The sign out front says it's "The Oldest Continuously Used Church in the State of South Dakota" begun "October 3, 1869 with 47 members." What it doesn't mention is that 46 of those charter members, I'd guess, were Santee Sioux. The River Bend Presbyterian Church is not all that far from here--north to Pipestone, then west (and a bit north) to Flandreau, just across the highway from the Flandreau Indian School.
Microsoft Word doesn't like the word Flandreau, so some schoolmarm spellchecker in my computer's memory red-pencils it. But then she red-pencils Pipestone too. Doesn't recognize either of those words, even though Pipestone is home to one of the most sacred places in Native cultural tradition. Nope. Word tells me neither Flandreau nor Pipestone exist.
Well, they do. Trust me. I was just there. I took that picture.
Quaint, Cute. Well-kept. Neatly painted. A sweet and darling old church--if you're into old country churches. That photo with its warm blue skies would make a post card maybe, although a souvenir store just outside would be a stretch. For the most part no one visits River Bend, so only locals ever see this church; and they're likely so accustomed to it being here they probably don't see it either. If you're going out west on vacation, River Bend Church is almost terminally out of the way. But Lord knows there's a story.
In 1862 Minnesota's Dakota people were starving, literally. They'd been promised provisions after giving up half the state for a thin strap of river valley land along the Minnesota. The buffalo were largely gone, and white people were rolling in behind teams of horses or oxen, marking off land as if it were theirs and no one had ever lived there before.
The Dakota War of 1862 started when the Dakota people wouldn't take it anymore. The Minnesota River ran red with the blood of white settlers who were killed, butchered, by Dakota warriors the white folks sometimes knew. It was a terrible moment in the country's history, bloody, horrifying, and tragic. Very sad.
Even their first-in-charge, Little Crow, told the insurgent Dakotas that fighting the white man was going to get them killed, and it did. Hundreds of Dakota were arrested and brought to trials that sometimes lasted no longer than five minutes. Then they were sentenced, 303 of them to hang, and marched to Mankato. The same week that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he determined that only 39 of the 303 should die. The rest were left in chains while the largest mass-hanging in American history happened when 38 Dakotas were lynched on December 26, 1862.
But yet another amazing event happened right there in late December, an event that few want to talk about because few really know what to make of it. Before they were hanged, all of those 38 men were baptized into the Christian faith--all of them. Just about every white man and woman in Minnesota thought it profanation for missionaries to impart the love of Jesus to the bloody, murderous heathen who'd killed upwards of 400 white settlers, but the missionaries persisted; and nearly all of the 300 warriors originally sentenced to death also became Christians right there in Mankato., to use evangelical language, all of them "found the Lord."
It was a frightful time, but an amazing moment. The Reverend Stephen R. Riggs, who had at that time been a missionary to the Dakota people for thirty years, remembered it this way:
Some of these men, in their younger days, had heard Mr. Ponds [another missionary pastor] talk of the white man's religion. They were desirous now, in their trouble, to hear from their old friends, whose counsel they had so long rejected. To this request, Mr. G. H. Pond responded, and spent some days in the prison assisting Dr. Williamson. Rev. Mr. Hicks, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mankato, was also taken into their counsels and gave them aid. For several weeks previous, many men had been wishing to be baptized, and thus recognized as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This number increased from day to day, until about three hundred—just how many could not afterward be ascertained—stood up and were baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The circumstances were peculiar, the whole movement was marvelous, it was like a “nation born in a day.” The brethren desired to be divinely guided; and after many years of testing have elapsed, we all say that was a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit.I don't know what to make of that story of mass conversion. I can think of all kinds of reasons to doubt it--fear of dying for one, sheer hopelessness. Nothing clears the mind, someone once said, like a date with the hangman. Maybe so, maybe not. Some claim they'd seen the Native way of life fail miserably; they were ready for something else, anything.
The mass hanging and this wildly unbelievable mass conversion are only two parts of an incredible story. Hundreds of other Dakota prisoners up the river at Ft. Snelling were baptized also, hundreds of men and women who weren't hanged but were sentenced instead to suffer horrors that went on for years. All of that is in the history of that church up there at the top of the page.
The forty-some souls who began River Bend in 1868 were among those who could remember all of that if they chose to--the bloody rebellion, the hanging, the imprisonment, and then even more starvation and disease and malnutrition, the drought, the endless moving--down the Mississippi, up the Missouri--the marches to Nebraska, the pilgrimage to Flandreau.
But the church is here, a real church, "the oldest continuously used church in South Dakota." Believe me, it's here. You'll probably never see it, never visit; but out here on the edge of the Great Plains there's an old church that still worships God, River Bend Church, and its story is beyond imagination.
If you walk through the cemetery, you'll find graves of people who knew that whole story first hand, a man like this one, Moses Day, who died 16 years after the Dakota War. Beneath his name and the date of his death is in inscription in the Dakota language, an inscription I can't read. I wish I could.
You can discount those thousand baptisms too, if you'd like. You can write it all up as a kind of hysteria, a mass movement as flimsy as the tenets of the Ghost Dance. You can shake your head at what Riggs said was a "nation born in a day." You can wince when he calls what happened in Mankato "a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit."
But there's an old country church just outside of Flandreau, South Dakota, a town that is just a bit west of Pipestone, Minnesota, two places my software doesn't want to believe exist.
Those towns are very real, just as this church is. It's there, a testimony.
If you want to hear more of the story, I'll try my best to tell it.