Back in Time: Frontier tales of Native Americans

A Native American man near the falls in Marine Mills in 1898. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

The library has a host of great books on local history. A friend of mine recently gave me some photocopies of pages from a book titled “Old Rail Fence Corners: Frontier Tales Told by Minnesota Pioneers.”

These pioneers came to Minnesota in the very early days. The tales are told by women who followed either with their husbands or families, trying to carve out a new life in the frontier that was then Minnesota.

Many of the early names of Minnesota are represented, as well as many names from the St. Croix Valley. Reading over their stories, there seemed to be one thing that stuck in their minds about the early days, and that was their encounters with the Native Americans.

I’m going to relay a few of the tales the settlers told. Although some of the language they used is offensive today, these stories reveal a lot about how the early settlers in the area viewed the natives who lived here first.

Mrs. Elizabeth Clifford came to the area because of the health of her father in 1850. Her family had some land six miles north of Stillwater, and the closest neighbor, Mr. Morgan, was two and a half miles away.

Mrs. Clifford wrote that “one day as I glanced from the window, I saw a body of Indian warriors coming on the trail that led around the lake near us. As they came up, I saw they were in full war paint and feathers. They entered, examined everything, but took nothing. They asked for and ate bread and molasses, as they had seen the children doing when they came in. They all had guns and big bowie knives sticking in their belts. One particularly villainous looking one took out his knife and felt the edge, looking wickedly at us. One was exceptionally pleasant looking and I thought he would protect us if the rest got ugly. They finally went away. They were followed in the afternoon by a banc of Chippewa braves who asked if the Sioux warriors had been that way that day. When told they had they rode hurriedly after them. They said the Sioux had taken some Chippewa scalps.”

A Native American teepee in 1894. (Photo courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society)

Another account of an encounter of the Native Americans was that of Mrs. Mahlon Black.

She said that “a large party of Sioux camped right by us. They were dressed for what they were going after, a war dance, and were all painted and feathered. They were looking in the windows always. It used to make me sick to see their tracks where they had gone round and round the house. My husband was on the survey most of the time so I was there alone with my baby a great deal. One Sunday I was all alone when a lot of bucks come in — I was so frightened I took my baby’s little cradle and set it on the table. She had surly hair and they would finger it and talk in their lingo. When they left I took the baby and hailed the first team going by and made them come and stay with me. It was the Cormacks from St. Anthony. I made my husband move back to Stillwater the next day.”

Mrs. Mary E. Dowling came to Marine as Mary Watson in 1855 to teach school. She wrote: “A band of Indians was encamped at a lake near. One brave all dressed in his Sunday best used to come and sit in the kitchen day after day. He used to talk to the men but never said a word to us. He could speak good English. One day the chief came in and went for him. Said he had been away from his tepee for days and his squaws wanted him. Like lightning he crossed the room to where I was and said, ‘Me got Sioux squaw. Me got Winnebago squaw. Me want white squaw. You go?’ I was very earnest in declining.”

There have been other descriptions of early accounts of the Native Americans in the St. Croix Valley. A.B. Easton, in his two-volume History of the Saint Croix Valley, gave a full account of an interview he had done with Lydia Carli before her death. Mrs. Carli came to the St. Croix Valley on June 29, 1841, and had plenty to say about the first Christmas celebrated in the area with some local guests.

“The table had no covering of cloth,” Mrs. Carli said of the merry day. “We didn’t use one for the reason that in the winter it would freeze to the table if anything wet was spilled on it. The Indian guests were not only all eyes and ears in wonder and expectation, but pretty near all mouths when it came to the business of eating. The squaws were on their best behavior, if you know what that is, and if one of them spilled her coffee she scooped it up with remarkable agility.”

The Stillwater Gazette in June 1871 noted a distinguished arrival in Stillwater: “Two noted squaws, supposed to be two chief’s daughters, from the upper St. Croix — Miss Mindy Wajlen and Miss Mus-ce-was-ro-bqua, or Mag — came down on the Wyman X, to pay a visit to our city and see the great show. They attracted much attention in our city. As this is the first railroad or locomotive they have ever seen, the iron horse interests them very much.”

The early days were full of wonder and discovery, for both the newcomers and the Native Americans. Soon, the territory was full of new settlers, who eventually would expand across the entire United States.

Brent Peterson is the executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.