Hot Water

Henderson, Minnesota

Few stories tell us as much about the mindset of Minnesotans in the wake of the 1862 war. Or how little we know today about who we were then.

Dakota people told us first. It took years of listening to begin to hear parallel stories in white-authored sources.

In 1990, Elsie Cavender reported that her Grandmother, Maza Okiye Win, had told her: “When they came through New Ulm they threw cans, potatoes, and sticks. They went on through the town anyway. The old people were in the cart. They were coming to the end of the town and they thought they were out of trouble. Then there was a big building at the end of the street. Someone threw hot, scalding water on them. The children were all burned and the old people, too. As soon as they started to rub their arms the skin just peeled off. Their faces were like that, too. The children were all crying, even the old ladies started to cry, too. It was so hard it really hurt them but they went on.”[1]

In 2002 Kathryn Akipa reported: “Our great grandmother, Emma Ortley, Wasicu caze (English name), she was a little girl during that time. She was one of those children who had hot boiling water thrown down on her when she was walking. Her mother had been killed in the uprising. Her mother’s little sister was like a teenager, and she saved her little niece, Kunsi Emma. When they were force walked like that, she had hot water thrown on her. She remembered all of that. She healed from her wounds, but she still carried that scar.”[2]

These two stories sat in my file penciled “Hot Water” until 2006. That year, I added a Post-It reminding me of a new story a Dakota friend told me about a great-grandmother, a child on the 1862 march, who rarely talked about the burn scars on her shoulder and arm she kept hidden under dresses.

It wasn’t just that it was a third source. (Historians like to see a least three sources  supporting a story.) It was shared so-matter-of-factly: she had children, sang in choir, kept burn scars up her sleeves.

Those scars suggest that, as a little girl in 1862, she was walking on the right side of the convoy as they came down the hill into Henderson. Henderson is the city that best fits the historic route of the women’s march in 1862. And it best fits the descriptions passed down in Dakota families.

But where did the scalding water come from? In 2006 I dimly recalled reading that  hot water was used as a thermal weapon in distant places like ancient Greece.  But on Main Street in Minnesota in 1862?

Once the question registered, I began finding references to hot water in primary sources. None of them are linked to Henderson. But they support the claim at the heart of the Dakota stories: Minnesotans were prepared to douse Dakota people with boiling water, and some are said to have attempted it.

Sarah Purnell Montgomery wrote of the defense of South Bend (opposite Mankato on the south bank of the Minnesota River) on about August 19-20: “As a means of defense we filed every available tub and vessel with water drawn from a nearby well and laboriously carried up an outside stairway. Fires were kept burning during the night to keep the water boiling, and had the Indians attacked us, as they intended to do that night, they would have received from our windows showers of boiling water.”[3]

Two primary sources specifically associate boiling water with the attack on the prisoners’ wagon train as it passed outside New Ulm in 1862. On November 14, 1862 Charles “Herb” Watson, one of the soldiers on the prisoners’ march, wrote in a letter home, “…we did not come through town [New Ulm] because we heard that they were going to kill the Indians they had barrels of hot water to throw down on them to scauld [sic] them.”[4]

Thomas Watts, another soldier on the prisoner’s march recalled much later, in 1923: “Probably New Ulm harbored the greatest prejudice against the Indians of any town in Minnesota…. Instead of going through town, he veered off to the right about half a mile. When the people discovered this fact they came rushing out in great numbers to meet us, both men and women, armed with all conceivable weapons. The men carried guns, revolvers, pitchforks and scythes. The women were armed with brooms and mops, as well as the proverbial kettle of hot water. As soon as they found the caravan would not stop for them to pour hot water down the backs of those children of nature, they deposited their teakettles on the ground and commenced gathering stones in their aprons and bringing them to their male companions to throw at the fiends.”[5]

In part 2 of this post, I’ll explore why the town of Henderson, not New Ulm, is currently the leading candidate for the city where white people scalded Dakota women and children with water in 1862.


[1] Cavender, Elsie “Eye Witness Report from Maza Okiya Win (Isabel Roberts) in 1862 as told to and carried by Elsie Cavender passed to Angela Cavender Wilson by Elsie Cavender in 1990” unpublished typescript. Brown County [Minnesota] Historical Society.

[2] Kathryn Akipa quoted in In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors, Living Justice Press, 2006.

[3] Montgomery, Sarah Purnell “Sioux Uprising —Interesting Personal Experiences. Reminiscences of Mrs. Thomas Montgomery” [Minneapolis Sunday Tribune?] March 17, 1940. Clipping. Brown County Historical Society. In the Footsteps (above) misattributes Purnell’s story to New Ulm.

[4] Charles H. Watson, Camp Lincoln, to Father November 14 1862. C.H. Watson letters, the Minnesota Historical Society.

[5] Thomas Watts “Campaigner Mourns Measles That Kept Him From Indian Hanging Bee” in The Minneapolis Tribune August 5, 1923.

Photo credit: Henderson, Minnesota, Wikimedia Commons.

This entry was posted in Dakota Commemorative March, Indian Hating, Primary Sources, truth-telling. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Hot Water

  1. Pingback: Hot Water, Part 2 | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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