"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Paul Revere-like ride out here in 1866

The image (from Panoramio) shows a building at Sam Brown Memorial Park, Browns Valley.
 
The idea of warning people about something from horseback is romanticized. We might have Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to thank for that. He wrote about "Paul Revere's Ride."
Remember the final scene in the noteworthy 1960s movie "The Russians Are Coming?" The town drunk, having spent much of the movie trying to chase down a horse to get on it, is finally on his way. This of course is after the matter at hand has been decided. In a tattered parody of the Revere ride, he shouts "the Russians are coming!"
We laughed because of course drunks were funny then. The "town drunk" was a staple on "Andy of Mayberry" ("Otis," who locked himself into the jail for a good night's sleep).
We're more enlightened now. We're also past the Cold War. So "The Russians are Coming" is a dated movie on multiple counts. Brian Keith was the gruff police chief, remember? Jonathan Winters was in his prime.
Paul Revere's Wikipedia page became sort of a battleground after Sarah Palin talked about the horseman in a cockeyed way. She said Revere made his ride to warn the British we had guns. Politicians of her stripe - the "crazies" as Chris Matthews might call them - tailor their rhetoric for gun rights. History shouldn't be a casualty.
We here in western Minnesota can take great pride in how a Revere-like ride once unfolded. It's quite the story. It goes back to the very raw early days of settlement here. Chapter 1 of Morris area history is the Wadsworth Trail. I have written two previous posts on this, one on each of my sites. There is more that can be related.
When I say "chapter 1" I mean that literally, because it's my understanding there never were any permanent Indian settlements in the Morris area. Never mind the script for the Morris Centennial program in 1971; that was a generic script with Morris names and landmarks penciled into the blanks.
We can presume meadowlarks and burrowing owls presided here before the 1860s.
War was like a scourge on all of America in the 1860s. Whole libraries can be filled with books about the Civil War. Odd and sad, because we as a society would be better served focused on peacetime, not war. But maybe war was God's harsh hand in dealing with us and our sin - slavery at the forefront.
The Civil War was devastating beyond words. But there was a conflagration in the interior of the U.S., right here in Minnesota, in 1862, every bit as savage and tragic as anything out east.
Minnesota did send soldiers to the Civil War. Oh boy, did we ever. The "First Volunteers" had a big role at Gettysburg. It was almost like a suicide mission. They had to block a hole vs. advancing Confederates from Alabama (the "Alabamians").
Here's what happened in Minnesota: We had the U.S.-Dakota War. It was a bloody six-week-long confrontation. Hundreds of lives were lost on both sides. At the end we saw the horrific (even if carefully weighed) execution of 38 Dakotas. That biggest mass execution in state history was ironically and tragically on the day after Christmas.
The year 1862 was when God was like a scythe with lives lost in the Civil War's Battle of Antietam. Ditto what happened in Minnesota with our particular conflict.
Four years later there was still much nervousness about potential for more conflicts between Indians and settlers. Thus we had the dramatic ride of a fellow named Sam Brown, who I'm sure Palin never heard of. The ride was longer and maybe even more dramatic than Revere's, so certainly the talent of poet Longfellow could be applied.
The Upper Midwest was in its infancy for settlement. So we weren't much into the annals of culture yet.
Brown had a horse brimming with vitality. He rode through the night and all the next day in April of 1866. This was the year after the Civil War ended. The Wadsworth Trail was just getting started. The trail led to Fort Wadsworth near Sisseton. Named for a Civil War general (and not Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), the fort later got the name Fort Sisseton.
Sam Brown was the son of Major Joseph Brown who inspired the town name of Browns Valley.
Sam was an Indian agent in the Fort Wadsworth District. He was a scout in the Dakota Territory. Unfortunately the level of tension between Indians and whites was still very high. A fellow scout brought word to him one day that danger might be afoot. Merely spotting some "Indian tracks" prompted this.
Those tracks were pointed toward the Minnesota territorial line. Ergo, Mr. Brown had to mount his steed and put out word! He donned his buffalo skin suit. He located his most reliable pony. He rode toward the Elm River scouting station. This was a distance of 60 miles.
Quotes from Sam are recalled in the terrific book by Ethelyn Pearson, mother of retired Morris High School teacher Larry Pearson. Ethelyn's book is called "It Really Happened Here." She located quotes from Sam Brown and shared them:
"I left about sundown and before I had gone very far, darkness was upon me. The country was a wild, level plain, almost trackless, but on account of the darkness, I felt safe from ambush. The gait was terrific, both for horse and for me, but I dared not slacken the pace.
"About midnight I reached my destination, having covered the 60 miles in five hours. I immediately went to the chief of scouts and quickly explained matters, but imagine my mortification when he told me there was no longer any danger of a raid, that the Indians who had been sent north as peace messengers must have been the ones whose tracks were seen in the vicinity of Fort Wadsworth."
  
