No panic quite like '62 Indian scare

     There have been bank panics, stock market panics and food panics, but some of the first real panics in this area were Indian panics.
     The Chippewa Valley had one on Aug. 31, 1862, when folks in surrounding counties feared for their lives.
     Real or imagined, rural settlers fled to villages and into Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire. Local units were organized for defense.
     Men and women quickly loaded wagons with essentials and headed for safety in numbers.
     But when the two-day episode ended, no one had reported actually seeing an Indian.

Stories of cause

     Mrs. Naoma Doolittle gave one version of the scare's cause at an "Old Settlers Day" in Dunn County. She said some boys were hunting and went into a farmer's field for melons. When they saw the farmer approaching, they fired their guns and gave some "war-whoops."
     Mrs. Doolittle said the farmer thought the boys were Indians and sounded an alarm. The rumors grew rapidly to where reports spread that the Indians were killing everyone and burning everything.
     The fear of attack by the Indians had possibly been fueled by newspaper reports of a Sioux uprising in New Ulm, Minn. About 500 whites and hundreds of Indians were killed in the Minnesota fighting.

Sioux felt short-changed

     The Sioux felt they were short-changed in receiving promised annuities and when they were told "to eat grass" if they were hungry, began to strike at white settlements, including New Ulm. However, the Indians were greatly outnumbered.
     Most of this fighting started Aug. 17, 1862.
     About the same time, a lumbering mill dam was completed at Rice Lake and Chippewa Indians living in that area were angry at flooding of their wild rice lands. Rumor was that these Indians would take the same action as the Sioux had in Minnesota.
     Folks in these parts in 1862 probably could be excused for being edgy, although there were few Indians left along the lower Chippewa River.

'Run for your lives'

     Regardless, cries of "Run, the Indians are coming" were heard near Elk Mound and scores of settlers headed in any direction to find safety. In Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, home guard units were organized, men readied rifles and shotguns and others armed themselves with pitch forks and scythes.
     The alert heard at the home of Eugene Wiggins in the Falls City area was "The Indians are coming; they are burning everything they come to."
     The next man, Wiggins wrote in the "Dunn County News" in 1821, said they were only two miles away to the northwest and numbered over 300 warriors.
     Wiggins wrote that teams were running, women screaming, children crying, in fact was a first rate panic.
     This group went south to Rumsey's Landing and was ferried across the river.

Left in bad position

     Wiggins said the party was "a big mob on the south side of the river and could not have been left in a worse place, for if the Indians had come they could have stood on the high banks on the north side and shot the people without any danger to themselves."
     Men who stayed behind to fight the Indians rejoined their families that night and camped around the log house of William Bates. The men stood guard all night, and the next morning all returned home. The Indian scare was a thing of the past.
     Other accounts told of women taking food from their homes and hiding it in fields so the Indians could not find it.

Dunn County involved

     Another told of a family deciding to defend itself from its fortified cabin, only to flee upon hearing reports of Indians burning cabins.
     Some from he Louisville and Waneka settlements in Dunn County fled as far south as Durand.
     Throughout the day, new reports of impending Indian attack arrived from men galloping into the gatherings of fearful refugees.
     Word of the Indian attack spread to Chippewa Falls when reports that a thousand Indians had been seen in the big swamp on Mud Creek and at Point Bruley. Residents ran to the nearest neighbor and repeated the warning. Many grabbed weapons and headed for villages.

Named to head defenders

     In Chippewa Falls, the Rev. Bradley Phillips was chosen captain of the army of defense. Squads of men marched from point to point where danger appeared most imminent.
     Some from he Louisville and Waneka settlements in Dunn County fled as far south as Durand.Another story from Chippewa notes that Barley Rooney, who said he was in the Irish uprising of 1848, was made captain and commanded one wing of the defenders. The story continues that during the night, at what is now Irvine Park, a deer ran through the woods and the cry went up, "fall back, the Indians are coming."
     Capt. Rooney was said the have given the order to fall back and the story goes that the men got to town faster than the frightened deer.

Eau Claire well prepared

     But while the panic turned out to be falsely conceived, persons in Eau Claire were not without preparation.
     The alarm came while many were attending church services. Men, women and children made their way to the center of town. men used lumber from the mills to build fortifications.
     Stores were opened for the sale of ammunition and food and the city's courthouse square was soon filled with teams, wagons and children. Families camped there overnight. There were also reports that planks in the Shawtown Bridge were removed so the Indians couldn't cross.
     Consequently, when families arrived from the Elk Mound area, they had to be ferried across the river.
     Another of the stories about how the scare started came from the Mud Creek area near Elk Mound. A son and daughter of a Mr. Jones were horseback riding when, near the head of the Mud Creek swamp, they saw smoke from a fire back of Nathan Skeel's house, several persons running around in the house and barn, and imagined Indians were on the warpath. They spread an alarm.
     A check a few days later resulted in the fact that the Skeels were making soap and some neighbors were assisting.
     Still another account says Thad Thayer, a white man who married a Chippewa Indian, had heard of a planned Indian uprising and had worked with the Chippewa chief to prevent it.
     Thayer was supposed to have been, as a child, kidnapped by an Indian woman during the Blackhawk War and was said to have witnessed killing of the Sauk and Fox Indians at the battle of Bad Axe.

- Arnie Hoffman

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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