Will the Real Justina Kriegher Please Stand Up?

I’ve been working Louis Thiele’s story for several years. My last post on Thiele sat in my drafts folder for weeks, awaiting a quick polish before its turn at the top of my home page. Or so I thought.

The draft had a small hole: I needed to fact-check a few sentences about Thiele’s encounter with Justina Kriegher, the settler woman he almost shot when he mistook her for an Indian.

So I pulled Charles Bryant’s 1864  A History of the Great Massacre  By the Sioux Indians in Minnesota off my shelf. Bryant’s version of Kriegher’s story has stood as the Justina Kriegher story for 149 years. But I knew I’d encountered other versions so pulled some files and sat down to read.

Tttt color

I’m relieved to report I don’t remember To Tell the Truth in black and white. 

The exercise made me feel like a panelist on one of the TV game shows of my childhood: To Tell the Truth. Except at the end of this episode, I can’t guess who the real Justina Kriegher is. Can you?

The text in blue below is a direct quote.

Host: Contestants, on what authority do you rest your claim for telling Justina Kriegher’s story?

Contestant Number 1

“Here we propose to give the personal narrative of Justina as reported by a sworn German interpreter attending on the Sioux Commission, and taken down by the author, with the permission of the commissioners, for such use as might, in the future, seem proper. –EDITOR” [Charles S. Bryant, 1863]

Contestant Number 2

I knew her as Augusta Meyer. By the end of her life her name was Augusta Justina Kitzman Lehn Krieger Meyer Yonke. Mrs. Meyer related this story to me in German, which is my first language.  I wrote it down and published her story in German in 1908. It was translated into English in 1959. I served the St. Paul and St. Peter Mission of the German Evangelical Church in Minnesota from 1857 to 1859. Our Evangelical Association had a congregation at Beaver Creek, where Mrs. Meyer lived in 1862 and I visited with her after the war. [Rev. August Huelster]

Contestant Number 3

“My name is Romy and I am a native of Germany. I have been working on Justina’s letters for a while…. I am self-taught in the Old German script [Justina used]…. After having worked on a number of documents in the past, I have to admit that Justina’s missives presented a challenge like no other…. I did get my old German friend (83) in our city involved, my parents in Germany (81 and 80), and a couple of other people in Bavaria, who asked their relatives and friends.  It was a group effort, but unfortunately not more came of it that I had already accomplished myself…. Justina had a distinctive writing style. Due to the many grammar and spelling errors, it is my impression she did not have much schooling.” [Romy H. Hall October 7, 2005]

Host: Contestants, please tell us how Justina was wounded by the Dakota warriors who attacked her family while they were fleeing from their home to Fort Ridgely in 1862:

Contestant Number 1 [Bryant]

Justina said: “I stood yet in the wagon, refusing to get out and go with the murderers, my own husband, meanwhile,  begging me to go, as he saw they were about to kill him. He stood by the wagon, watching an Indian at his right, ready to shoot, while another was quite behind him, with his gun aimed at him. I saw them both shoot at the same time. Both shots took effect in the body of my husband, and one of the balls passed through his body and stuck my dress below the knee. My husband fell between the oxen, and seemed not quite dead, when a third ball was shot into his head, and a fourth into his shoulder, which, probably, entered his heart.

I now determined to jump out of the wagon and die beside my husband, but, as I was standing up to jump, I was shot, seventeen buck-shot, as was afterward ascertained, entering my body. I then fell back into the wagon box….

All that I then knew was the fact that I was seized by an Indian and very roughly dragged from the wagon, and that the wagon was drawn over my body and ankles. I was not dead. I suppose the Indians then left me for a time, how long I do not know, as I was for a time almost, if not quite, insensible. When I was shot the sun was shining, but when I came to myself, it was dark….

I remained on the field of the massacre, and in the place where I fell when shot until eleven or twelve o’clock that night, on Tuesday, August 19. All this time, or nearly so, unconscious of passing events, I did not even hear the baby cry. At this time of night, I arose from the field of the dead, with a feeble ability to move at all. I soon hear the tread of savage men, speaking in the Sioux language….These two went over the field, examining the dead bodies, to rob them of what yet remained upon them. They soon came to me, kicked me, then felt my pulse, first on the right hand and then on the left, and to be sure, felt for the pulsation of the heart.

I remained silent, holding my breath. They probably supposed me dead. they conversed in Sioux for a moment. I shut my eyes, and awaited what else was to befall me with a shudder. The next moment a sharp pointed knife was felt at my throat, then, passing downward, to the lower portion of the abdomen, cutting not only the clothing entirely from my body, but actually penetrating the flesh, making but a slight wound on the chest, but, at the pit of the stomach, entering the body and laying it open to the intestines themselves! My arms were then taken separately out of the clothing. I was seized rudely by the hair, and hurled headlong to the ground, entirely naked.”

Contestant Number 2 [Huelster]

Justina said: “….we were on our knees praying, when my husband sank to the ground, hit by a bullet. The horrible cries of the wild men, the pitiful weeping of the parents and their dying children was something that could never be imagined. I myself had been hit by a bullet, wounding my shoulder, and had fallen to the ground.

All of this happened within a few short minutes time, between three and four o’clock in the afternoon. The following morning I awoke to consciousness, for a time I felt much pain, when I looked up I saw two Indians approaching and looking at me, taking me for dead, they cut off all my clothing then rode away. After I was certain they had gone, I ventured to raise up and look around, but what a dreadful sight! I saw my loved ones stabbed, shot and torn, their bodies all on the ground.

Again I fainted from pain and horror. It was much later when I again regained consciousness and managed to crawl through the tall grass toward the stream. Here I was forced to remain quietly for three days and two nights, suffering intense pain of my wounded shoulder.”

