Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Old River Bend Church (iii)

In early July of 1863, the United States of America had very little time for a band of Dakota people who created a bloody war in a faraway place called Minnesota. In Pennsylvania, Gen. Robert E. Lee took on Union forces under the direction of George G. Meade in a place called Gettysburg. A nation not yet a century old became familiar with place names like Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill, and just a week later as many 51,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded or missing.

The only white folks who cared about a couple thousand indigenous people who'd been removed from their native land were Christian missionaries, one of whom--Rev. John Williamson was literally, not figuratively, embedded with the weary prisoners at Ft. McClellan, Iowa. His was a true ministry of presence.

"He did not forsake them but stayed by them in evil and in good report with the devotion of a lover," so wrote Rev. Stephen Riggs in his memoir of those years. 

And the times were difficult, to say the least. On July 4, 1863, the state of Minnesota declared Dakota scalps worth $25 a piece. By September, the price tag was raised to $200. 

Approximately 1300 Dakota women and children--and a few old men--were marched on to two steamships from their makeshift prison at Ft. Snelling, carried down the Mississippi--stopping every other day for firewood. One of steamers stopped at Hannibal, Missouri. That Sunday Williamson conducted worship in the freight depot, twice. All those wild Indians in town drew a crowd that swarmed around them throughout their stay, but when it came time for worship, Williamson told his mother in a letter, "I shut most of the whites out."

The next day all several hundred from the first steamship were packed into railroad cars--freight cars, not passengers--sixty a piece, and taken to St. Joseph, where they waited on the Missouri River for yet another steamboat to take them where?--neither he nor they knew. In a letter he wrote that morning, May 13, 1863, Williamson was worried; he admits he has no idea how all of those Dakota will fit on a single steamboat. "I don't know where they will stow them, even if they give them the whole boat," he wrote. "But then folks say they are only Indians."

Their destination was Crow Creek, Dakota Territory, an arid place on harsh and naked land impossibly unlike the green Minnesota woods where they'd lived. What they'd gone through since the war was nothing but imprisonment and deprivation, disease and death, malnutrition amid a steady diet of hunger. 

Colonel Thompson, the agent at Crow Creek, was faced with a dilemma. He had thousands of Indians to feed--Minnesota had banished a thousand of its Winnebagos to Crow Creek too, even though they'd played no part in the war. What's more, he had very little provisions to do it. So with fresh-cut cottonwood boards he built a huge barrel, filled it with water, mixed in the flour ration and a small piece of pork, then warmed it all with a steam engine that huffed and puffed all night long.

When the whistle blew in the morning, all those Native "prisoners of war" were told to bring their pails to get the only sustainence they were served all day--a ladle of gruel that tasted more like cottonwood than anything else, cottonwood soup.

When, years later, those who established River Bend Church got together and talked about their lives, Williamson claims the words "Crow Creek" caused them "to hush their voices at the mention of the name." Three hundred more Dakota women and children died of disease and starvation at Crow Creek. "So the hills were soon covered with graves," says Williamson.

Meanwhile, at Ft. McClellan, 120 of the 300 men died in the next three years. In 1864, a few men were released to join their families at Crow Creek. Once a peace commission visited the Dakota Territory in 1865, the government recommended that all of the Dakota survivors--the men at Ft. McClellan and the women and children at Crow Creek--be moved to yet another location in Knox County, Nebraska. 

A few months later, the Ft. McClellan prisoners boarded a steamship bound for St. Louis, then up the Missouri to Nebraska. The women and children from Crow Creek walked.

If you're thinking we're still a long ways from Flandreau, South Dakota and that little church at the top of the page, you're right. None of the history of the forty-some people who built the church is written on the freshly-painted walls, nor inscribed on the fancy sign out front, or even scribbled on the worn old stones leaning this way and that, like bad teeth, in the cemetery. The story is just too big, too long, and maybe even a little too harsh to want to remember easily. 

Their own account of their history says all the stories I'm telling weren't even told much within the walls of River Bend Church. "Because the pain was so deep, generations to come would be unaware of the suffering they endured," that history claims. "Those who survived chose not to speak of it to their children and grandchildren."

Still, that old church is not far from here. Not far at all. I could do worse, not knowing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Historical trauma runs deep for both sides and is enhanced by lack of common knowledge. Then comes the denial and anger abounds.