A STORY OF BORDER SUFFERING
The indirect and remote sufferings occasioned by the great civil war in America have been almost as great as the direct miseries produced by battles. The greater part of our standing army is, in time of peace, stationed along the western frontier, and in a long series of outposts that extend from the cool and lonely lakes of Western Minnesota on the north to the haunts of the savage Camanches on the Mexican border.
When the great demands of the crisis fell upon the country in the Spring of 1861, the fist and most obvious result was the calling eastward of all, or nearly all, the regiments of the regular army who had been for the long years of peace interposed as a barrier of steel between the painted and treacherous barbarians of the mountain and the prairie and the ever-advancing line of industrious civilization. Lyon and Sedgwick, the heroic Lander, and the indomitable Colonel Cross, with some who enlisted on the southern side, and the rank and file, making an aggregate of nearly thirteen thousand troops, were suddenly withdrawn from the frontier; and this left a long line of pioneer settlement wholly unprotected from the treacherous and savage foe.
The result might easily be imagined, if it were not a part of our national history.
Naked Camanches were creeping through the high grass of Western Texas, and shooting ploughmen and shepherd boys almost within sight of the state capital. The western settlements of Arkansas and Kansas were unsafe, and farther north, on the western line of Iowa and Minnesota, the Sioux, friendly and peaceable only when utterly crushed, were raising their heads, and perpetrating a series of atrocities and murders which recall the old story of Wyoming, and the early settlement of Kentucky. About the 17th of August a party of two hundred and fifty or three hundred Indians proceeded to the agency at Yellow Medicine, and commenced an indiscriminate slaughter of all the whites, young and old, male and female. Then the marauders, flushed with success, pressed on with their work of death, murdering, with the most atrocious brutalities, the settlers in their isolated farm-houses, violating and then killing women, beating out the brains of infants, or nailing them to the doors of houses, and practising every species of atrocity which their fiendish natures prompted.
The following account of the sufferings of Mrs Hurd and her children was elicited from her in an examination before the United States commissioners at Davenport, in Iowa, and during the recital of her story the audience were many times melted to tears, and for a little while business was suspended, and the hall of justice turned into a house of mourning. The narrative is somewhat condensed, but the simple words in which Mrs. Hurd told it are retained as far as possible.
“I was born in the western part of the State of New York, and removed with my parents to Steuben County, in Iowa, where I passed my childhood. I was married, in 1857, to Phineas B. Hurd, and we went to live in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and remained there about two years; and then we started west, and settled, with a few others, on Sheteck Lake, in Murray County, about a hundred miles west of Mankato, on the Minnesota River. It was a beautiful lake, and the lands around were excellent for grass and wheat. There were not many of us; but we were contented, and thought we had a permanent and happy home. The Indians hung around the lake, as it was an old hunting-ground of theirs; but they had sold out their title, and appeared to be very friendly. I knew a good many of them, for they would often come in and ask for something to eat, and I always treated them well. Some time in June, Mr. Hurd and another man left home on a trip to Dacotah, taking a span of horses and a wagon, expecting to be gone about a. month. We had two children, and Mr. Voight was living with us, and had charge of the farm.
“He had been gone over two months, and I began to grow very anxious about him. One morning, the 20th of August , — it was about five o’clock in the morning, — and I had just gone out to milking, and left my two children asleep in the house, when about twenty Indians rode up and jumped off their horses. I saw that one of the horses was in the span that Mr. Hurd had when he started on his trip. As soon as I got to the house, the Indians went in, and commenced to light their pipes and smoke. Pretty soon my youngest child woke up, and was frightened at seeing so many Indians, and began to cry. Mr. Voight took him up and carried him out into the front yard, when one of the Indians stepped to the door, and shot him through the body, so he fell dead, with the child in his arms. As soon as this shot was heard, ten or fifteen more Indians and squaws rushed into the house, and began to destroy everything they could lay their hands on. We had a good stock of cows, and I had worked hard, and had on hand about two hundred pounds of butter and twenty-three cheeses. All this the Indians destroyed; and while it was going on, some of them told me they would not kill me and the children if I would not give any alarm, but go east, by a very blind road, to the nearest settlement. They started me off just as I was, without even a sun-bonnet on, and would not let me dress either of the children.
