Carver County, Minnesota, was a scene of utter chaos on Aug. 20, 1862.
Refugees swarmed the city of Carver. They were settlers, women and children frightened beyond measure, and fleeing the carnage doled out to the west. Several hundred of them flooded the town at once, crazed with fear and frantic to flee toward safety. They were fleeing a war zone and abandoned their homes and possessions with haste — hundreds of Dakota/Sioux war parties were riding across the prairies and killing white settlers on sight.
To the locals in Carver, it was nothing they ever dreamed of witnessing in their lives. It seemed the entire population of McLeod County was at their doorstep.
News of the outbreak had found its way into town on the night prior. Refugees from Henderson began filtering into town. They told of the murders to the west and repeated untrue rumors of Fort Ridgely being wiped out by 10,000 warriors who were making their way along the Minnesota River to attack Fort Snelling. It certainly put the town in a state of anxiety, yet nothing could prepare them for what they would witness the next day.
No Indians appeared on that morning, somewhat calming fears set about the night before. What did appear, however, were hundreds of frantic refugees from McLeod County.
One onlooker would later recall, as reported in The Weekly Pioneer and Democrat, Aug. 29, 1862: “About the hour of 7 in the morning we began to recruit the entire population of McLeod County. On they came, some on foot, some on horseback and some on crutches, sleds, wagons of all shades of manufacture — some with great, big, round wheels. Some with low, block wheels. Some with only three wheels. Some with two only. They brought with them bundles of clothes, axes, spades and shovels. Some more, some less of the same. Some running with children on their backs, seated upon a ponderous bundle, strapped over the shoulders. Thus matters went on until in came a boy, on a very spirited horse, claiming to be direct from Glencoe, shouting out as he rode at full speed through the streets, that the Indians had burned Glencoe and Young America, and were on a rapid march for Carver! Oh! such a scene I never desire to witness again."
At the docks, a steamer was boarding McLeod County settlers to bring them safely to St. Paul. It was chaos from the onset. They pushed and shoved to get aboard. Mothers shrieked as their children were shoved aside by grown men who raced aboard the boat. In a matter of minutes, the steamer’s pilot had to step in and stop people from climbing aboard. The steamer had reached its carrying capacity and was showing signs of strain. It didn’t stop the refugees, however, as they jumped from the dock over the steamer’s sides, desperately hanging onto whatever would aid them in their attempt to flee.
The boat was finally able to depart, yet the scene it left behind was of absolute lunacy. Those on shore screamed with despair for the steamer to return and take them to safety. They quickly found a second, much smaller craft on shore and stampeded toward it. In a matter of moments, it was full to the brim and heading downstream.
The McLeod County residents had reason for panic. There was little to stand in the way of the attackers sweeping across the county. Of course, there were those who chose to stay, those who built fortifications and pledged to defend their communities. They were few, however, as most chose to flee, stricken with fear and absent of reason. In the days to follow, some would muster enough courage to return to their communities and aid in their defense. Most would flee to St. Paul. Many would never return west. Of those who returned, the majority did so long after the troubles were over.
The entire episode of Minnesota history would not last long, yet a multitude of damage was done. When it was all over, anywhere from 450 to 800 civilians perished on the prairies, and approximately 150 Dakota warriors. It stands today as the bloodiest period of state and local history. A time and a place that put people in a frantic state of mind.