Yes, fears dispelled
Brown made his ride with visions of an actual invasion. He aroused settlers. He sent a letter to St. Paul.
The news of "all's quiet" was good to be sure.
But Brown couldn't help but feel some embarrassment. He had to return to Fort Wadsworth to tell a different story. He obtained a fresh horse. What intrepid horses these were. Brown had no real rest before starting back. His horse was fresh but he probably wasn't.
Again, quotes from Brown as shared by wonderful author Pearson:
"There was no moon and no stars. The North Star peering through the clouds had guided me on the way over. There was nothing to chart my course but flashes of lightning. A storm was certainly coming. I tried to keep ahead of it by riding desperately.
"At breakneck speed my pony and I flew along over the James River flat, as level as a barn floor. In a few minutes the storm was upon me. It nearly unhorsed me, with rain, piercing and terrific. This soon turned to sleet and snow. Death was staring me in the face. The roar of the storm, the inky blackness of night, gave way to grim thoughts. Would I be lost or frozen? Waylaid or scalped, then left for the wolves?
"All thoughts combined terrified me. I managed, somehow, to keep the wind to my back and push on. My pony was tough and game. I galloped in driving rain, sleet and snow, through slush and mud. Even swollen streams. Sometimes (the horse) would slip and slide on frozen places or break through soft ice and throw me in the water. This happened twice. Fortunately I had fastened my hair lariat to the saddle, with the other end to my belt.
"At daybreak I saw I was at the foot of Coteau Hills and rode to the top. Now I found landmarks: Hawk's Nest and Buzzard's Roost. I knew I was 25 miles from the fort and 15 miles from my route. I was shivering, cold to the bone, and all but given up.
"I gave the pony the reins. It jogged along at its own gait, picking its own way. I reached the agency at 8 o'clock that morning and rolled off the pony in a heap. It turned out I'd gone 150 miles since I left the day before. I staggered to the stockade gate, falling headlong through the door of the house. I lay in a stupor for hours. When I regained consciousness, I told the commander to stop preparation. My great adventure had turned out to be a wild goose chase - a false alarm."
(end of quoted material)
Hmmm, "Buzzard's Roost." Sounds like a good name for a Louis L'Amour novel.
Pearson's book is copyrighted 2000. I'm not sure if copies are still available. I bought mine as a Christmas present one year.
  
Pearson prompts memories
Larry Pearson was a genial and highly capable industrial arts instructor at MHS. He and Aaron Des Jardins were industrial arts stalwarts.
We might also remember Bob Brimi at the junior high level. Brimi is absolutely famous in the memories of boomer-age alumni of MHS. He's famous for having applied pretty rigid discipline. Despite that, we never developed any real dislike for him because we could see that underneath his prison guard exterior, he had a heart of gold!
Brimi worked for a time with a teacher last name of Erickson - first name escapes me - whose wife taught home economics. Mr. Erickson died suddenly. His death was a lesson in mortality for all of us at our tender age.
I'm not sure to what extent MHS really has industrial arts anymore. I've heard of robotics. The art discipline has stretched out quite a bit. But the days of "shop kids" as a discernible element in the student body may be gone.
Some of us applied "shop kids" in sort of a teasing way but that of course was unfounded and ridiculous. Boys will be boys.
A shop kid might get in trouble in a dozen ways and dress in a somewhat unkempt way (as if I should talk), but then he'd turn around and construct an exquisite grandfather clock under the tutelage of Pearson, Des Jardins, Brimi or Erickson.
I can still point to the rooms at the "old school" which is now decaying into pathetic ruin by East 7th Street. It was once a community hub. Now it's home to pigeons, bats and goodness knows what else. It needs to be torn down, soon.
  
Wingerd's book explores
The relationship between Indians and white settlers wasn't always turbulent. Much to the contrary, the co-existence was rather smooth for a good two centuries before Minnesota became a state (in 1858). This is the assertion of Mary Lethert Wingerd who visited the Morris Public Library several months ago.
Wingerd teaches at my alma mater of St. Cloud State University. I don't think she mentioned her teaching affiliation. I don't think teachers there are brimming with pride about this affiliation due to a campus history that includes such things as students torching dumpsters for Homecoming. President Earl H. Potter III has solved this. There is no more Homecoming.
Wingerd argues in her book "North Country" (available at our library) that for those two centuries prior to statehood, "natives and Europeans maintained a hesitant, largely cobeneficial relationship."
We saw intermarriage, kinship and trade. It seemed a racially hybridized society.
Really? I recall Wingerd talking about this in a context of myth-debunking.
To be frank and blunt, I'm always suspicious when an academic person talks about "dispelling myths." I suspect they set out with an agenda to do that because it makes them feel special as academics. It gives them an important niche - a reason for being.
What sort of organized law existed out here in those remote days, pre-statehood? Minus the discipline of true law, I question whether any society or culture can be judged truly safe or passive.
That's my opinion and I'm asserting it. Never mind that I might have been horsing around at St. Cloud State when I might have been more studious.
Wingerd asserted that the "peaceable kingdom" as it were, broke down in the 1850s due to "western expansion of U.S. capitalism and violation of treaties by the U.S. government."
Eventually there was war. Out east and here, there was war. A scourge on the land? Punishment for slavery and the roughshod treatment of Indians? We can ponder at length.
Fort Wadsworth/Sisseton carved out its place in western Minnesota history. The wild ride of Sam Brown was a dramatic if dead-end chapter. Thanks to Ethelyn Pearson for keeping it preserved.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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