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Slaughter Slough

A plaque marks the site of Slaughter Slough.
Jim Schaap
A plaque marks the site of Slaughter Slough.

The State of Minnesota wants a half-section of land to become once again what it was 200 years ago, when only Dakota people were here—maybe an occasional Ojibwe and a few thousand buffalo. Renewing prairie is a worthy ambition, made even more so by the fact that this particular parcel isn't just any half-section, but the spot where, in 1862, a frightful battle took place between Dakota warriors and white settlers, part of an unrelenting stream of emigrants flowing into their world. "Slaughter Slough" has been labeled that way since the Dakota War of 1862, when the whole region was blood-red from the deaths of some 400 white settlers.

The story of the war is bigger than a blog post and it’s very hard to tell, a partial explanation for why few do. Who suffered most?—the settlers butchered here, or the Dakota, who lost land, culture, and identity? And what is more horrifying--400 settlers dead, or thousands of tribal folk wiped out by disease carried along by white folks? Do the math, if you can—if anyone can.

In August of 1862, William and Laura Duley, and their five children, were one of nine families living on the east shore of Lake Shetek, having staked a claim just a year earlier.

How hostility broke out is a mystery, but Dakota warriors from across the lake, for no apparent reason, murdered two settlers. When the rest of the homesteaders—there were 45—caught wind, they resolved to get east to safety. Some walked, some rode, and some climbed into a wagon.

But the Dakotas came after them. Gunshots rang out. The families ducked into the slough’s tall grass. Any movement at all brought a shower of lead. Several were wounded, some warriors killed.

Some hours later, the Dakota told them they would allow the women and children to go; some walked out from the tall grass to be greeted by gunfire. Several more were murdered--even children, shot dead.

One of those murdered was Willie Duley, Jr., ten years old. Isabella, his sister, just four, had been shot dead earlier at the cabin of one of the families. Mother Laura, daughter Emma, sons Jefferson and Francis were all captured, hostages, horribly mistreated.

The immensity of their suffering in the weeks that followed is beyond description; some claim Laura lost the baby she was carrying. Francis, another son, died. It’s difficult to imagine how any family could have suffered more than the Duleys; the story goes that once rescued, Laura still lost her mind. William, husband and father, somehow escaped the slough, but all suffered the slaughter.

Anger burned into madness, intense and vicious. Armed lawmen wrestled white folks back from killing, with their bare hands, the bound Dakota people being herded to Mankato. Statewide, a bounty was offered for dead Indians.

A makeshift court set up along the Minnesota River set quick trials and compiled a list of those judged guilty of slaughter, and 303 men were sentenced to be hanged. President Abraham Lincoln cut the list; and on December 26, 1862, the day after Christmas, right there in Mankato, Minnesota, 38 Dakota men were hanged at the very same moment before a crowd of 4000 lusty spectators.

The man chosen to pull the trapdoor rope that dropped 38 Dakota through the scaffold? You might have guessed--William S. Duley, who escaped the slough when his family had not.

Revenge is a very human reaction, an emotion all of us feel. But even a mass hanging would likely not undo the grief and horror of the events at Slaughter Slough.

“In taking revenge a man is but even with his enemy,” Sir Francis Bacon wrote long ago, “but in passing it over, he is superior.”

Easy to say, divine to do.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.