Hot Water, Part 2

“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.” –Maza Okiye Win. 


 In Part 1 of this post, Dakota stories told us that children in at least three Dakota families, as adults, bore burn scars attributed to being doused with scalding water on the march from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling in November, 1862.

Retribution, Not Defense 

Before moving on to the question of where the scalding happened, note that an important detail agrees in four of the five sources I quoted in Part I.

Sarah Purnell is the outlier. She recalled the women of South Bend boiled hot water “as a means of defense” on August 19 or 20, 1862 —during the opening days of the war, when hundreds settlers like Purnell’s family, in communities west of South Bend, were being killed by Dakota warriors.

No matter your opinion on whether the war’s opening attacks on unarmed civilians constituted “just” warfare, most of us would agree that given warning, people of any race would try to defend their families. For example, a few days after the citizens of South Bend stayed up all night to keep the kettles boiling, 100 miles west, at Hazlewood on the Upper Reservation, the Dakota Peace Coalition formed an armed Soldiers’ Lodge to defend their families from threatened attacks by Little Crow’s soldiers.

But don’t miss context of the other four stories. The Dakota stories likely date to Monday, November 10, 1862, and the soldiers’ stories date to Sunday, November 9, 1862. The military phase of the 1862 segment of the U.S. Dakota War had ended six weeks earlier when the Peace Coalition turned the settler captives over to Sibley at Camp Release on September 26, 1862.

So in the majority of extant stories, the water boiled to be poured on Dakota people was not prepared as a weapon of defense, but as a weapon of retribution.

“Historcal Truth” and a Hypothesis

Where were the Dakota women and children scalded with water hurled from upper story windows? This is not simply one of those “little details” popular historians like to jibe scholarly historians for caring to get right.

If we don’t hypothesize a location, then scour the documentary sources written by people in that place at that specific time, we will not be able to prove or disprove the hypothesis. In many cases, including this story, the information uncovered disproving a hypothesis can be as historically fruitful as proving it.

The activities of history are acts of discovery. Historians who submit their story-telling agendas to the rigors of the scholarly discovery process often find they were wrong. But every hypothesis shown to be wrong leads closer to historical truth of what actually may have happened.

“Historical truth” is a fairly narrow construct that answers factual questions like: Who? How Many? Where? When? And, sometimes, How? Other forms of truth can be more helpful in approaching questions like: Why? What did this mean then? What does this mean now?

So, with the intent of furthering historical inquiries into the “Where?” of this story, here’s the Henderson hypothesis: In November 1862, the Dakota women and children on the march to Fort Snelling were scalded with hot water as they passed through Henderson, Sibley County, Minnesota.

Digitally enhanced detail of the Dakota women’s and the Dakota prisoners’ November 1862 march routes from Map 3 in A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

 The Historic Women’s March

The Dakota women’s march group left the Lower Sioux Agency on the morning of November 7, 1862, crossed to the north bank of the Minnesota River at the Lower Sioux Agency, and spent the night in camp near Fort Ridgely.

The Dakota women and children for whom the “Women’s March” is named were not alone. They were accompanied by some Dakota men: those too elderly to have fought in the war; and by leaders of the Dakota Peace Coalition –mature men (generally over the age of 30, but not elderly) who had worked to bring the war to an end.

The whole group, numbering about 1,700 people, was guarded and escorted by about 200 Federal soldiers commanded by William R. Marshall. The convoy spent the next two days, November 8-9, 1862 walking east and camping at night, along an east-west wagon road, the Henderson-Fort Ridgely Trail. [1] Today, Minnesota State Route 19 approximates the Fort Ridgely to Henderson leg of the historic march route.

This historic route over which the women’s group were taken to Fort Snelling is confirmed by period primary sources including a claim dated November 10, 1862 for the purchase of ten bushels of corn and ten bushels of oats, “delivered to Wm. R. Marshall, Lieut. Col. 7th R. while transporting Indians and Soldiers from Fort Ridgely to Fort Snelling.” The claim was filed by Fred Greenhagen, whose farm was adjacent to the Henderson-Fort Ridgely trail, west of Henderson in Sibley County. [2]

On September 8, 1862, the second day of the march, an appeal appeared on the first page of the St. Paul Daily Press:

“We have been shown a private letter from Lieut. Col. Marshall, in which, after referring to the fact that Gen. Sibley has entrusted him with the removal  to Fort Snelling of those Indians who have been declared by court martial to be either friendly, or guiltless of the late massacre, with a considerable body of women and children. He earnestly deprecates any molestation, by the inhabitants of the Minnesota Valley. Reports of threats to this effect have reached him, and we urge his appeal that no attempt will be made to execute them.”[3]

Why Henderson?

The burn patterns reported in Dakota history –heads, backs, shoulders, arms –matches the oral history reports that scalding water was poured down upon them from a “big building.”[4]

Which locations on the historic women’s march route had “big” (possibly two-story) buildings? The Lower Sioux Agency is not an option. Before Dakota warriors set the Lower Agency on fire on August 18, 1862, there were a few two-story buildings in the town, like the boarding house and the Federal warehouse. But by November 1862, they were in ruins and the Lower Agency town was not inhabited.

The “big” buildings at Fort Ridgely like the barracks also do not fit the oral history descriptions of a town where citizens hurled cans, potatoes, sticks, and hot water. Further, there is no indication the women’s route passed through the Fort’s parade grounds, in range of its two-story buildings.

So the first two documented locations along the historic women’s march route, the Lower Sioux Agency and Fort Ridgely, don’t fit the stories told about the attack with boiling water.