“They went out with me about three miles. I took the youngest in my arms, and led the other, a little boy, between three and four years old. There were seven of them who started with me; and I took just one look at what had been our prosperous and happy home, now full of naked and painted savages.
“Before they left me they repeated the condition on which they would spare me and the children: that we were to keep straight east, across the open prairie; that all the whites were to be killed, but I might go to my mother. I was bareheaded, the children almost naked, and we had not a mouthful of food, nor a blanket to shelter us in the cool nights or in a storm. We took the unfrequented road into which the Indians had conducted us. It was clear, and the sun shone uncommonly bright; but the dew on the grass was cold and heavy. William Henry was barefoot, and dressed very thin, and he clung close to me, and begged me to go back to the house. He did not know of the death of Mr. Voight, as I kept him from seeing the body; and he cried piteously at first, but, after a while, pressed my hand, and trudged manfully along by my side. The little one was asleep in my arms, unconscious of our situation. About ten o’clock in the forenoon a thunder-storm came on, and the rain and wind were violent for about three hours. I heard two guns fired, and I knew that my neighbor, Mr. Cook, was killed.
During the storm I lost the trail, and all that afternoon walked on, not knowing whether I was right or wrong. Water stood on all the lower parts of the prairie, and I kept looking for a dry place where we could spend the night. At last I came to a sand hill, and sat down on the top of it, to rest for the night. I laid my children down, and leaned over them, to keep the rain off their faces and protect them from the cold wind. Hungry, and tired, and wet as he was, William fell asleep, and slept nearly all night; but the little one worried a good deal, and the night wore away slowly. As soon as I could see, I took up the little ones, and moved on. About seven o’clock I heard guns, and then I knew I had lost my way, and was still in the vicinity of the lake. I changed my course, and went away from the direction in which the guns were heard. But no trail was visible. I was not conscious of hunger myself, but it was so distressing to hear my precious little boy crying for his bread and milk, and moaning with hunger and weakness! It was wet and misty all that day. Towards night William grew sick and vomited, and it seemed impossible for him to keep up any longer. The youngest still nursed, and did not seem to suffer materially.
“About dark, the second day, I struck a road, and saw, to my sorrow, that I was only four miles from what had been my home, and had not yet commenced my terrible journey across the prairie.
“Then, for a little while, my heart sank in me, and I thought it would be some satisfaction to die right there, and end our weary journey on this travelled road, over which I had passed with my husband in happier days. But this feeling was but for a moment. I took courage, and started on the road to New Ulm. When was quite dark I stopped, and passed the night as I had the former, without sleep. In the morning I started on. It was foggy, and the grass wet; the road, being but little travelled, was grown up with grass. William was so faint and sick that he could not walk much of the time; so I was obliged to carry both. I was now much reduced in strength, and felt very hungry. My boy no longer asked for food, but was thirsty, and drank frequently from pools by the road-side. I was too weak to carry both my children at the same time, but took one a distance of a quarter or half a mile, laid it in the grass, and went back for the other. In this way I travelled twelve miles, to a place called Dutch Charlie’s, sixteen miles from Lake Sheteck. I arrived there about sunset, having been sustained in my weary journey by the sweet hope of relief. What was my consternation and despair when I found it deserted and perfectly empty! The house had not been plundered by the Indians, but abandoned by the owner. My heart died within me, and I sank down in despair. But the crying of my boy aroused me. I had promised him food when we got there; and when none could be found, he cried bitterly. But I could not shed a tear. I found some green corn, which I tried to eat; but my stomach rejected it. I found some carrots and onions growing in the garden, which I ate raw. My oldest child continued to vomit. I offered him some carrot, but he could not eat it. That night I staid in a cornfield, and in the morning, at daylight, continued my search for food.
