Guri Olsdatter Endreson was one understated Norwegian. And that might explain the discrepancies in the stories of her heroics when the U.S.-Dakota War erupted in western Minnesota in 1862.
A 49-year-old mother of nine, Endreson lived in a farm cabin 4 miles northwest of what would become Willmar.
Starving and sick of broken promises from the U.S. government, some Dakota fighters attempted to win back their homeland in a series of violent attacks while most of Minnesota’s able-bodied white soldiers were fighting in the Civil War down south.
Four days into the six-week clash, Guri’s husband, Lars, was splitting wood and their oldest son, Endre, was digging potatoes when the Dakota swept in and killed both men. Another son, 14-year-old Ole, was shot in the shoulder, and two daughters, Guri (16) and Brita (9), were taken captive.
Guri and her youngest child, a toddler named Anna, hid in a root cellar and escaped. Becoming lost, they returned home to find Ole injured and left for dead.
After burying Lars and Endre, Guri and Ole hitched a pair of unbroken oxen to a stone sled and headed east with little Anna toward the cabin of one of her married daughters.
That’s where Guri found her son-in-law, Oscar Erickson, and his neighbor, Solomon Foot, badly wounded in a gunfight with the Dakota. “The two men had lain there for two days and nights, in oppressive heat, plagued by insects and near death,” according to the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.
In a 1905 book, Foot said Guri Endreson “washed our bodies, bandaged our wounds and gave us every possible comfort.”
She loaded a wagon with blankets, helped the wounded men get in and “propped us up in a half-reclining position” before spending “a sleepless night watching over us, ever on the lookout. …”
They eventually made it to a settlers’ stockade in Forest City, where Guri was reunited in a big hug with two of her daughters. They had escaped when their Dakota captors allowed them to go home for food.
“Give me something to do,” Guri said at the stockade. “I must have work to occupy my mind or these dreadful memories will unsettle my reason.”
For more than 65 years, the story of Guri Endreson’s heroic deeds were told and retold — mainly from Foot’s account. All that changed in 1928 when renowned Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen (1891-1969) traveled to Norway to collect letters dealing with Norwegian immigration to the United States.
“Though much has been published about … the saga of this frontier heroine … it has been altogether unknown to Minnesota historians that she ever wrote anything about the tragic happenings of that summer,” wrote Blegen, a onetime superintendent at the Minnesota Historical Society who taught history at Hamline and the University of Minnesota.
Writing in 1929, 67 years after the war, Blegen said Guri Endreson “has been regarded as one of those inarticulate spirits who have left a legacy of courage expressed in action alone.”
That is, until he found a letter more than 4,000 miles from Willmar in Kvam, Norway. Guri Endreson had sent the letter in 1866 — four years after the war — to her family back home. The letter was written in Norwegian.
“The letter was treasured in the family circle,” Blegen said.
In the letter, Guri apologized for taking so long to update them on her “fate” — explaining the murders of her husband and son had clouded her mind.
“But God be praised, I escaped with my life, unharmed by them, and my four daughters also came through the danger unscathed,” she wrote.
As for saving the wounded men, she said only: “For two days and nights I hovered about here with my little daughter, between fear and hope and almost crazy, before I found my wounded son and a couple of other persons, unhurt, who helped us to get away to a place of more security.”
In Foot’s account, she’d saved him and his neighbor, dressing their wounds and watching over them. In her account, she mentioned only two unhurt people. What gives?
Blegen had a theory in 1929, later endorsed by Jill Wohnoutka, the current director of the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.
“The reader will be struck by her omissions,” Blegen wrote. “Her story, it must be remembered, is written in the language of simplicity and sorrow and comes from a woman who would perhaps naturally understate or avoid mention of her own services to other people.”
She wasn’t the only understated Norwegian. Wohnoutka says the all-but-forgotten Ole, then 14, must have helped drag the injured men to the wagon despite his shoulder wound. He died a year later, apparently a lingering result of getting shot on Aug. 21, 1862.
In her letter home, Guri said: “… my dear son Ole was shot through the shoulder. But he got well again from this wound and lived a little more than a year and then was taken sick and died.”
She ended that 1866 letter with hope: “And may the Lord by His grace bend, direct, and govern our hearts so that we sometime with gladness may assemble with God in the eternal mansions where there will be no more partings, no sorrows, no more trials, but everlasting joy and gladness, and contentment in beholding God’s face.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org