Ridgely Refugees Report


A Report on Civilian Refugees at Fort Ridgely

in the Dakota Conflict of 1862 as Reported by Norman K. Culver[1]

by Carrie Reber Zeman

Context: The MHS Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscript Collection

Early historians of Minnesota’s 1862 U.S. Dakota War gleaned from two significant sources: extensive military records, and the reports of eyewitnesses.[2] Many of these early historians witnessed an aspect of the Conflict and rounded out their personal experience by compiling material on events they did not observe.[3] Since that time, popular accounts of the Conflict have relied on these early histories as if they were purely primary sources. In fact, they are simply early ones. Most are homogenized: a blend of eyewitness and as-told-to information presented with little distinction and equal authority.

In the last two decades, scholarly research has revisited the cache of manuscript sources on the Conflict, bringing to light, among other things, some long-neglected perspectives of Dakota people. This approach of going back to the sources instead of simply retelling the tale, highlights a rich mine of underused source material on the war: the Minnesota Historical Society’s Dakota Conflict of 1862 Manuscript Collection (MHS microfilm call number M582).[4] Many of these documents had not been recorded or compiled at the time the first wave of Dakota War literature was published. Therefore, they have been largely ignored by the subsequent authors who have relied on the early histories.[5]

The commendation of Duane Schultz’ Over the Earth I Come as a 1992 New York Times Notable Book of the Year demonstrates the danger of placing undue weight on early secondary sources: with each re-telling, much of the lore of the Conflict has been elevated to the level of history.[6] For example, few would argue with writers like Louis Roddis who wrote in 1956, “The settlers were largely peaceable German farmers … the men were killed and women and children taken captive.”[7]  Roddis used the early histories as sources. Schultz and other modern writers cite Roddis as their authority.[8] However, documents available in M582 and elsewhere prompt us to reconsider some of these early assumptions.

This report focuses on one of those documents: the “List of Persons who sought refuge at Fort Ridgely on the outbreak of the Indian War as reported by 1st Lieutenant Norman K. Culver,” which is one of the few non-narrative sources in M582. The Culver manuscript is a typed five page table listing by name those Minnesota frontier settlers who fled to Fort Ridgely during the war. It also records their place of birth, where they were living in1862, their age, and information about the fate of family members. It is the major extant source of information on civilians who found refuge at the Fort.[9]

Since the 1862 population of the five-county area surrounding Fort Ridgely has been estimated at 40,000, the 238 refugees Culver reported is a statistically insignificant sampling of the frontier at that time.[10] However, Culver’s demographics speak for about 70% of the civilians present during the siege of the Fort and may accurately represent the communities in the Fort’s vicinity. These statistics challenge the popular lore. The following report analyzes this demographic data, countering generalizations with facts and suggesting the rich, previously unconsidered detail available to modern historians.


Who Found Refuge at Fort Ridgely?

Norman K. Culver, 1st Lieutenant in the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, Company B, Quartermaster at Fort Ridgely, recorded 238 people, or about 70% of the 350 men, women and children known to have found refuge at this frontier outpost in August 1862 during the first week of the war.[11] The Minnesota Historical Society’s copy of the Culver list entered its collections in December, 1936. The original, which was handwritten, probably on ledger pages similar to other military records made at the time, is missing.[12]

Culver’s report is a table containing six columns of data: a reference number per refugee, name, age, place of birth, place of residence, and “Remarks.” The names of refugees were recorded phonetically.[13] The first names of strings of refugees are recorded simply as initials [numbers 2-46 and 141-190]. Between these sections are blocks of names written out in full. This discrepancy suggests that Culver may have recorded names at several different times, or perhaps compiled the notes of another interviewer with his own.[14] The 238 persons compiled share 92 different surnames, representing about 75 households.[15]

The ages of refugees listed range from 65 year old Mary Froscap (also Frorip) to 6 week old baby William Nain (Nairn). Only 45% of the refugees were adults; 55% were younger than 18. Of these, 80% were eleven or younger and half were under the age of 6 — about 35 of them probably still in diapers. Among other things, this represents as many civilian children as there were enlisted soldiers at the Fort during the siege.

