WILLMAR, Minn. — The Lars and Guri Endreson family began its supper preparations on a late August evening.
Lars was splitting wood and son Endre was digging potatoes. Daughters Guri and Brita and son Ole were in the cabin. Mother Guri and her baby, Anna, were fetching provisions from the outdoor root cellar.
It was perhaps a typical evening in the life of this Norwegian immigrant family on Aug. 21, 1862. They were unaware of events already transpiring that would forever change their lives, along with hundreds of others on the edge of Minnesota’s frontier.
A group of Dakota warriors descended upon the farm near Willmar, killing Lars and Endre.
They wounded Ole, leaving him for dead, and kidnapped the two daughters. Guri and Anna watched in horror from the safety of the root cellar, which was obscured by tall weeds.
The U.S.-Dakota war was under way. And Guri was about to embark on a courageous journey that is still told today and brings an annual gathering of her descendants to Willmar.
I know her story. Guri was my fourth-great-grandmother.
The U.S.-Dakota War
The start of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, also known as “Minnesota’s other Civil War,” was Aug. 17, when four Dakota men killed five settlers near Acton. The attacks quickly spread, and, by the time the conflict ended six weeks later, between 400 and 600 settlers and an unknown number of Dakota were killed.
On Dec. 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history occurred when 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato.
President Abraham Lincoln commuted 264 others to prison terms.
Many Dakota fled the state. Those who remained — about 1,600 people — were interned at Fort Snelling over the winter. More than 300 died in terrible conditions. The survivors were forced out of the state the next year.
The cause of the conflict was complex.
The Dakota, who originally counted the Winona area as one of its homelands, had been moved west for more than 50 years through a series of treaties and promises from the U.S. government to pay for their lands.
The treaties had pushed the Dakota onto a small strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River.
With the government’s attention and money diverted to the Civil War, the treaty payments were late.
The Dakota were hungry and upset. Some traders refused to give the Dakota any credit for food or other goods. Among them was Andrew Myrick, whose brother Nathan founded La Crosse. The two brothers operated a trading post at the Lower Agency at Redwood Ferry.
During a meeting between the Dakota and the government, Andrew Myrick reportedly said: “So far as I’m concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”
The comment fanned the flames of aggression.
The Lower Agency was attacked on Aug. 18.
Myrick managed to escape through a second-story window but was killed outside and his corpse was later found, according to reports, with grass stuffed in its mouth. His brother Nathan found his body two weeks later.
Not all the Dakota supported the war, but small bands of men started fanning out along the frontier, attacking cabins. It was one of these groups that attacked the area near Willmar.
Guri Neteland married Lars Endreson Rosseland in Norway in 1831. The couple decided to follow other family members to America in 1857, leaving behind their oldest daughter, Helga Rosseland, my third-great-grandmother.
The family homesteaded on Solomon Lake in Kandiyohi County near Willmar, building a one-room cabin with a loft in 1858. There were about 600 people living in the county at the time, most of them of Scandinavian descent.
I’ve heard stories from my late great-aunt Sara Clair since I was a boy about a descendant who had survived an Indian attack in Minnesota.
Sara’s grandfather, Edmund Rosseland (Guri’s grandson), came to America from Norway in 1881 and helped build the house where I now live.
Guri’s cabin still stands.
It became a Minnesota historical site in 1970 and has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986. It is one of the few buildings with a direct connection to the conflict of 150 years ago.
I visited the cabin recently, which is operated by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society. Today it is surrounded by trees instead of prairie grass.
Small markers denote the graves of Lars and Endre, who were buried near the spots where they were slain. Overlooking Lake Solomon, the peaceful and quiet setting belies the violence of long ago.
The journey to safety
There are several versions of Guri’s story, with some contradictions. Some of the story comes from a letter that Guri sent to family in Norway four years later, said Philip Carlson, a descendant who still lives near the cabin. Carlson said Guri could not write at the time, so the letter was transcribed.
Guri, 49, probably hid in the root cellar until dark. She found the bodies of her husband and son, but did not know that her other son, Ole, 14, was still alive in the cabin. She covered the dead and set out for the cabin of Oscar Erickson, her son-in-law. But Guri became lost in the darkness and upon daylight returned to her cabin to find Ole, who had been shot in the shoulder.
