When war broke out in Minnesota in 1862, there was a great deal of panic that swept throughout the state. Once news of the attacks was received, residents moved quickly to larger settlements and forts for safety. When large settlements or forts were not nearby, they formed their own stockades and temporary forts. Much is known of the major events endured during the U.S. – Dakota War, but much less is known about smaller events and communities where people bound together for safety and protection. One such community was the Sauk River Valley in central Minnesota.
The Sauk River Valley was settled in 1854 by German Catholics who came at the urging the Reverend Francis Pierz, an Indian missionary. A few years later, they were followed by Benedictine monks who established St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Frontier life was difficult as settlers had to endure harsh winters, calamitous grasshopper plagues, and famine.
On August 20, 1862, news of the outbreak of war had reached the Sauk River Valley. Settlers immediately fled to the areas of Richmond, St. Joseph, St. Cloud, and even St. Paul. Many had great concern that the nearby Ojibwe would join the war effort and doom the settlers. But the Benedictine Monks acted quickly to protect the settlers and were instrumental in assisting the various settlements with plans for defense. At Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Richmond, Father Magnus Mayer engineered the protection of the parishioners. Father Magnus opened the church and had the surrounding prairie plowed under and a seven foot high earthen works erected. Also, loopholes were put in the ramparts at intervals.
Though the stockade offered limited protection, the people worked together to ensure their safety. Many of the women and girls were trained to cast bullets while the men, under armed cover, went from one field to the other to collect the harvest. When Father Bruno Riess arrived, he furthered the protection by making a list of all available fighting men, had officers chosen, and reported to the Governor that there was an immediate need for arms and ammunition. After a few weeks, the settlers were ready to return to their homes, but then one evening a dozen families arrived with news of a slaughter not five miles from Richmond. This happened to be a freight wagon of merchants traveling from Pembina to St. Cloud in which three were killed.
By this time Company G. of the 25th Wisconsin Regiment arrived at Richmond to provide relief. However, as reported by Father Riess, for some mysterious reason patrols of troops sent out to scout never came back alive. One night, after the Captain of the Company had been slain, Company G departed never to come back.
It is likely, however, that the men of Company G had become sick with measles. Rather than having been killed, they were sent to the hospital in St. Cloud. Chauncey H. Cooke of Company G. in a letter to his mother October 20, 1862, reported that he and ten of his comrades were laid up.
By October, the war in Minnesota had ended and people began to return to their homes. The Sauk River Valley did not face any major attacks during the war, but showed bravery and resilience in a time of panic and fear. This was thanks in large part to the Catholic ministers like Magnus Mayer and Bruno Riess who helped found the region.
Wedl, Janice and Mary Alice Wedl Keenan. You are my People, I am Your God: History of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, Richmond, Minnesota, 1856-2006. Richmond, Minnesota: The Church, 2006.
Historical Information, St. James Parish, Jacobs Prairie, Minnesota, accessed May 1, 2017, https://stjamesjp.wordpress.com/historical-information/
Cooke, Chauncey H. “A Badger Boy in Blue: The Letters of Chauncey H. Cooke.” Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 4, No. 1. (1920-1921): Pages 75-100.