Cornelia Nobles was only 9 years old in 1862. She lived with her family on a farmstead in Sumter Township. In April of that year, a Dakota man came to the Nobles home from a camp that was not far away. It was not unusual to see Indians in the area. Though their “titled” land was to the west on the reservation, groups often passed through the countryside in search of game or to trade with the white settlers. On that spring day, the man at the door of the Nobles home had come to ask for food. The man’s wife was ill, and he feared for her health.
Dakota people venturing into white settlements for food was not at all uncommon, and when the man came asking, Cornelia was not at all surprised. The situation on the reservation was dire. Food had been scarce for months, and money was even more so. They had only to hold out long enough for the annuity payment, an annual payment to the Dakota from the United States for the sale of their land. Once in hand, food could be bought from the trade merchants on the reservation. The payment was to be made in gold and expected to arrive in June. However, it was April and many Dakota were hungry.
A lunch was gladly prepared for the man at the doorstep, and it must have looked good as Cornelia recalled, “I remember thinking when I saw her (Mrs. Nobles) give it to the Indian that I would have enjoyed eating it myself.” He left pleased, no doubt knowing that it would help his sick wife.
As summer wore on, the situation for the Dakota became much worse. Due to the United States diverting funds toward the war effort in the southern states, the promised annuity payment was late and rumored that it wouldn’t be made at all. Hushed whispers of war were beginning to spread across the reservation as a faction of the young men were in favor of trying to push the whites out of Minnesota.
In August, the Dakota man who had appeared at the Noble farm asking for food returned, this time bearing a gift. In his hands was a muskrat, a form of repayment for the kind deed offered him earlier in the year. To the Nobles, the muskrat was unnecessary as they did not need repayment and it was not an animal many settlers dined on. For the Dakota, however, it was often considered a delicacy and was a good trade.
More than a gift was given to the family that day. The man also came with a warning. He could only speak broken English, but he was able to get his message across to Mrs. Nobles that they should pack up and leave the area before trouble began. Cornelia recalled, “He pointed to the east and told mother to go toward ‘the rising sun’ and added that the Sioux were coming like ‘blades of grass.’ Mother told father about it, but neither he nor she gave any thought to the matter, both evidently thinking the Sioux employed a slang phrase unknown to them.”
It wasn’t much longer before they realized what the man was trying to say, however, as it became apparent that trouble was coming.
“I was at school the day the warning came," according to Cornelia. "Louis Tender and Al Newcomb went to our house and told mother, but even then, she was not greatly impressed and continued to bake bread. In the meantime, a man from New Ulm warned Harrison Wilson and Dan Nobles and they came to the schoolhouse to warn Harriet Wilson, our teacher, and she went home with Harrison after telling us children to hurry home.”
At the Nobles home, Cornelia’s mother was still baking bread, yet others were loading possessions into wagons so the family could flee toward Carver, where they would spend six weeks, and later Chaska where they would spend the winter. The following spring and winter were spent in Glencoe. It wasn’t until 1864 that the family returned to the farm.
Not all settlers were as lucky as the Nobles family. Many were caught in the fighting and were killed. Estimates of settlers killed range from 450 to 800. However, due to the kind nature of the man who appeared at the Nobles farm with a warning, as well as many other cases of Dakota people helping their white neighbors flee the carnage, a great number of settlers were able to escape the bloodshed and live their lives.
Today, as we talk about monuments, statues and who to blame for the events of our history, we often forget that even in times of darkness, the light of human kindness shines through. There’s no denying that the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was tragic, but it’s made more so when history forgets the good deeds done by people like the Nobles family, and the man who came to their doorstep on an August day in 1862.