“To my great delight, I found the remains of a spoiled ham. Here I may say my good fortune began. There was no more than a pound of it, and that much decayed; and I saved this for my boy, feeding it to him in very small quantities. His vomiting ceased, and he revived rapidly. I gathered more carrots and onions; and with this store of provisions, about eight o’clock on the morning of the third day, I again set forth on my weary road for the residence of Mr. Brown, twenty-five miles distant, and reached it in two days. Under the effects of the food I was able to give my boy, he gained strength, and was able to walk all the last day. When within two or three miles of Mr. Brown’s house, two of our old neighbors from Lake Sheteck settlement overtook us, under the escort of the mail-carrier. Both of them had been wounded by the Indians, and left for dead. Thomas Ireland had been hit with eight balls, and, strange to say, was still able to walk, and had done so most of the way. Mrs. Estleck was utterly unable to walk, having been shot in the foot, in the side, and through the arm. The mail-carrier had given her his seat in the buggy, and was walking beside the horse At first I thought they were the Indians, and that I and my little ones, after five days of such fearful suffering and hunger, must die by the hands of the savages. I did not dare to look around, but kept on my way till overtaken, and then my joy was so great at seeing my friends alive, that I sank to the earth insensible. We staid at Mr. Brown’s house ten days, living on potatoes and green corn. Mr. Ireland and the carrier went on to New Ulm, and found the settlement in ashes, the Indians having burned nearly two hundred houses. A party of twelve men, with a wagon, was sent to our relief, and we were made comfortable; but the sad and sickening thought was now fully confirmed in my mind that my husband had been killed in the general massacre of all the remote settlements, and my fatherless children and myself left beggars.”
It is some gratification to know that the government has been very kind to these unhappy border sufferers, restoring to them the value of their property destroyed. Governor Ramsay considers that not less than five hundred persons were murdered by the savages, and that between twenty thousand and thirty thousand persons fled for their lives, leaving everything behind them. For some months between seven thousand and eight thousand persons, mostly in the sad condition of Mrs. Hurd, were dependent upon the charity of their friends. The property thus lost and destroyed was between two and three millions, most of which was restored by confiscating the annuity paid these Minnesota Sioux. It is also a satisfaction to know that in about a month after the date of these atrocious barbarities, the whole of these Indians were met by our troops in a battle at Wood Lake, on the 22d of September, and utterly defeated. Five hundred were taken prisoners, of whom three hundred were sentenced to be hanged; but the sentence was finally executed on thirty-eight only of the ringleaders. Little Crow, the chief who instigated the whole insurrection, succeeded in making his escape into the wilds of Dacotah.
Mrs. Hurd now finds a home with her brother, in La Crosse, Wisconsin; and though the government has dealt generously with her, and abundant sympathy has been manifested in her sufferings, nothing can bring back to her the murdered husband, the beauty, the loveliness, and the sunny future opening before her on that pleasant August morning, when, like the leap of a tiger, that storm of savage desolation swept upon her, and in a brief half hour left her to the awful consciousness of being a widow, houseless, and without food, with two almost naked children in an open prairie.
The great Latin poet has touched a chord of universal sympathy in his elegant description of the flight of his hero from burning Troy, bearing his aged father on his shoulders, and leading his little boy, who trotted along beside him, his little steps all unequal to the warrior’s stride.
Our heroine bore her two children during a part of her fearful flight, but having been without food for nearly sixty hours, and all the time sustaining the little one on her arm by food from her bosom, was compelled to deposit half her precious cargo in the grass, and return for the other, thus, on the two days when she travelled, advancing twelve miles each day, herself walking thirty-six. Could the force of nature go farther? Do our annals anywhere contain a more remarkable instance of the wonderful sustaining power which maternal love can inspire in the delicate frame of woman?