Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A gift . . .and a story of a young girl captured by the Sioux

Mary Schwandt, about 1862
Source: Find-A-Grave
I have been given a gift. Books. Doc Metcalf generously lent me eleven books dealing with the history of the Pacific Northwest around the period that I'm studying -- the 1840s.

What a treat. I'm reading the shortest first so I can return them reasonably efficiently. The slimmest book (about 30 pages) revealed the story of Mary Schwandt, who was captured by the Sioux in 1862 in Wisconsin.

OK, that's not the Pacific Northwest and the time period is a little past my period, but her memoir gives a fascinating glimpse of what happened between native communities and the settlers in the wilds of Wisconsin.

Mary Schwandt was a restless 14-year-old who persuaded her family to let her go out to work as a girl-of-all-work at a different settlement. Shortly after she left home, the Sioux went on a rampage. Her family (except for her younger brother) was killed, and she was taken captive.

After reading her story, I'm thinking about her reactions -- after she was rescued. First, would she have been hounded for information about all the details of her capture. She did testify before several commissions beginning in 1863 and was persuaded to write down her recollections in a very short memoir. But, her memoir glosses over exactly what happened before Snana's grandmother 'purchased' Mary with a pony. Her horror at seeing people she knew simply killed in front of her, the death of one of the other women she had worked with come through clearly. Whispers would have followed her everywhere that people knew of her history. Yet she married, had children and lived in Chicago for many years.

The death of Mary Anderson, a young Swedish girl who worked with Mary Schwandt, is told matter-of-factly. Mary Anderson had been shot in the back, the ball 'lodging itself near her groin'. Mary Schwandt says some shot passed through her own dress and reveals the homely details of what the captives did to ease the young woman's passing. As if Mary writes these smaller details, we do not have to read about the anguish of the girl's suffering or consider what she thought. That deeper horror of watching someone die, fearful every moment, unable to do more than the simplest of palliative care, is revealed most simply. The women feared their captors and couldn't understand those few who later seemed to accept and enjoy their new living conditions. Was that really how Mary felt? Yet she was rescued/returned to the soldiers in under a year.

Snana (Maggie), about 1860
Snana's even briefer recollections were also included. She tells of being raised as a Christian and having nearly four years of education at a native school. Snana, whose name means 'ringing sound', also known as Maggie, could speak English, read in a book of prayer, and considered herself "a white Christian lady." At 23, she lost her seven-year-old daughter and asked her uncles to bring her a replacement if they could when they went on the war hunt. She reveals this casually, as if such adoptions were common. For some in the native community, Mary was never accepted.

Snana protected Mary, even though, as she says, Mary was much larger than expected. Snana treated Mary as if she were a daughter, dressing her in native attire, not allowing her to travel out by herself anywhere in camp, and hiding her when animosity arose against the whites.

Snana and Mary, about 1894
She also mentions that when Mary was rescued, the two did not meet again for many years until she visited them in 1894 in St. Paul, where Snana felt as if she had been treated with respect. A very formal picture remains of this visit, both women posed stiffly, facing the camera, Snana standing, Mary sitting, perhaps because of the conventions of the photograph at that time. Their hands are nearly touching in this photo.

Snana says she felt as if she visited family. Mary wrote in her memoir: "“I want you to know that the little captive German girl you so often befriended and shielded from harm loves you still for your kindness and care.”

These memoirs, short as they are, suggest that the white community was pretty much unaware they had done anything wrong. They were taking the land of the natives. Once a white family settled and built a farm holding with the government's permission, they considered the land theirs. The nearby natives were considered petty nuisances -- until they 'broke out' and went on a rampage. I'm less sure what the natives thought.

Two additional people of interest are mentioned: Joseph Campbell, a half-breed prisoner (of the Sioux? Mary's account doesn't say), helped Mary with the burial of the Swedish Mary. Godfry, a black man, drove one of the wagons when Mary was taken to the native camps. It's not clear if Godfry was 'freed' by the natives or if he was part of the tribe, though when Mary asked him where they were going, Godfry replies he didn't know but they were looking out for "our women". Mary describes him as wearing a string of watches around his waist, and as a 'wretch' who later lived at the Santee Agency in Nebraska, but this is understandable IF he was one with the natives. Though I wonder how she knew this.

WHERE I AM NOW: Even if I'm currently working the revisions for Years of Stone, I at least can begin reading for the next book in the series, Rivers of Stone. At this point, I have more questions about the story set in the Pacific Northwest than answers, but that's the beauty of writing historical fiction.

Here's my working bibliography from Doc Metcalf's books:

Applegate, Jesse A. [1811-1888] A Day with the Cow Column in 1843. Ye Galleon Press, 1990.
Chief Joseph's Own Story. Ye Galleon Press, 1984.
Clayson, Edward. Historical Narratives of Puget Sound, Hood's Canal, 1865-1885. Ye Galleon Press, 1998. 
Dall, William H. A Critical Review of Bering's First Expedition, 1725-30. Ye Galleon Press, 2000.
Dowmen, Lula Laney. Covered Wagon Days in the Palouse Country. Ye Galleon Press, 1999.
Highberg, Kathryn Treffrey Highberg. Orchard Prairie: The First Hundred Years 1879-1979. Ye Galleon Press, 1998.
Lenox, Edward Henry. Overland to Oregon. Ye Galleon Press, 1993.

Sager, Catherine. The Whitman Massacre of 1847: Catherine, Elizabeth & Matilda Sager. Ye Galleon Press, 1981.
The Captivity of Mary Schwandt, Ye Galleon Press, 1999.
The Overland Journals of William and Charles Frush. Ye Galleon Press, 2000.
Ware, Joseph E. The Emigrants' Guide to California: 1849. Ye Galleon Press, 1999.

Ye Galleon Press, now discontinued, Fairfield, Washington. I know only a little about Glen Adams, a man who retired as postmaster of Fairfield in June 1972. By 1998, Ye Galleon Press had printed 697 different titles (from letter to Dr. Metcalf dated June 9, 1998). At least now I have the books sorted and can begin to read. What a lovely trove of goodies here!  

And here are the new books (actually second-hand), I found at the bookstore:

Johansen, Doirothy O. Empire of the Columbia: A History of the Pacific Northwest. 2nd ed.  New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
Malin, Edward. Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Portland: Timber Press, 1994.
North, Dick. The Lost Patrol. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publishing, 1978. This book is set in 1911 and tells of the search by Royal North-West Mounted Police from Dawson City in the Yukon Territory to Fort McPherson.
Palmer, Joel. Journal of Travels: Over the Oregon Trail in 1845. Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 1993.


  1. What a wonderful gift, and how rich in the history that will make "Rivers of Stone" every bit as delightful to read as "Years of Stone!"

  2. What an interesting story and fresh perspective. Thank you for sharing that with us.