“We were told that would be better than capture.”

Mr. Sveine discusses his family's recollections of the U.S.-Dakota War.

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DL: Did anyone die from your family during that time because of the war?

TS: No, other than John the two years previous, nobody did. And I know of no injuries incurred as well. I just found a first-hand account here of how the Schmitz family was warned. Would this be a place to read that?

DL: Sure. Tell us who it is from and when it was published.

TS: A man named Greg Lalonde. I’ve met Greg a few times, he lives in the Twin Cities and sent me this. It’s from a Minneapolis newspaper in 1925; I don’t know whether it was the Tribune or what it was then. I won’t read the whole thing, but just how the family was found. This little excerpt I’ll read refers to John Schmitz, and it’s his daughter actually saying this:

“Father came home to build another cabin and on April 27th, 1860 while seated in the cellar he had dug, he was shot in the back and killed. Mother, determined to hold the claim, and with the help of two of my uncles, managed to get along until the outbreak occurred.”

Now she’s going to the first person here, telling about how she’s living with her Uncle Peter Schmitz and they’re at supper:

“We were at dinner and the cabin door was open. I heard a scream, and looking out, saw a neighbor boy running toward the house. His right arm hung limp and he was red with blood. When he reached the door he couldn’t speak, and I’ve never since seen such a look of horror in anyone’s eyes. We realized what had happened and hastily began preparations for flight while the boy sobbed out his story. His mother, two brothers and three sisters had been killed in their home. The boy and his father escaped. We learned afterwards that the father had hidden in a hollow tree. Our trip to New Ulm could not be called a flight, as we rode in an old farm wagon drawn by oxen. While we were hitching the oxen together we could see Indians all about us a mile away. Homes were in flames and we could see groups being attacked. The confusion in New Ulm was awful, Mrs. Thule continued, women were running around screaming and wringing their hands. Many had lost their reason.”

Mrs. Thule then told of being placed in the cellar with a number of others.

“They told us to set the powder afire and blow us all up if the Indians took the town,” she said. “We were told that would be better than capture.”

Now the story that I told just previous to reading this, was not based solely on that; I’ve got many accounts of this. So this just validates and adds a little color. I’d never heard of the boy coming to warn the family. The family, by the way, lives about 4 miles away from New Ulm, 4 miles west and south, just perhaps a half a mile from the little town of Essig. So it’s nearby.

DL: The little boy ran how far?

TS: Well, working with Darla at the Historical Society here, the only one we could figure out who lived near enough to them, and would have had the type of family loss that he suffered--although this account and the actual is off “by a brother” -- it’s a funny way to say that- would have been a man named John Bluehm. Knowing where he lived, where the Schmitz farm was, and corroborating that with the loss of family, it probably was that young man.

TS: I said earlier that my mother thought her maiden name of Schmitz was German. Well in fact, as a travel agent years ago, my wife and I would get free tickets and off we went to Europe. And before we chose the destination, it was like: Well, we’ve been to England several times, we’ve been to Frankfurt, we’ve been to London. Here, Iceland Air, they go to Luxembourg City- “let’s go to Luxembourg City”. Fine and good, off we go on a nice trip. Before I left I said to Mom, “Now, we’re going to Luxembourg, Netherlands and Belgium. Schmitz is German, as you’ve always said, right?” “Yup, Yup, Schmitz is German.” And I said, “Well, we’re not going to Germany so I won’t bother doing any family tree work.” By the way, I had completed my father’s Norwegian side at that point, so I was kind of into all of this, and wanted to take advantage of going over there.

So we go on the trip; great time; come home. I then started doing family tree work, like within the next week, up at the courthouse. It took me two days, and I wish you could have this recorded: I’m in the little room in the courthouse with the records and I yell out, “Son of a gun!” Loud as can be. And the girls in the office: “What’s the matter, Terry?” I came out and told them. Not only was I not German, but found out that my great-great-grandfather, Peter Schmitz, was from Luxembourg, and I was in the town that he was from in Luxembourg and I didn’t know it. I thought: what a wasted opportunity that was. So I’ve then gone on to get way into my Luxembourgish history. In fact, I helped found, and am the current president of the Luxembourg Heritage Society of Southern Minnesota. We’re not a very big group, but we’re a dedicated group.

I found that my great-great-grandfather was here during the war and had records that he was conscripted or enlisted in the militia to help in the two battles of New Ulm, as was his brother, Jacob Nicholas Schmitz. And more importantly of all, their sister, Mary Schmitz Ryan, is actually fairly notorious, or well- known for her role here. There is a plaque on a building in downtown New Ulm; as a kid we called it Eibner’s. It was a restaurant/coffee shop. On there was a plaque, and I’m sure, I just envision myself, knowing me as a 14-year-old kid, I probably leaned against this plaque, watching teenage girls going by, probably cat-calling them, and never once did I turn around and read it and go, “Oh, Mary Schmitz Ryan in charge of a gun powder keg in the basement with women and children to blow themselves up if the Indians had taken the town.” I never once thought: Oh, Schmitz, mom’s maiden name- was there a connection? I didn’t think to ask that.

Well in fact, she is that; she’s my great-great-grand aunt, I guess would be her lineage, and so we have some notoriety here. There’s a famous poem in Luxembourg; it’s true, so it’s not folklore, she’s called Dommeldinger Mary. Dommeldinger is a corruption of the town; they’re from Dommeldingen; and Mary, her first name. And it’s a story- it’s actually turned into a poem of her great Luxembourgish courage as she resists the oppressors and the Indians attacking the town. And so she’s got fame both on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as back in Europe.

Once a year for the last, I believe 6 or 7 years, a friend of mine, a man from Luxembourg, Renee Daubenfeld, has brought groups of Luxembourgers to the four states that were most settled in America: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and we do a tour here. They stay in New Ulm two nights. And when they find out that I’m related to Dommeldinger Mary, they know about her. So she’s got some fame over there.

DL: She was in charge of the keg and lighting it in case of what?

TS: If the Indians had taken the town. When I tell this story- part of my job at the New Ulm Chamber of Commerce is that I’m in charge of the visitor portion of the Visitor’s Center, and training the volunteers and all of that. And when I tell the story, if I’m the only one in there, I say, “Doesn’t that speak to the terror that the citizens here felt, that they were willing to- you have to really give it some thought on what it is- they were willing to commit mass suicide rather than be captured.” For right or wrong, not judging anything else other than just that incident, that’s pretty telling. The fear was that great, that: “Let’s kill ourselves and loved ones” rather than be captured.

Oral History- Interview | Narrator Terry Sveine Interviewer Deborah Locke made in New Ulm, MN | Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Citation: Minnesota Historical Society. U.S. - Dakota War of 1862. “We were told that would be better than capture.” June 22, 2024. http://www.usdakotawar.org/node/1122

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