She rounded up a pair of oxen and hitched them to a stone sled because the Dakota had taken the wagon. She had to lead the unbroken team by the reins, so the journey was slow.
Packing some possessions, Guri, Ole and Anna, who was not yet 3, took off for the Erickson cabin. When they got close, they saw a rifle point out of a window and heard a voice they did not recognize. Fearing the Dakota, they returned to their cabin.
The next day they hitched up the sled again and headed back to the Erickson farm, where, instead of danger, Ole found Oscar and neighbor Solomon Foot severely wounded.
Guri treated their wounds and pulled them across some boards onto a wagon that had been left to the farm. She hitched up the oxen to the wagon and the small group headed east.
They stopped at other cabins along the way, but found no other survivors.
The second day of their journey, they reached Forest City, about 30 miles to the east from the Endreson cabin. It was there they found other settlers.
Much to Guri’s joy, they also found her daughters, Guri and Brita, who had managed to escape from the Dakota and were found by a search party 10 miles away.
Guri’s first words were: “Give me something to do. I must have work to occupy my mind or these dreadful memories will unsettle my reason.”
The settler death toll in the county was 25.
On Aug. 23, burial and relief parties came back into the country. They buried Lars and Endre near where they lay and brought back some goods. The county became a military patrol zone, and it wasn’t until several years later that settlers were allowed to return. Some never did.
Ole never truly recovered from his wounds and died in 1863. Guri first returned to the county in 1866 and lived with neighbors before she and daughter Anna moved back to her cabin. Guri died in a nearby home in 1881. She was buried in Vikor Lutheran Cemetery, where a state monument was erected in 1907 in her honor.
Her daughter and son-in-law took over the cabin and built an addition. The home was abandoned for a few years before it was given to the county historical society in 1962.
The addition was torn off, and the original cabin was restored.
Guri the heroine
Guri is known as the “Heroine of Kandiyohi County.” If not for her courage, the death list from the war would have risen by several.
Solomon Foot, one of the severely wounded men whom Guri treated, later said: “Mother Endreson supplied all our wants and again bathed our wounds” and she “spent a sleepless night watching over us, ever on the lookout for the savage foe.”
Yet in her letter home, Guri never mentioned her assistance to Foot or to Oscar Erickson.
Perhaps that was lost in the dictation or it was her Norwegian humility that kept her from telling the full story.
No one could blame Guri if she blamed the Dakota for the deaths of her family members. She did say she hoped they would not return to the state. But she actually encouraged her daughter in Norway — my third-great-grandmother — to move to Minnesota since finding such good land was difficult.
The pain from this conflict still runs deep for both descendants and for the Dakota, who to this day are still officially banished from the state of Minnesota by an act of Congress.
Winona is one of the few communities that has reached out to the Dakota; it will hold its annual Winona Dakota Unity Alliance Sept. 14-16.
It’s difficult to say the war taught us lessons, but acknowledging that the history of humanity is often ugly should help us remember our blessings — even when we experience life’s darkness.
That’s how Guri moved on with her life.
She wrote: “To be an eyewitness to these things and to see many others wounded and killed was almost too much for such a poor woman, but, God be thanked, I kept my life and my sanity, though all my movable property was torn away and stolen.
“But this would have been nothing if only I could have had my loved husband and children — but what shall I say?
“God permitted it to happen thus, and I had to accept my heavy fate and thank him for having spared my life and those of some of my dear children.”
In one way or another, we are all children of war.
Cabin museum open through end of month
The Guri Endreson Cabin is owned and operated by the Kandiyohi County Historical Society and Museum.
The museum is open through the end of August from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays or by appointment.
Special interpretive events are scheduled from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 1 and 2. For additional information, go to www.kandiyohicountyhistory.com or call 320- 235-1881.
Winona hosts Great Dakota Gathering Sept. 14-16
The ninth annual Great Dakota Gathering and Homecoming will be Sept. 14-16 at Unity Park in Winona.
The event will include a learning tent, unity feast, dancing, a moccasin tournament and other activities.
For more information about the event, visit www.winonadakotaunityalliance.org.