As were all the white folks in the Minnesota Valley, Riggs and his family were forced out of their home at Hazelwood Mission when Little Crow and the Dakota went to war with white settlers in 1862; but it’s important, I think, to do the math here—by 1862, Stephen and Mary Riggs had been with the Dakota people in several mission stations for almost a quarter century.They were not newcomers; they had roots and experience, and they were well-known among the Dakota people.
And while the story of their evacuation, aided throughout by Native people, is not as bloody or tragic as many; their story is rife with suffering that left its imprint for a lifetime on those who were with them during their escape, including Mary Riggs.
On Monday night, when word of the attacks reached the mission compound, a Christian Native man named Paul Mazakutimani came to Riggs and his wife and begged for blue cloth because he knew that only if he took off his white man’s clothes and returned to a breechcloth could he escape death at the hands of his own people. Such a request must have been mystifying to the Riggs—and very scary.
That evening, Mary put her children to bed; but as more and more refugees, some of them hurt, came into the mission compound and told their stories, as more and more of the Christian Dakota people let Riggs know that what was happening was not just some spat, he knew they had to act.
First, Riggs led his people in prayer and sang hymns.Then, after midnight, they left the compound, unarmed, bound for an island in the river, where they hoped they might escape the ugliness. But when Riggs himself heard the latest reports of death the next morning, he knew they had to leave.
When they did, they met other men and women and children—some deeply traumatized, in shock. Rain began to fall hard that afternoon and didn’t quit until the next day. “The first night we were out, some of smaller children called for home,” Riggs wrote of that time. “The next night some of the older children would have cried had it been any use.”
By Thursday morning, they were out of food. They gathered wood from a grove, killed one of their cows, and roasted it over the fire. They had no utensils or pots and pans. And at that moment, a photographer escaping with them took this picture, one of very few photographs from the 1862 Dakota war.
All along the way, afraid for their lives, they had discovered burning homes, dead and burned and mutilated corpses. On Friday, they made their way to Ft. Ridgely, but when one of their number approached close enough, he saw burning buildings and more frantic homesteaders.What was supposed to be refuge offered no comfort.
On the Sabbath, they came to a crossroads, where many other white people were congregated. For the first time, they felt somewhat safe.
The Dakota War has far more horrible stories than that of the Riggs’ party’s escape, but none of those who traveled with them to safety likely ever forgot.
Just a week or two before the war began, Little Crow himself had been in church. The profound sadness the pastor must have felt surpasses anything I can imagine.