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Odd Wisconsin Archive

An Overwhelming Invasion of Maniacs

In late August 1862, a coalition of Sioux bands in Minnesota, angered by continuing white incursion and failure of the U.S. government to make payments authorized by treaties, attacked settlers and Indian Agencies southwest of the modern Twin Cities. In what came to be known as the Sioux Uprising, warriors of these bands attacked New Ulm and nearby villages, killing more than 100 settlers in the first week.

Wisconsin steamboat pilot George Merrick helped carry troops up the Mississippi to suppress the uprising. He spoke with Dakota elder Henry Standing Bear, who described the Sioux point of view this way:

"They saw the whites steadily encroaching upon their hunting grounds, appropriating the best to their own use, ravishing their women, killing their men, and poisoning whole tribes with their "fire-water". Against their wills they were driven from their ancient homes -- "removed", was the word -- after having been tricked into signing treaties that they did not understand, couched in legal terms that they could not comprehend, receiving in exchange for their lands a lot of worthless bric-a-brac that vanished in a week. If they protested or resisted, they were shot down like so many wolves, and with as little mercy." Merrick concluded, "What man is there among the whites who would not fight under such circumstances? Our forefathers fought under less provocation and their cause has been adjudged a righteous cause."

When news of the Sioux Uprising reached Wisconsin, settlers from La Crosse to Lake Michigan reacted with hysteria. Many adult men in each community were off fighting the Civil War in the South, leaving non-combatants such as women, children and the elderly back on the home front. Many of them were very recent immigrants from Europe who had had little or no contact with Native Americans, and news of an Indian uprising spread terror across the state.

Lucy de Neveu, who ran a farm outside Fond du Lac and had known Wisconsin Indians all her life, recalled that "my children came rushing home from school, scared nearly to death. One of my sons, Arthur, was hardly able to articulate. They all told the same tale -- the Indians were coming, and Mr. Germond [a neighbor] was going to call for all and take us into town. ... Mr. Haight came and forced me into his wagon, but before I had gone a mile I asserted myself and refused to go further... and home I came. My maid had been at the family washing and when she flew away she threw the clothes right and left, and these I began sorting, not knowing what else to do, keeping a sharp lookout for Indians in case there were some, which I did not believe for one moment, as there were none anywhere about, and before many hours had elapsed many groups of people went home, passing our house -- many of them asserting they had only gone down town shopping." In Eau Claire, G.H. Parker recalled that the congregation fled the church, people left dinners on the table, and brave men hid under their porches when the cry of "Indians!" was raised.

In Milwaukee -- 300 miles from the actual uprising -- riders came rushing in on horseback from Waukesha shouting, "The Eenjuns are coming!" According to the Oconomowoc Free Press the following year, "From all directions and in all conditions, men, women, and children came pouring into Milwaukee by every possible means of conveyance. And all were mortally panic stricken, all filled with the tales of the most horrible outrages... Reputable men, convulsed with fright, rushed up and down the street, relating scenes of which they claimed to have been eyewitnesses... Hartland was burned;... Oconomowoc lay in ashes; all the good people of Pewaukee had been murdered... It was as though an overwhelming invasion had taken place from a populous country of maniacs... The more horrible and extravagant the incoming reports were, the more eagerly the apprehensive populace seized upon them as true... Without doubt, this 'Indian scare' is the most ridiculous and disgraceful episode in the city's history..."

In the end, of course, there was no violence in Wisconsin. In Minnesota, however, more than 500 whites and 60 Indians died in a month of fighting.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on May 28, 2008

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