, but was soon captured.
The Sioux brought Mary to the camp of Wacouta, chief of the Wahpekutes, and she later described her experiences:
After while a number (of the tribe) came, and after annoying me with their loathsome intentions for a long time, one of them laid his hands forcibly upon me, when I screamed, and one of the fiends struck me on my mouth with his hand, causing the blood to flow very freely. They then took me out by force, to an unoccupied teepee, near the house, and perpetrated the most horrible and nameless outrages against my person. These outrages were repeated, at different times during my captivity.
The rape of Mary Schwandt was not an unusual event during the uprising in Minnesota. Not all females survived their ordeals, but Mary did. She explained:
Soon there came a time when I did not weep. I could not. The dreadful scenes I had witnessed, the suffering that I had undergone, the almost certainty that my family had all been killed, and that I was alone in the world, and the belief that I was destined to witness other things as horrible as those I had seen, and that my career of suffering and misery had only begun, all came to my comprehension, and when I realized my utterly wretched, helpless, and hopeless situation, for I did not think I would ever be released, I became as one paralyzed and could hardly speak…and went about like a sleepwalker.
Fortunately, Mary was befriended by Snana, the wife of Good Thunder (Good Thunder, Minn., was named in his honor). Snana took her in as a daughter and protected her for the rest of her time in captivity. Mary said that many times when her captors “were threatening to kill all the prisoners,” Snana and Snana’s mother would hide her. “[They would pile] blankets and buffalo robes upon me until I would be nearly smothered, and then they would tell everybody that I had left them,” Mary recalled.
Colonel Henry H. Sibley defeated a Sioux force on September 23, 1862, at the Battle of Wood Lake, ending the uprising. Little Crow and his warriors left Mary Schwandt and the other white captives behind and fled northwest, and soon a group of peace-minded Santee Sioux turned the captives over to Sibley at Camp Release. Many other Sioux surrendered over the next few weeks. Mary was first sent to St. Peter, Minn., and from there to Wisconsin, where she had relatives.
On December 26, 1862, 38 Sioux participants of the Minnesota Uprising were hanged at Mankato based on the decision of President Abraham Lincoln, who had personally reviewed the cases. In June 1863, the remaining Sioux were sent to Dakota Territory. Trouble ensued, and Sibley led expeditions there during the 1863-64 Dakota (Sioux) campaigns. Conflicts with the Sioux would continue more or less until the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee, S.D.
Mary Schwandt went back to her family farm in 1915, when the state historical monument was dedicated. According to a local newspaper article, several other survivors of the uprising were also in attendance. Mary, the paper said, “was so overcome with grief and gratitude toward the people who had so honored her parents that she was unable to speak.” Later on during the ceremonies, however, she “consented to appear for just a minute to personally thank those present for their attendance and the beautiful monument presented.” These and other addresses “left few dry eyes” and “deeply impressed all with the debt which they owe the pioneers.”
The causes and aftermath of the Sioux Uprising have been fairly well documented, but the plight of the Minnesota settlers has often been overlooked. Fortunately, Mary was able to record her story, which became an integral part of my own family’s history after my great-grandparents bought the Schwandt farm in 1870 and later received a visit from Mary. My grandfather recalled that she returned on that one occasion to locate gold coins her father had buried beneath the stepping stone at the entrance to her former home. She found them, but did not return again until the historical monument was dedicated in August 1915. Mary died on July 26, 1939.
Don Heinrich Tolzmann wrote the 2002 book German Pioneer Accounts of the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.