Rose’s Story


The Kochendorfer family, taken before Sarah was born.
That’s my great grandmother on the right.

March of 1862 my great-great grandparents, Johann and Kathryn
Kochendofer with their five children, John, 11, Rose, my great
grandmother, 9, Kate 7, Margaret 5 and Sarah 3, to a homestead located
in Flora Township in the southwest corner of Renville county,
Minnesota, just upstream and on the other side of the Minnesota River
from Redwood Falls. The farm sat at the edge of the prairie, where it
began sloping down to the river valley. It’s a beautiful spot for a
farm, with fertile fields in front, and the backyard dropping off into
a wooded hillside. They had spent the spring and early summer living in
a tent while they broke the ground for farming and built a log house to
shelter them for the winter.
Around noon on August 18th of that
year, Johann and John had returned to the house from the fields for
lunch, Kathryn was in the kitchen cooking and the girls were doing
laundry when a group of Indians armed with rifles appeared. After a
short conversation, one of the Indians took an axe that was leaning
against the woodpile and threw it down the hill into the woods. Johann
told John to get the axe and return it. As he stood speaking with the
intruders, he had his hands on Rose’s shoulders as she stood in front
of him. Suddenly one of the Indians shot him. Kathryn ran to the door
of the house and was also shot. The girls ran into the house and hid
under the beds but they heard John yelling for them to run for the
woods. They all ran from the house except for little Sarah who would
not come.
There is a steep ravine right behind where the cabin
was. It’s easy to conceive of young children playing hide and seek in
that dark wooded gulch to pass away the summer. The knowledge they
gained would save their lives. As they ran into the woods, their dying
father motioned to them to go to the Schwandt farm, there closest
neighbor, below them in the valley. As the girls ran through the woods
they were reunited with John and then started to make their way to the
neighbors. When they cleared the woods and looked down, they saw that
the Schwandt farm was also under attack and they witnessed the murders
of the entire Schwandt family. A pregnant woman was cut open, the fetus
pulled from her body and nailed to the barn door. What they didn’t know
was attacks like these were occurring up and down the valley. It’s
estimated that as many as a thousand settlers were killed in the next
few weeks.

The ravine behind the farm

remembered that his father had told him that Fort Ridgley was
downstream from them, but they weren’t sure how far. But they decided
that they had no choice other than trying to walk there. For the next
several hours they made their way toward the fort, hiding in the tall
prairie grass and stopping at stream beds to rest and drink. When the
little girls were too tired to walk any farther, Rose and John carried
them on their backs. Late that afternoon they joined several other
settlers who where headed to the fort in ox carts. By nightfall they
reached the fort, eighteen miles away, only to be told that they could
not come through the barricades, for fear that the Indians would rush
through with them. They spent the night hiding under the wagons and in
the morning they were allowed to enter the fort.
The fort was
manned by180 soldiers, with 250 civilians who had escaped the massacre.
The fort was not in a good defensive position, sitting on high ground
surrounded on three sides by ravines that allowed attackers to get
unseen into rifle range. But it did have six artillery pieces, which
were stationed on the four corners of the fort with the two lighter 12
pounders in the central parade ground to be moved quickly where they
were most needed.
On the 20th around noon they were attacked by a
force of about four hundred Indians led by Little Crow, the commanding
chief of the Indian forces. After a fierce battle they drove the
attackers off. But little crow returned again two days later with 800
men. Out numbered four to one and facing wave after wave of Indians
attacking from the ravine the soldiers fought for 6 hours using the
canon to break the charge after charge. A final assault came at the
Northwest corner of the fort, right were the biggest gun was waiting
with a double load of canister shot. As the attackers came up from the
ravine the big gun and both the twelves fired simultaneously ripping
huge holes into the advancing line. At that point the fighting stopped
and the Indians never returned to the fort. Casualties in the fort were
three dead and thirteen wounded.
There are many stories to be told
about the Dakota Conflict, stories of bravery, cowardice, brutality and
sacrifice, on both sides. There were two other major battles, in New
Ulm and at Birch Coulee. I haven’t spoken of the events that led up to
the conflict, the Indians were provoked by cruelty and broken promises,
they were starving and feared that their families would not last
through the coming winter. If you are interested in finding out more of
about the Dakota Conflict, Over the Earth I Come by Duane Schultz is an excellent read and covers the events very thoroughly.

Quinn and the current owner of the farm standing near where the graves were found.
The original farmhouse, on the left was built on the foundation of the cabin.

Henry Sibley arrived at the fort with reinforcements, parties were sent
out to bury the dead. Johann, Kathryn and little Sarah were buried in
unmarked graves near the house. In 1891,the man who had taken over the
homestead found them while digging a post hole, John, by then an adult
returned to the farm and brought the bodies back to St. Paul were they
are now buried. The children made there way to St. Paul and stayed with
relatives. A year later they were returning from a visit to St. Louis
when the steamboat they were on caught fire and sank. Rose ended up
going to stay at the Keller farm near Ellsworth, Wisconsin. She took a
shine to one of the Keller boys, Ted, and they were married. They moved
to South St. Paul where they owned an orchard. Rose lived into her
eighties, long enough for my brother and sister to know her. I come
from tough stock.

Currently Reading
Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862
By Duane Schultz
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