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They rescued no one...

August 7, 2011
Kremena Spengler ( , The Journal

"During the Minnesota Sioux Uprising of 1862, eighteen men left New Ulm early on the morning of August 19, and travelled westward about 20 miles along the Big Cottonwood River to the area of Leavenworth. Searching for relatives and friends, they found dead settlers and wounded children. Two men took the wounded by wagon to New Ulm, and during the day another man left and two more joined the group.

"Part of the expedition returned to New Ulm about 3:00 P.M., during the first attack on the town. They descended the hill near the present Loretto Hospital, and crossed the slough below where five were killed by Indian ambush. One half hour later the other men returned and were also surprised here and six killed. Unknown to the expedition some of their families and neighbors had reached safety within the New Ulm barricades."

-Unedited text of the historical marker at 5th North and Garden Streets, New Ulm

Article Photos

This collage of photos from the BCHS archives, reproduced here from “The Leavenworth Rescue Expedition Revisited” by Gary Wiltscheck, shows the faces of people involved in the tragic events at the onset of the U.S.-Dakota War.

On August 18, 1862, Dakota warriors launched surprise attacks on Brown County settlers, marking the start of the U.S.-Dakota War.

The war would grow into one of the largest and longest armed conflicts between the U.S. and American Indians. It would go on for nearly three decades, only ending in 1890 at Wounded Knee. It would result in the largest mass hanging in U.S. history, of 38 Dakota men.

Nearly 150 years later, the war's memory continues to invite conflicting perspectives and interpretations.

Fact Box

US-Dakota War Commemoration Activities, August 18-21, 2011

August 18

4 to 6 p.m. Business After Hours, BCHS

7 to 8 p.m. US Dakota Series, Gary Wiltscheck, Speaker

August 19

8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Media Tour (RSVP Terry Sveine, 233-4300)

9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tracing the Leavenworth Rescue Tour, ticket, $15

10 to 11 a.m. U.S.-Dakota War Downtown Battlefield Walking Tour, ticket (no cost)

2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Milford in 1862 History Tour, ticket, $10

2 to 3 p.m. U.S.-Dakota War Downtown Battlefield Walking Tour, ticket (no cost)

August 20

10 to 11 a.m. Artists of the U.S. Dakota War, Dan Hoisington

10 to 11 a.m. U.S.-Dakota War Downtown Battlefield Walking Tour, ticket (no cost)

10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Writers of the U.S.-Dakota War (book signing)

Noon to 1 p.m. U.S.-Dakota War Downtown Battlefield Walking Tour, ticket (no cost)

1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Brown County and the U.S.-Dakota War Speaker Presentations

August 21

2 p.m. Cemetery Tour, ticket (no cost)

2:15 p.m. Cemetery Tour, ticket (no cost)

2:30 p.m. Cemetery Tour, ticket (no cost)


The first attacks, in and of themselves, resulted in dozens of deaths, many wounded, and the flight into New Ulm of hundreds of terrified refugees.

The first Dakota attack took place in northern Milford Township, just east of the reservation boundary. Because it was so intense and concentrated, the surviving settlers in that area quickly learned of it and fled for their lives.

Other scattered attacks took place in southern Milford Township, Leavenworth Township and the adjoining areas. Here, there seems to have been more confusion among the settlers as to what was taking place. Some heard about it and fled, others heard but did not believe the reports, and yet others did not hear. As a result, these settlers eventually fled in a chaotic manner, and some were left behind.

Only 17 of at least 62 settlers fleeing along the Big Cottonwood River arrived in New Ulm by midnight.

The next morning, August 19, about 17 men left New Ulm in search of family members and neighbors.

They rescued none, but found six dead.

The rescue party found other settlers dead and injured, and returned to New Ulm about the time of the first attack on the city.

Within a mile of safety, 11 of these 17 were killed.


The dramatic events sketched out above are the focus of a new book, "The Leavenworth Rescue Expedition Revisited," written by Gary Wiltscheck and published by the Brown County Historical Society (BCHS). The book is being released this month, as commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War begins (see below).

The book opens by documenting the settlers' flight, including details of six wagon parties of refugees.

It goes on to chronicle the rescue expedition itself, discussing the subsequent contribution of the refugees to the defense of New Ulm.

The author adds profiles of some of the Leavenworth Rescue members, and concludes with secondary and supporting information about the rescue.

The written research is supplemented with historic maps and archive photos.


The book offers a unique, original contribution to historic research. Until now, little has been known about the Leavenworth Rescue. It is rarely mentioned in published accounts, and when it is mentioned, it is only briefly. The rescue attempt is identified by a single historical marker (quoted above).

Most of the material used originated from family history accounts stored at the BCHS, says the author, presented unique challenges to Wiltscheck. Much of the accounts were either written by the rescue members many years later, or by their children and grandchildren. As Wiltscheck attempted to weave this evidence together, it became apparent that some of the information was unreliable, contradictory or untrue. Credible information was scattered, sometimes only a sentence or paragraph at a time; and Wiltscheck also faced difficulties in cross-referencing information between various family files, and in authenticating names, places and events.

The reader will notice that the stories contained in the book are sometimes difficult to follow and keep straight, Wiltscheck writes in his introduction. That is because the events of the time were confusing, and the flight of the escaping parties was not as simple as neighbors getting together and driving unobstructed into New Ulm. It was much more complex than that, he says. The author hopes that the reader will get some feel for, and understanding of, the the tumultuous nature and course of the events.


Wiltscheck was inspired to research and write the book in part by his personal history. He grew up along the Cottonwood River, walking the land where the events he chronicles occurred. He currently lives in that part of Brown County, on land that his family has lived on, and farmed, for 130 years.

Wiltscheck learned of references to the Leavenworth Rescue while writing on other matters local history some years ago.

Another local historian provided the trigger - some handwritten accounts that would help form the basis of the book.

As he researched the events, Wiltscheck was surprised to find more stories on the flight of the settlers, and less material on the rescue itself.

Another surprise: the role of the refugees in the defense of New Ulm.

As they began arriving, the settlers may have been perceived as a burden to the young colony; as events unfolded, however, they proved their use in battle. One refugee, a visiting ex-Civil War soldier, served as a sharpshooter.

Originally, the work was meant as simply an addendum to Wiltscheck's own family history; but it evolved into a larger project after he "sensed a greater need."

In the end, notes Wiltscheck, the book turned out to be a "community effort."

Wiltscheck, a retired electrical engineer and not a professional writer, says writing is not something that comes easy to him - he likes "numbers, finite things."

In contrast, history is anything but an exact science; it is tinged with personal perceptions, seen through many different eyes...

Wiltscheck notes that because of its nature, the book does not reflect American Indian perspectives. It simply covers its own ground: dealing with a specific historic event.

To document his findings, Wiltscheck quotes from the narratives of those involved in the rescue. These narratives include terms and characterizations of the Dakota people that today are offensive or derogatory. The use of these terms does not reflect the views of the author or publisher, he notes.

Because of its merits - originality, solid, cross-referenced research, the correlation of written sources to oral histories to identify places and events, in which the author's local connections were key - the book easily gained the publisher's (BCHS's) support, noted BCHS museum director Bob Burgess.

BCHS holds the copyright to the book.



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