Although unexpected given the circumstances, Culver recorded the refugees’ places of birth as an enumerator would have done in a census.[16] Of those 18 or older, 82% were born outside the United States: 36% in Germany; 15% in Ireland; 10% in Canada. The remaining 39% were born in Scotland, Norway, France, Prussia, England, Poland, and Sweden. Of refugees under the age of 18, 90% were born in the United States, slightly over half of them in Minnesota. Of the 59 children age 5 and younger, only six were born outside the state. Taken together, these statistics describe immigrant adults who, for the most part, had been in Minnesota less than six years at the time of the Conflict. They were native speakers of at least ten different languages.[17] Contrary to popular thought, although there were more German natives than any other nationality (36%), the majority of refugees at Fort Ridgely (64%) were not German.[18]

Also of note are the communities from which refugees fled to Ridgely. 32 people made it to the Fort from Beaver Creek, a largely German settlement on the north side of the Minnesota River. From the French and German settlement on La Croix Creek, 46 refugees were noted.[19] 27 refugees were from West Newton, 4 miles east of Ridgely. Culver recorded 25 refugees as residents of the fort. 25 people lived between the Lower Agency, 12 miles west, and Fort Ridgely. An additional 53 people lived at the Lower Agency or below it and had to cross the Minnesota River to reach the fort. Finally, 25 people whose residence is listed as far east as St. Paul and as far west as Yellow Medicine appear to have been in the vicinity at the time the Conflict began.[20]

“Remarks” comprise Culver’s final column. Often, he recorded simply “Boy” “Girl” or “wife of the above.” More telling are entries like that for V. J. Reynolds: “Niece and servant girl captured;”[21] Mary Zimmerman: “Blind, husband and 2 children killed, relatives in Ohio;” Anna Sampson: “Husband killed and herself badly birned [sic] in escaping;” six month old F. Belte [Julius Boelter]: “Parents killed, now with Fr. Lenc;”[22] 11 year old August Levant: “Parents, 2 sisters and brother killed by the Indians;”[23] Jones Thompson, “wife and 6 children killed or taken prisoners.”[24]

One final piece of information can be extracted from Culver’s report: the number of men versus women among the refugees. 48% of those listed are female, 47% are male and the gender of 5%, almost all of them infants, is not noted. This figure is especially interesting given the popular notion that lopsidedly, men were killed and women taken captive. Culver’s remarks indicate that only 25 families, or about one third of total family units, had one or more members killed or taken captive while fleeing.[25] This is significant given Ridgely’s proximity to the communities which sustained the highest casualty rates.

Who Did Culver Miss and Why?

Culver’s omissions open a window to life inside the fort during the seige. He did not enumerate the quasi-military personnel living at the Fort like chaplain Joshua Sweet, his wife Julia and their three children, and post surgeon Alfred Muller and his wife Eliza. Missing also are some civilians associated with the Fort known to have been present, like post sutler H. B. Randall and his family, and Randall’s assistant George P. Hicks. Culver apparently did not consider them “refugees” since they were more or less permanent residents. But he did list more temporary residents of Ridgely were like the wives and children of enlisted men.

Many others are also missing from Culver’s list. Collating references to refugees in several sources and correcting for different spellings of the same person’s name, it appears that at least 337 civilians found refuge at the Fort in late August, 1862. Culver compiled about 70% of them. How could Culver have missed nearly a third of those who were there? This problem of missing refugees revolves around the time period during which the list was compiled, how it was assembled, and if the list was finished or in progress at the time Culver stopped recording.

So when did Culver enumerate the refugees at Ridgely? The typed manuscript in M582 bears no date. From Culver’s remarks, it appears to have been compiled sometime after refugees began arriving at the Fort — around 10:00 AM on August 18 — and before Sibley evacuated them from the Fort on August 29. In fact, the title suggests the list was complied “on the outbreak of the Indian War.” The title is not original; but whomever added it seems to have believed the list had been compiled early in the War.

Other clues help narrow a time frame for the list’s composition. Sibley placed the number of refugees evacuated from the fort on August 29, 1862 at 300-400. In fact, several sources place the number of refugees at the Fort at 250-300 by the evening of August 18. However, Culver was in St. Peter with the Renville Rangers that day and did not arrive back at Ridgely until the morning of August 19.[26] John Buehro, who was killed when he left the Fort on August 20, does not appear on the list, yet was known to be dead at the time his wife was enumerated.[27] We also know that survivors who reached the Fort as early as August 24th do not appear on Culver’s list.[28] So the current hypothesis is that the list was compiled between August 20 and 24, 1862.

Both internal and external evidence suggest reasons for the list being less than complete. Although the names of men are scattered somewhat randomly throughout the first four pages, the last page departs from this pattern, listing the names of men in blocks. Most of the men so listed did not have families at the fort. In fact the single duplicate name on Culver’s list is one of these men, John Holveson, who appears with his family as number 53, and on the last page is listed alone as number 196.[29] It is likely that these men were on picket or guard duty at the time the majority of the list was compiled and were added to it later.

