Big fire

It was November 1856. McLeod County was new to the world, an infant region established in the spring of the year. It was a time when Minnesota was little more than a frontier territory in the North. Few settlements existed, few roads, and even fewer settlers.

On a rough and narrow road east of the Glencoe settlement, a lone teamster prodded a team of oxen pulling a wagon laden with dry goods from St. Paul — Minnesota’s only real trace of civilization at the time. In the distance, near the timbered banks of Buffalo Creek, a plume of smoke curled gently toward the sky. On the frontier, a column of smoke meant one definite thing — other humans may be close by — evident as the teamster neared the scene.

It was a horrific sight. Tied to a stake high above the ground was a man. It was an Ojibwa man, and he was in a wretched state — his scalp gone, his body mutilated, and his feet and legs nearly burned off by the fire he was suspended above. In vain, the teamster tried, but failed to save the burning man. It was a scene not wholly uncommon in the North, a casualty of a long-standing war between the Dakota and Ojibwa, a war that is perhaps the oldest and longest in the history of the region.

The hostilities of the Dakota and Ojibwa stretched back many years. The two were rival nations vying for superiority. Though the recognized border between the two was far north of McLeod County, it was not uncommon for both to encroach on the other’s land to raid or to be in search of game, as happened earlier in 1856.

In the first week of July in that year, a small hunting party of Dakota set out from the reservation in search of game along the edge of the “Big Woods.” On July 2, while just a short distance northeast of Hutchinson, they spied a party of Ojibwa skulking through the woods. The Dakota party surprised the Ojibwa and attacked them, killing two and scalping one. News was that the Ojibwa had come south to raid white settlers on the frontier, evident by the spoils they carried with them.

In late November 1856, another small party of Ojibwa traveled south. This time they were spotted in the timber near Buffalo Creek by a rather large group of 200 Dakotas. Shots were fired and one Ojibwa man was taken prisoner. He was retained for a few days before the Dakota decided to burn him at the stake in full view of the 200 Dakota and a few white men who were tagging along. The white men and the teamster who came across the remains validated the story as it was told in the St. Paul Times.

Today, as our fast-paced world spins around us, it’s all too easy to forget that not long ago our world was a wild and lawless place. Where today stand large buildings, paved roads and city parks was once an unforgiving wilderness where the only law was that of the land.

As it was then, our world today is not without its dangers and hardships. Yet no one could argue that our world and our predecessors' world were easily a world apart.

Brian Haines is executive director of the McLeod County Historical Society and Museum, 380 School Road N.W., Hutchinson. Do you have a historical anecdote to share? Haines can be reached at 320-587-2109 or by email at director@mcleodhistory.org.

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