In a poignant scene from The New Land, an beautiful film about early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota, Kristina Nillson, played by Liv Ullman, is sleepless in the family's log cabin. She can't stop weeping because she is utterly forlorn with homesickness--she misses Sweden horribly. Her husband, Karl-Oskar (Max Van Sydow), is powerless to stanch her tears, it seems, until he tells her that, once their house is built, they'll call it--and the whole neighborhood--New Smaland, after their Swedish home. With that assurance, Kristina smiles for the first time.
The rural Midwest is littered with New Smalands--New Berlin, New Holland, New Prague. I'd never quite understood what joy such names might bring to that very first wave of European immigrants until I saw that scene from The New Land. If they were going to be here, in a wilderness, what joy it must have brought to somehow, fancifully, call that wilderness home.
Such was, I suppose, New Ulm, a German immigrant community of folks who'd come here en masse, almost a thousand strong. Before the war, no one particularly liked them--whites or Indians--because, like immigrant groupings ever before and after, they wanted dearly to hole up with each other and not mind the foreign world scrambling wordlessly around them.
The Dakota found the New Ulm Germans far less, well, giving than their non-German neighbors; and their non-German neighbors felt the New Ulmsters curiously clannish and even a bit heathen. But as a people they worked hard, and their little German colony was successful in every possible way, as were their farms.
Coming from Europe and knowing little about the American frontier, they weren't particularly well-armed. They were odd people, really foreigners, unready for battle. What's worse, their town was laid out perfectly for an attack, easy pickin's; but they were hearty and smart, as the Dakota would soon discover.
The first attack came on Tuesday afternoon, almost a day after the settlers had swarmed into the village to band together for safety and readiness. Lines of defense were erected, the streets were strewn with wagons and whatever else might impede a viscious Dakota advance. Lines of fire were created to man the perimeter of the village, and, almost comically, a third wave force of men within the fortified town, in lieu of guns, brandished pitchforks. Of the 100 men there, only thirty had guns.
Casualties occured on both sides in that first attack on New Ulm, but when the fighting began, at three in the afternoon, it lacked precision and power because that day the Dakota were basically leaderless. They were not a fighting force; they were 100 headstrong warriors acting pretty much on their own, and their ragged assaults never really made much headway against the German defenders behind the barricades they'd assembled.
By evening, a thunderstorm pounded the whole region, putting an end to things. The Dakota stopped firing and called off their attack, surprised at how little they'd gained--how nothing had fallen their way. It was, in fact, a defeat, their first. Taking New Ulm wasn't anything like slaying homesteaders.
Inside the barricades, the Germans were sure that the war wasn't over; but things were looking better than they had early in the afternoon.
They'd kept the Dakota away, but clearly they were under siege.