The way Claude Witt views history, a sympathetic Indian is the reason he and other members of his family were ever born.
In the early-hours of the 1862 Dakota War, an Indian spared the life of a handful of children. One of those children, Witt says, was his great grandfather, Herman Carl Witt, known as “H. Carl Witt.”
“It’s amazing how one little incident can change history,” said Witt, a longtime Belle Plaine resident who now lives near Le Sueur.
Witt has studied the history of the war and the families who lost descendants in it. In the sesquicentennial anniversary of the uprising, he believes area residents should gain a deeper understanding of the war and what started it. Earlier this summer, he attended a gathering of the families at the battlefield of Birch Coulee in Birch Coulee Township near Morton, Minn. They visited graves and saw the place of the battle two weeks into the uprising.
According to versions of the story Mary Lou Erickson and Brian Witt, Claude’s son, researched and wrote in “Family and Friends of Dakota Uprising Victims,” Witt’s great-great grandfather Carl Witt and his 14-year-old son, William, were gathering hay in a distant field near the family home on the north side of the Minnesota River in Renville County, not far from Birch Coulee Township. His daughter Maria Augusta was working in New Ulm.
Carl’s second wife, 22-year-old Fredericka, was stacking hay in the yard in front of the family’s cabin. Three other children were playing in a nearby field. William and H. Carl were there to help Fredericka stack the hay.
Fredericka was the second of Carl’s four wives. She was the younger sister of his first wife, who died while the couple lived in Wisconsin before moving to southwestern Minnesota.
Late in the morning of Aug. 18, 1862, five Indians approached the woman in front of the family’s cabin. The family was accustomed to the Indians. The Indians lived on the south side of the river and were thought to be kind. But the Indians, starving and believing the government would once again renege on its agreements and not make good on the food and money it owed the tribe as part of a treaty, were headed southeast to attack Fort Ridgely.
The Indians occasionally crossed the river and took the pies Fredericka left to cool in a window, sometimes leaving wild game in exchange for the pies. But this time was different. The Indians were wearing war paint. As they approached, Fredericka tied up a family dog, which frequently went after the Indians.
As she secured the large dog, one of the Indians shot Fredericka in the chest at point-lank range. She died almost instantly. H. Carl, who was 8 at the time, was in the yard and was also shot but suffered only a flesh wound. He fell into the entrance to a cellar and pretended to be dead. The Indian, sensing the boy was no longer a threat, did not confirm the kill.
The three children in a nearby field heard the gunshot and saw what happened to their mother. They ran to the cabin and hid beneath one of the beds and behind a door. As the Indians ransacked the cabin, searching for food and other valuables, an Indian found the terrified children as they hid. Rather than kill them, he motioned for the children to remain silent until the Indians left.
Members of the family believe the kindhearted Indian intentionally spared the lives of the children, allowing for future generations of Witts to be born.
After the attack, Carl buried his wife where she fell. The family left the homestead for Fort Ridgely, arriving before the Indians attacked it two days later. Along the way, he stopped to bury a neighbor who was also killed during the raid.
The Witts survived the fighting at the fort and later left for New Ulm and St. Peter. Carl and his children finally landed in Belle Plaine where they stayed in a warehouse with other refugees. They later moved to Union Hill. Carl eventually married his third wife, Anna “Helena” Hoffman Giesen. She was a widow with two children. Carl and Anna had two children together, adding to their blended family.