The list’s reference numbers also provide a clue. In September, 1862 Culver himself referred to a list of refugees he had not tallied before he had forwarded it to Governor Alexander Ramsey with the refugees evacuated on August 29.[30] The context makes it likely that Culver was referring to the holograph for the typed manuscript in M582. If this is true, Culver’s list originally was not numbered. In fact the numbers may have been added to answer the question Culver asked Ramsey: how many people were recorded? (As Fort Quartermaster, Culver needed the number to account for Army supplies consumed by the refugees.)

The reference numbers –and therefore the order of the original –seem to reflect the sequence in which people were recorded. These numbers correlate with geographical and language groupings. This suggests that the names were not recorded as refugees streamed into the fort, but that Culver approached refugees later when they had gathered with neighbors.

Even if the reference numbers were added later, their pattern points out the fact that there was no single building at Ridgely large enough to contain all the refugees.[31] It also would have been surprising given the state of siege to find everyone together: some were literally holding the fort. This hypothesis is also supported by external evidence: the list of Armed Citizens published in the second volume of Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars.[32] There are 70 individuals on this Armed Citizens list, 41 (59%) of whom do not appear on the Culver list. This would be expected if the missing individuals were engaged in defensive activity at the time the list was compiled. The same is true of those listed in the Adjutant General’s “List of Names of Citizens who took part in the defense of Fort Ridgely:” 75% of them are missing from Culver’s list.

Soldier Oscar Wall, who was present during the siege as a member of Company B of the Fifth Minnesota but was stationed away from the refugees, was not aware that Culver’s list had been compiled. He wrote in 1909, “It is regrettable as a matter of history that the names of all who sought the protection of Fort Ridgely during the Sioux Massacre were not preserved,” then rationalized, “but the making of such a record was of little moment at the time when the lives of all at the garrison hung trembling in the balance.”[33] Wall’s observation points to further research: little has been published about the siege from the civilian point of view. Identifying these refugees by name facilitates the necessary search for primary sources.

In summary, the Culver list represents primarily the non-combatant civilians who sought refuge at Fort Ridgely. The data derived from it offers an intriguing glimpse inside the Fort during the siege of August, 1862. The demographics cannot be generalized beyond the vicinity of Fort Ridgely. But they suggest that there is still much to be done to expand upon, nuance, and to correct popular understanding of the US/Dakota Conflict in Minnesota.

[1] This report is the product of ongoing research. Most of the statistics cited are based discrete data — the Culver list — and are not likely to change. However their interpretation and the circumstances surrounding Culver’s compilation continue to be refined.

[2] Many military reports were collected in Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars 1861-1865, 2 vols. [MCIW2](St. Paul: The Board of Commissioners on Publication of History of Minnesota in Civil and Indian Wars, 1890-93).

[3] Isaac V. D. Heard, Charles S. Bryant, Able B. Murch, Lucius F. Hubbard, Harriet Bishop, Edward Neill, Moses Adams, Adrian Ebell etc. Although these early authors are sometimes reported events they witnessed, they rarely distinguish between these events and those reported to them by others. They are also steeped in the racism of their day and must be parsed with care sources.

[4] Anderson and Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes (1988).

[5] The several hundred items in the Collection must be examined with as much caution as the popular histories on the Conflict. Most manuscripts are first-person accounts or as-told-to recollections. Unfortunately, many appear to be an attempt to secure notoriety in history. In fact a number of the manuscripts were written for a contest sponsored by a Minnesota tourism bureau.

[6] Schultz, Duane, Over the Earth I Come (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

[7] Roddis, Louis H. The Indian Wars of Minnesota (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1956).

[8] See also Oehler, C.M. The Great Sioux Uprising (New York: De Capo Press, 1997) originally published in 1959.

[9] See the report on primary sources. The statistic cited here are based on Culver’s data alone; most of the other sources include little demographic information.

[10] “The Archeology and Preservation of Fort Ridgely” in Fort Ridgely: A Journal of the Past (The Minnesota Historical Society, no date) p. 8. Culver’s list does not meet the 5% benchmark for significance in population sampling, nor is it a statistically random sample. However, the Culver data can reliably inform understanding of the larger group of civilian refugees at the Fort since it represents 70% of the whole. Future research may identify the population of the portion of the surrounding area (smaller than the five county estimate) from which settlers would have been likely to flee to or toward Fort Ridgely.

[11] Figure taken from a database of non-military personnel present during the siege compiled by the author. A list derived from the database is listed here.

