NEW ULM - "A Battle for Living: The Life and Experiences of Lavina Eastlick" by John Isch details the story of a pioneer woman who trekked 70 miles from Lake Shetek to New Ulm while seriously wounded, after losing her husband and three of her sons in a Dakota attack.
On August 20, 1862, Dakota warriors attacked pioneer cabins on the east side of Lake Shetek, where some 50 settlers, or about nine families, lived.
After being chased to the southern part of Lake Shetek, 34 settlers fled on foot and in a wagon, trying to get to New Ulm. At Slaughter Slough, about four miles into their flight, the Dakota caught up with the settlers. When the shooting was over, 13 settlers, men, women and children, were dead, and 11 women and children were taken captive.
Staff photo by Kremena Spengler
John Isch with his new book, “A Battle for Living: The Life and Experiences of Lavina Eastlick”
Eastlick's husband and three of her sons were shot and killed. Eastlick herself was shot several times and beaten with a rifle butt.
Unable to go on, Eastlick sent her son Merton, just 11 years old at the time, on, charging him to carry his one-year-old brother Johnny across the prairie to safety in New Ulm, 70 miles away.
Eastlick lay wounded through the night; the next morning, she got up and began her own trek along the Shetek to New Ulm trail.
Along the way, she was picked up by a postman from Sioux Falls; he was unaware of the unfolding events. Four days later, they caught up with the two boys. The boys were covered in mosquito bites, thirsty and exhausted, but otherwise unharmed.
Another refugee family joined them, and they reached a cabin near Springfield where they rested for a week. Finally, on Sept. 3, two weeks after the attack, Eastlick, her sons and the other refugees reached New Ulm, and Eastlick was sent to recover in a hospital in Mankato.
Following her recovery, Eastlick temporarily joined her brother in Wisconsin. She wrote and published her story, and set about selling it. The book has never gone out of print.
With the proceeds from the book and with some reparation money, Eastlick bought a farm east of Mankato and farmed it herself. She later moved to Monticello.
Eastlick married two more times. Her second husband divorced her, claiming she was too busy selling books. Her third marriage produced a daughter, Laura, but her third husband left her.
Eastlick's son Merton married at age 20 and lived near Rochester, but died of an illness at 21. Eastlick's two remaining children survived until older age.
The younger son, Johnny, raised a large family near Monticello; the daughter, Laura, married a Canadian, Angus McDonnell, and eventually ended up in Lougheed, Alberta.
During her later years, Eastlick joined her daughter. She died in Lougheed in 1923 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Why the grave is unmarked remains a mystery. (Laura died in the 1940s, and her grave is also unmarked.)
No direct descendants of Eastlick survive in Minnesota.
Isch first learned about Eastlick when he read her book as a young man. The book read like an adventure novel, kindling his imagination.
Now a retired college professor fascinated by history and a museum volunteer, Isch was intrigued by the possibility of finding out what happened to Eastlick.
He "dug around" places where she and her children lived: Lake Shetek, Mankato, Rochester, Monticello...
He traveled up to Lougheed, visiting the house where Eastlick lived with the McDonnells and where she died. There, he met the man who had bought the land and house from the McDonnells. The house was intact, looking much as it would have looked in the early 20th century.
Isch also met with a man who personally knew the McDonnells and had read Eastlick's book in his own youth, lent to him by Laura. (Isch was able to present this new acquaintance with a copy of his own.)
Interviews, letters and e-mail with people like these supplied some of the basic facts for "A Battle for Living."
Isch also examined census information, land records, court documents, newspaper articles, archival collections of historical societies, published material and manuscripts...
"The Eastlicks and the McDonnells were quiet and unassuming folks," Isch writes, in a note on sources.
"On the whole, the documents are few, and the hidden secrets, which biographers seem to relish, remain secret. But the paucity of data and information is appropriate. Quiet and unassuming folks have every right to remain so."
Isch wrote his manuscript without specific plans for publication, but the Brown County Historical Society decided to print the book.
Local artist Mike Eischen painted an oil canvas representing Eastlick's escape, which is reproduced on the cover of the book.
"Life is a battle for living, and so far I have survived," Isch quotes Eastlick as saying.
She overcame war and death; she farmed by herself and raised her children on her own.
Her quiet strength and spirit are a source of inspiration to Isch.
In his eyes, she stands for the "very brave women, both Dakota and white," who suffered incredible losses but picked up the pieces of their lives as best as they could and, day by day, simply did what they needed to do.