Little Susan

The inscription reads:
The inscription reads: "Susan. A Christianized Dakota girl murdered by the Ojibwa [sic] Indians, June 12, 1856. [Aged] 10 years." Photo: Kevin Featherly.

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

Today my preacher, the Rev. Myron Andes, gave a talk that fell along those lines. He recounted a memory of once having come across a building in Paducah, Ky. It somehow struck him as odd at first. Then he realized that it bore the now hidden, but still unmistakable marks of having once featured a “Coloreds Only” entrance. As he described it, the realization was sorrowfully bone-chilling.

Being a history nerd, I also have had such powerful reactions on some of my journeys. Touching the patch of ground where badly outnumbered First Minnesota Regiment soldiers were cut down while desperately repelling a Rebel charge at Gettysburg, that’s one example. Peering at the entrance to the Beatles’ Abbey Road recording studios is another. Seeing the still-scarred Pentagon several months after 9/11 was another.

But this weekend I stopped by a site that reminds me that one needn’t travel great distances to experience history; history is everywhere. I drove to the nearby Bloomington Cemetery and visited Little Susan.

Susan’s story is of a piece with slightly later events, including the deadly farmhouse raid in Acton, Minn., which sparked the Minnesota-Dakota War of 1862. Once ignited, that brief conflict set in motion the chain of events that led the U.S. government to wage all-out, near-genocidal war on the Native American tribes that had been driven off their lands in the East, and ever-deeper into the inhospitable Western territories.

Her murder is also part of the bigger picture that includes the creation, only a few short miles from where I sit, of what some have called the world’s first concentration camp. That would be the enclosed and guarded Dakota encampment below the bluff at Fort Snelling where hundreds of imprisoned women, children and elderly among the Dakota people died of exposure and disease during the harsh winter of 1862-63, before being loaded onto steamships in the spring and transported to yet more such encampments down river.

The Bloomington Historical Society has a web site entry that describes the incident that made Little Susan a permanent part of local history and lore.

It reads:

Little Susan. Dakota Indian Girl, who had been adopted by Mrs. A.M. Whalen, was murdered by a band of Chippewa Indians in [1856].

As the story is told, Little Susan was playing one day on the Indian Burial Mound near the Ames cabin. Mrs. Whalen, with her baby and Little Susan, were visiting with Mrs. Orville Ames. Mrs. Ames became Mrs. John Brown years later. The Ames cabin was located a short distance southwest of the Indian Mounds. Little Susan observed the band of about 20 Chippewas riding nearby and she ran into the house. The Indians saw Little Susan and very soon they rode up to the house and walked in the cabin door, single file.

The first Indian told Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Whalen that they wanted to see the Indian girl and shake her hand. As each Indian shook her hand he passed her on to the next Indian until they had her out of the door. Then they shot her through the arm and breast and scalped her. The Indians then mounted their horses and rode away. Little Susan died very soon and her stone marker in the Bloomington Cemetery is a reminder of her tragic death, and of the savage ways of the Indians of the period.

I don’t know how accurate that story is. I know it was written by a certain George E. Hopkins in 1968. Even if it is accurate, I have a feeling it is not the whole story.

Why would these men kill this little girl in such a savage way?

The closest I can come to formulating any possible explanation comes from the storytelling of John Ford and his movie “The Searchers.” In that movie, the character played by John Wayne goes on a years-long quest to recover his captured niece, a girl who had been kidnapped by the same Apache warriors who raided and butchered her family.

But before long, it becomes obvious that Wayne’s interest in finding his niece is not to rescue her and bring her homeā€”it is to find her and probably kill her for adopting Indian ways and becoming involved intimately with Indian men.

The force of racism, in other words, trumped even the powerful bonds of family in Ford’s movie. Fortunately, Ford allows Wayne a last-moment change of heart, and Natalie Wood is rescued and returned to the family of her aunt. But the film ends on an ambiguous note. Wayne’s character walks away immediately after delivering the young woman home, apparently unwilling to stick around to witness the re-assimilation of the young niece he cannot help but regard as permanently stained by contact with a hated people.

Maybe it was some similar, hateful impulse that propelled these men to murder Little Susan. Maybe it was hatred rooted in the innumerable manipulations, lies and other outrages that the plains tribes were forced to endure over many generations, as treaty after treaty was negotiated with the white American government only to be broken, as soon as the Great Father and his minions in Washington, D.C., found it convenient to do so.

Or maybe this particular group simply were bad men with homicidal intent. Or maybe, as one Bloomington senior citizen who has been aware of this story her whole life has suggested to me, they were drunk.

To questions like that, we probably never will have answers.

All we can really know is that history, truly, never is dead. Truly, it is not even past.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.