[12] See, for example, military rosters made in July, 1862, in the Timothy J. Sheehan Papers at the Minnesota  Historical Society. In fact, the information collected suggests Culver may have used a standard Muster Roll worksheet, designed to enroll new Army recruits.

[13] Culver’s spellings are is used here.

[14] One candidate is Andrew W. Williamson, 5th MN Co. B and Quartermaster’s Clerk. In an undated draft of a pension deposition for Williamson, Timothy J. Sheehan wrote that Williamson “had charge of the distribution of commissary supplies to troops and hundreds of citizens … during the siege” and noted the “great amount of clerical work he performed … by candlelight at Fort Ridgely …” (Timothy J. Sheehan papers). Another candidate is Edwin A.C. Hatch. In an August 29, 1862 letter to Governor Ramsey, Lieut. Gov. Donnelly, writing from Fort Ridgely noted 80 people as “Those killed in various scattered settlements west of the fort, as estimated by Major Hatch from statements of refugees.” Hatch was hired by the Northern Superintendency of Indian Affairs to accompany the 1862 annuity payment to the Sioux Agency. But the escort halted at Fort Ridgely about noon on August 18. Hatch spent the siege inside the Fort although his letters to his wife say little of his activity during that time. (Minnesota State Archives Ramsey Gubernatorial Papers; Edwin Hatch and Family Papers, both, MHS.)

[15] The number of households is inexact since many households on the frontier at the time included extended family who may not have shared the same last name.

[16] This is one of the details suggesting the original may have been recorded on a Muster Roll form, which asked for place of birth.

[17] This time frame correlates with the opening of the north side of the Minnesota River Valley for settlement after the land was ceded under the Treaty of 1858.

[18] This “mostly German” estimate at the time probably included residents of the almost entirely German town of New Ulm, 12 miles east of Ridgely, one of the largest settlements on the frontier. Since New Ulm was east of the Conflict’s epicenter, its residents fled away from Ridgely. None appear on Culver’s list or in the database as a whole. The idea also reflects one of the racial biases of the times. At the time the first wave of Conflict literature was written, “Germans” were commonly held to be an inciting element in the outbreak. Before and after the War, it was widely reported that some in New Ulm, the closest legal source of alcohol off the Sioux reservation, sold liquor to the Indians, despite Federal laws prohibiting it. Several prominent authors also labeled the Germans of New Ulm atheistic “infidels,” suggesting its residents deserved the judgment God had supposedly unleashed in the war. Germans came to Minnesota in sufficient numbers to create ethnic- and language-exclusive communities, which alienated many outside of them. “German” may have been generalized to the majority of the frontier by inference: those who were caught up in the Conflict must have been part of the cause.

[19] Known also as Birch Creek and Birch Coulee Creek.

[20] In the future, plotting a density map would be a helpful representation of these statistics.

[21] Valencia J. Reynolds and husband Joseph B. Reynolds were government school teachers and ran a boarding house on the reservation one mile west of the mouth of the Redwood River. Mrs. Reynold’s niece, Mattie Anderson, and two servant girls, Mary Schwandt and Mattie Williams were captured on August 18. Mattie Anderson died in captivity. Mary Schwandt and Mattie Williams were freed at Camp Release.

[22] Julius Boelter, age six months. His father, John was killed at their Middle Township home. His mother, Justina and two other children eluded capture, hiding on the prairie for two months where one child died before they were discovered by a U.S. Army scouting party in October. The baby’s uncle Michael Boelter, whose own family had been killed, found Julius and carried him to Fort Ridgely where Julius was cared for during the siege by a neighbor woman, Mrs. F. Lenz. She had a one year old baby of her own and probably nursed both children. Justina Bolter and Michael Boelter later married.

[23] August was one of three 11 year old orphaned boys at the Fort. See database for: John Kochendorfer, and Gottlieb Lehn Kriegher (given by Culver as “G. Cruer”). There are seven orphaned children total on Culver’s list.

[24] In 2004, historian Walt Bachman deduced that “Jones” is James Thompson.  Thompson’s wife and children were Dakota people of mixed-blood. Therefore they don’t appear on Satterlee’s published lists, but do appear at Camp Release on Stephen R. Riggs original list of freed captives.

[25] The database as a whole suggests that more white women found refuge at the Fort (138) than were held captive (101) during the Conflict.

[26] The Renville Rangers was a group of about 50 volunteers on their way to Fort Snelling to enlist in a Civil War regiment. See Appendix A of this report for a compiled roster of Renville Rangers.

[27] John Buehro and Felix Schmidt left the fort to check on their farms and were killed on August 20. See Adam Rieke reminiscence in Franklyn Curtis-Wedge’s History of Renville County Vol. 1, p. 634, 637 & 639. Felix Schmidt’s name also does not appear on Culver’s list.