Contestant Number 3

Justina did not write any thing about this in the letters I translated.

Host: Contestants, please tell us how Louis Thiele and John Meyer found Justina two weeks later.

Contestant Number 1 [Bryant]

Justina said:“I was again lost, and did not know where to go. I wandered about in the woods, hunting for my way, and took an eastern course until I came to a creek again. Now I saw I must be near the Minnesota River. I went to a house near by, took a piece of buffalo robe, went to the river bottom and lay down to rest….

Here I felt sure I must die, and that I should never leave this place alive. The cold sweat was upon my forehead. With great effort I raised to take one more look around me, and, to my surprise, I saw two persons with guns, but could not tell whether they were white men or Indians. I rejoiced, however, because I thought they would put an end to my sufferings. But, as they came near, I saw the bayonets, and knew that they were white soldiers, and made signs for them to come to me. The soldiers, fearing some trick, seemed afraid to come near me. After making sundry examinations, they finally came up. One of my neighbors, Lewis Daily, first advanced, and, seeing I was a white woman, called to his partner, who also come up. They soon brought me some water, and gave me a drink, and wet my head, and washed my face, and then carried me to a house nearby. Here they proposed to leave me until the other troops came up. One of them went to a house and found me a dress, and put it on me, the clothes I had on being all torn to pieces.”

Contestant Number 2 [Huelster]

Justina said: “So I walked on, back and forth, here and there. Often I would come across dead human bodies and cattle. In fact the entire region seemed dead and destroyed. After long wandering, I came upon a log cabin and saw a calf skin stretched on the outside door. I loosened the skin and put it around my body in order to cover my nakedness.

The pain in my shoulder was intense and hunger pains were almost as painful, almost more than I could bear even though I had a strong constitution. I lapsed into unconsciousness again. Three nights and two days I was delirious, and I dreamed that I was on a narrow path, a large door was open before me and as I neared it I heard someone say: “You must suffer even more.” Upon awakening I faced the muzzle of a gun, after motioning to my injured shoulder and begging for a cold drink, a soldier came toward me, who had taken me for an Indian, because of the calfskin covering, then he said,”For God’s sake whose woman are you?” I told him my name and he removed his own coat and covered me.”

Contestant Number 3 [Hall]

Justina did not write any thing about this in the letters I translated.

Host: Contestant Number 3, are you conceding that Contestant Number 1 or Contestant Number 2 is the real Justina Kriegher? Do you have nothing to say?

Contestant Number 3 [Hall]

I cannot speak for the veracity of Contestant Number 1 or Contestant Number 2. I can only let you hear Justina’s voice in my translation of a  letter she wrote in 1907. Here is an excerpt:

“December 28,1907

O my dear children,

I want to write a few lines to you. I wish you God’s rich blessings in the New Year. He may keep you healthy, and give you what you are in need of. I still suffer from the poisoning in my stomach. The others are all healthy here. I am here at Mine’s. Jannke wants that I should come home again. After I had been away from him, I have tried it two times, but I could not stand it….

So we rode toward home, but he was so angry. Nevertheless he said nothing, neither did I –until where one goes across the road from Mins Saul. Then he jumped around toward me, on his seat. Then I thought it was the end of me. Then he berated me and my children something terribly. But I was totally silent, and when he was done I said to him what my kids have done. It is not my fault, I have not set a bad example, and they are not whore-children like yours, and I have kept myself in control, unlike you. You committed adultery. You have eaten, boozed, and farted. I tell you in the name of God that if you do not repent in front of God, so you are lost, and also have given me poison.

Then he didn’t have anything to say anymore until we got home. Then I blacked out. Lise was not at home. She had gone to her sister. I prepared the evening meal for us. At night, he jumped up and out of bed about 12 and 1 o’clock and terribly berated me again and you all. He did poison me, it was said, and he did not do it, as if I had bought the poison myself, and my whore-ragtags had brought it to me and had placed many small bottles on the bureau. Then I got up and told him, Do you think I would buy myself poison, or my children would do this and give me the same in order to kill me [make me dead]. When my children were with me I felt better…..

[After another suspected poisoning incident, Justina left home again.]

On Wednesday it was Christmas. Then I and Mine went again to him and helped him butchering. He has slaughtered 28 geese, 1 pig, 1 cow, and we have done all we could for him. Cleaned and cut up the geese, fried them until we got the grease, made blood and liver sausage, made suet. But he was very off-putting toward us. I felt Mine was in the way here, but without her I would not have gone there….He only wants me at home so he could fully murder me….”

At this point in To Tell the Truth, the host asked each celebrity panelist to vote for the  “real” person two of the three contestants were impersonating.

What do you think? Who among these three contestants represents the real Justina Kriegher? Any of them? You can use the comments to vote if you want.

In a follow-up post, I’d like to talk about what contesting stories like Justina’s mean in history and why they matter to us today. If you have any thoughts, feel free to share.



Charles S. Bryant and Able B. Murch, A History of the Great Massacre  By the Sioux Indians in Minnesota. (Cincinnati: Rickey  & Carroll) 1864.

August Huelster, Gnadenwunder (Kasson, MN: the author) 1908. Translation 1959 by Louise Block for the Wisconsin Conference.

Romy M. Hall, letter “To Justina’s ancestors” October 7, 2005 and related materials, Justina Krieger file, Brown County [MN] Historical Society.

To Tell the Truth photo, Google Images.

This entry was posted in Doing Historical Research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Will the Real Justina Kriegher Please Stand Up?

  1. Pingback: History Is a Fun House Mirror | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

  2. Pingback: Whitewashing History, Part I | A Thrilling Narrative of Indian Captivity: Dispatches from the Dakota War of 1862

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