A Massacre, A War, An Impalpable History

Mar 22, 2021

It's romanticized into sheer silliness. The only painting I’ve ever seen that concerns the massacre just up the road at Lake Shetek, Minnesota, features fancy white horses pulling an ornate wagon packed full of ladies in Sunday-go-to-meetin' dresses, while three gentlemen in suits and fedoras are running alongside. It’s Downton Abbey in rural Minnesota, circa 1862. There are no smiles, and the woman driving is switching every bit of speed she can from the steeds. Their hurry is concerning, as is the fear on all of their faces.

More than 150 years ago, of course, I wasn't among them, but neither was John Stephens, who put this dark moment of Siouxland history to canvas. It's called The Flight, and his intent was to illustrate the tragedy of the massacre--for a massacre is what it was--of the white settlers who had recently put down roots around Lake Shetek.

What's remarkable is just how far it is from the string of cabins that once stood along the lake shore, to the place where so many people died, a place still referred to as "Slaughter Slough," where the survivors--a couple dozen pioneers--took what refuge they could from the violence they wanted to escape.

"On the morning of August 20th, I arose and prepared breakfast as usual for my family. . . my husband, myself, Mr. Rhodes, who boarded with us, and our five children."

Mrs. John Eastlick, lived to describe that day. In but a few hours, no family was spared loss. Those who escaped the attack took flight toward New Ulm, fifty miles away. 

With the killers in pursuit, the survivors determined to hide as best they could down in a slough where the big blue stem grew tall enough to conceal them, but offered no cover from the rifle fire that soon rained down. 

Fifteen white settlers--three children from the same family—never stepped out of the place after the fight that followed. Eight women and children were captured somewhere down the hill beneath the commemorative rock that still marks the spot on open Siouxland prairie. 

Just about a century ago, a monument to the slain was constructed over the mass grave of fourteen Lake Shetek victims. Visit the park sometime. You can't miss the monument.

But it’s easier to miss Slaughter Slough. If you’re so inclined, take the gravel--it's the only way. You'll have to hunt to find the place. When you get there, almost certainly you'll be alone—the place never did draw crowds, I suppose, and still doesn’t—and maybe that’s a good thing.  

Stand out there and look over open miles of prairie, hundreds of acres of it kept original, native, by the National Wildlife Refuge System, who maintains restored wetlands. The silence all around is only fitting.

Is there a statute of limitations on tragedy? How long should we leave the monuments people erect to mark the places loved ones once died? Should there be a time limit on grief? In May, Lake Shetek is full of fisherman. Who really cares about the bloody murders of homesteaders--or the outright thievery that marked America’s "Manifest Destiny"? So what if my ancestors took virgin land from those who lived there? That's 200 years ago.

I say make a visit to Slaughter Slough. In the company of the endless sunflowers waving in incessant winds, a trip out there may even be good for the soul. Once in a while is okay.

Get out there and listen. Try it sometime.

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