[28] Charles Blair, for example, probably arrived no earlier than August 24. Helen Carrothers and her children arrived on August 26 and are also missing from the Culver list.

[29] The figure of 238 persons on Culver’s list includes Holveson counted twice.

[30] N.K. Culver to Alexander Ramsey, September 3, 1862. Minnesota State Archives, Ramsey Gubernatorial Papers, Letters Received, 5th Regiment. Minnesota Historical Society.

[31] Narrative sources report that the women and children were largely confined to the second floor of the stone barracks. This area was designed to sleep most of the building’s 400 soldier capacity. However it was probably furnished with double bunks. The refugees would not have been able to use the upper bunks during the siege because this would have left them exposed to the bullets and arrows that came in through the windows during attacks. The Culver list suggests there were at least 180 women and children. Even the “noble” women missing from Culver’s list –the women noted in other sources as having actively helped defend the fort –were probably sent here to sleep and for safety during battles, which brings the total to at least 200, plus men placed defensively as guards at the windows and doors, plus an unknown number of civilian men who at times deserted their assigned posts to sleep with their families. Refugee Emily West (Culver # 101) reported having spent the siege in the Commissary, which was the only other stone building at the Fort. It is possible that the refugees Culver listed immediately before or after her also spent the siege there.

[32] Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars 2, p.193b.

[33] Oscar G. Wall, Recollections of the Sioux Massacre, p. 119.

4 Responses to Ridgely Refugees Report

  1. Xavier Zolner is mispelled. The last name is correctly spelled as Zollner.
    He was my great uncle,

    • Carrie says:

      Thank you, Martin! The spellings I used here are those used in the original records as this is a transcription of it. The information was collected orally during the siege of Fort Ridgely in 1862, in a fashion similar to a census taker taking a census: a recorder asked the refugee’s name, writing down the spelling that made sense to him (the recorder). The result is that the original record is about as accurate as a census list from the same period, where the spellings are only in the ballpark. Thank you for taking the time to let us know how your family spells it!

  2. Robert W. Keeler says:

    Hello. I just found this blog and find it interesting, well-organized and attractive. Thanks!
    I have a family history link with the 1862 story. My great, great, great aunt was Jane Lobdell Keeler Murch, wife of Abel Bingham Murch. She was among the folks guided by John Other Day from the Yellow Medicine Agency to St. Paul. He was with the Renville Rangers at Fort Ridgley and in 1864 co-authored with Charles Bryant one of the first books on the Dakota War. I have good information on Jane and Abel both before the events of late summer 1862 and about their later lives, but there is something of a gap in the middle. Jane drops out of sight of the documentary record right after the war until emerging in 1870 living with her brother Joel F. Keeler in Pittsburgh, where she dies and is buried under her maiden name Jane L. Keeler, not her married name of Murch. This suggests that the marriage was dissolved either legally or otherwise. Did the trauma and upset of the Minnesota war cause this? No answers. Abel B. Murch, appears in the 1863 St. Paul directory running a restaurant and in the 1864 and ’65 Detroit Directories as a book agent. Apparently, neither he nor Jane returned to the Yellow Medicine Agency and he also seems to have lost his enthusiasm for enlisting in the army after his brief combat experience at Fort Ridgley. In any event, in 1864 a Cincinnati publisher brings out the Bryant and Murch book and in that same year, Abel B. Murch marries a Cincinnati woman named Sarah Ann Brewer. They still live near Cincinnati in the 1870 census, he again listed as a carpenter. In 1871 he emigrates to Ottawa County Kansas and Sarah Ann follows a year later. The live the rest of their lives there, leaving no offspring I’ve been able to find. She died in 1881 and he in 1900.

    I have more detail and sources if you are interested and I would be most interested in learning any further information you might have on Mr. and Mrs. Murch during their year or so in frontier Minnesota.

    In reading p. 109 of Zabelle Stodola’s 2009 book “The War in Words,” she stated that Abel Murch had been a cabinetmaker and book agent before he came to Minnesota. I wonder what the source may be for that statement? I have NEVER found him listed as a cabinetmaker and only as a book agent AFTER the 1862 war. I tried to locate Dr. Stodola online but found that she has retired from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. If there is a way to reach her I’d greatly appreciate it.

    Thanks again and best wishes,

    • Carrie Zeman says:


      Thank you for sharing this fascinating research! I will get out my Murch file and see if I have added anything to it recently that may add to the story you are developing and I will be happy to put Zabelle in contact with you!

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