In 1990, Elsie Cavender specifically identified New Ulm as the town where her grandmother, Maza Okiye Win, was assaulted. However, in a longer, earlier telling of Maza Okiye Win’s story, Elsie Cavender detailed the process by which she (Cavender) concluded the attack had occurred at New Ulm. Maza Okiye Win herself, Cavender reported, did not know the name of the town where she had been attacked.

This is not the only case where oral history has grafted in bits of information originating in written sources, in this case, incorporating a historical error.[5] So while New Ulm would have been the first town with “big” buildings from which hot water might have been hurled if the Dakota women’s convoy was on the south side of the Minnesota River, they were not. They were on the north side, perhaps 20 miles away on the Henderson-Fort Ridgely Road.

(An important exception are the small number of Dakota women and their young children who accompanied the prisoners to South Bend. These women and children might have been scalded at any place hot water is known to have been prepared for use against the Dakota prisoners, like at New Ulm. Their story will appear in a future post.)

So Henderson, not New Ulm, is the first Minnesota River valley town of any size the women’s convoy encountered. Marshall had heard threats of attempts to “execute” Dakotas in the women’s convoy once it left the depopulated prairie and reached the still-settled Minnesota River valley (where the larger towns east of New Ulm had not been evacuated).

Despite his public appeal for mercy on these innocent Dakota people, Marshall’s fears came true. The Dakota women’s convoy was attacked at Henderson. Sam Brown reported:

“I went along with Colonel Marshall’s detachment, the train measuring about four miles in length. At Henderson…we found the streets crowded with an angry and excited population, –cursing, shouting, crying. Men, women, and children, armed with guns, knives, clubs, and stones, rushed upon the Indians as the train was passing by and, before the soldiers could interfere and stop them, succeeded in pulling many of the old men and women, and even children from the wagons by the hair of the head and beating them,and otherwise inflicting injury upon the helpless and miserable creatures.

As Bad As Savages

I saw and enraged white woman rush up to one of the wagons and snatch a nursing babe from its mother’s breast and dash it violently on the ground. The soldiers instantly seized her and led, or rather dragged, the woman away and restored the papoose to its mother, limp and almost dead. Although the child was not killed outright, it died a few hours later. The body was quietly laid away in the crotch of a tree a few miles below Henderson and not far from Faxon. Here, soldiers did what they could to protect the people.”[6]

This attack at Henderson was also recounted by Gabriel Renville,  one of the principal men in the Peace Coalition’s Soldier’s Lodge, in a narrative dating to about 1863.[7] While neither Brown nor Renville mention scalding water in their stories, they were only two among more than 2,000 eyewitnesses and likely could not see what was happening blocks away at the other end of the convoy.

So we know from stories of the documented attack on the women’s convoy at Henderson that Marshall’s soldiers were taken by surprise. The outstanding question is whether hot water was among the weapons used by the citizens of Henderson against Dakota people on November 10, 1862.

Regardless of the location of the attack with boiling water, these stories of scalding significant enough to leave permanent scars leave us with a new factor to consider regarding the mortality rate among Dakota people during the following months of their internment at Fort Snelling. Some of them were recovering from burns significant enough to slough skin and thus were susceptible to infection.

Some Dakota children survived their burns and lived to tell their stories. How many others did not?


[1] For chronologies of the women’s march, see Mary H. Bakeman and Alan R. Woolworth, “The Family Caravan,” in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins (Prairie Echoes, 2008), and p. 35 in Becky Weinberg’s May 2007 Cura grant report, The Dakota Women’s March, commissioned by Dakota historians.

[2] For details, see the sources cited in Note 1 above. Bakeman discovered the Greenhagen claim. A digital reproduction appears on p. 66 of Trails of Tears. Greenhagen’s farm is shown on the fold-out map of the historic woman’s march route in the same volume. Lisa Elbert, a participant in the Dakota Commemorative March, was the first to hypothesize the Henderson-Fort Ridgely Trail march route for the women’s group in her MA Thesis, “Tracing Their Footsteps: The Dakota Marches of 1862” (University of Minnesota, December 2005). Copy available at the Minnesota Historical Society.

[3] St. Paul Daily Press November 8, 1862 quoted in Bakeman and Woolworth essay in Trails of Tears, 61-62.

[4] For Dakota stories from the 1862 march and modern Dakota perspective on the Commemorative March including photos, see Waziyatawin Angela Wilson, editor, In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century. St.Paul, MN: Living Justice Press 2006.

[5] I trace the process by which this mistake probably entered the oral history stream and why that belief is more resonant than the factual truth in, Carrie R. Zeman, “Through the Heart of New Ulm: The Persistence of Place in Stories of the 1862 Dakota Exile,” in Trails of Tears: Minnesota’s Dakota Indian Exile Begins (Prairie Echoes, 2008), 123-147.

[6] Brown, Samuel J.  In Captivity: the Experience, Privations and Dangers of Samuel J. Brown and Others While Prisoners of the Hostile Sioux during the Massacre and War of 1862. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900. Edited reprint available in, Anderson, Gary Clayton and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: narrative accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

[7] Renville, Gabriel. “Narrative Account of the Sioux massacre in Minnesota in 1862.” In The South Dakotan. 11 (November 1903): 4-17. Edited reprint available in Anderson and Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes.

Image credits: BitterSweet Coffee and Gifts, Henderson, Minnesota, Google Images. Base Map 3 produced under a Legacy Grant, copyrighted 2012 by the Pond Dakota Heritage Society.

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

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