By Scott Thoma
Had Evan Jones not made the correct snap decision during the Dakota War of 1862, his great grandson Dennis Miller would not be here today to share his story.
While perusing through extensive family journals and other materials, Dennis, who resides in Slayton, has been able to piece together how his great-great grandfather, Robert Jones, was killed during the Dakota Conflict and how Robert’s son, Evan, managed to escape that fateful day.
“There would have been a blank in our history there,” said Miller.
Miller, who farmed in southern Minnesota for many years before working at a bank and other places, has lived in Slayton for the past seven years. He helps out at the Murray County Historical Museum in Slayton, working in the agricultural building.
Robert lived on a farm in Cambria Township in Blue Earth County, 18 miles northwest of Mankato, at the time of the Dakota unrest. His son, Evan, lived and farmed with him.
The Dakota Conflict, also known as the Sioux Uprising, began on Aug. 17, 1862. But by September, the Dakota people had been driven back to the western prairies by a large army headed by General Henry Sibley. Strong military garrisons had already been established at Fort Ridgley, New Ulm, Judson, Madelia and other frontier posts for the settlers’ protection.
Feeling more secure, the settlers in the region began returning to their homes in early September because their livestock were suffering and the crops were only partially harvested.
On the morning of Sept. 10, 1862, Evan, his father, and a neighbor, John B. Shaw, were working feverishly to stack grain at the Jones’ property on the Little Cottonwood River in the far eastern edge of Brown County next to the Blue Earth county line.
Robert’s wife, Elizabeth, was digging potatoes for dinner that day “about 70 rods to the west” of where the men were working, Evan would tell later in his life.
Evan, then a bachelor, had just celebrated his 35th birthday two weeks earlier on Aug. 27, 1862.
Meanwhile, John S. Jones, an unrelated neighbor, was preparing to travel to the Robert Jones’ farm less than two miles away to help them stack the grain. Two days earlier, Robert and Evan had helped John S. Jones stack his grain.
While en route to his neighbor’s farmsite, John S. Jones was intercepted by a small party of Dakota warriors. Despite putting up a fight as later evidenced by the bent and bloody tines on his pitchfork, John was mortally wounded.
As Evan, his father and Shaw began stacking grain, they began to wonder why Jones had not shown up to help yet since it was already late morning. So Evan jumped off a wagon and began walking out on the prairie to see if there was any sign of his neighbor.
At that time, Shaw was driving a team of horses with a load of grain up to one of the stacks. Robert was climbing the stack in order to pile the grain higher. The purpose of stacking is to dry the unthreshed grain while protecting it from vermin until a threshing machine could harvest it.
Suddenly, a number of Dakota crawled over the Jones’ Virginia fence (consisting of a zigzag pattern or interlocking rails), which separated the field from the brush, and raced toward the working men.
Robert, hearing their screams which warriors often used to terrorize their enemy, started sliding down the stack. With his feet firmly on the ground, he began running toward a nearby wooded area with the Dakota in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Shaw laid down on top of the load in his wagon to avoid being seen. When he lifted his head and saw the enemy was not nearby, he slide off his wagon and ran to a nearby brush and hid, knowing that U.S. soldiers would eventually be coming to the defense of the settlers from Camp Crisp, which was situated between New Ulm and Mankato approximately seven miles away.
From where Evan Jones was, he could see the attack on his father. Figuring he would likely be the next target, Evan fled on foot and hid in some tall grass and shallow water. Once the Indians left, he ran for six miles and sought shelter in a slough.
Upon hearing news of the attacks on the neighboring settlers, the soldiers from Camp Crisp set out to help and eventually discovered Shaw, who was unharmed.
The soldiers later came across a man lying dead in the road about a miles from Robert Jones’ farm. The man was John S. Jones, who had been scalped. The bent and bloodied pitchfork was located close to his body, giving indication that he had put up a fight and possibly injured one or more of the Dakota men.
Soon after, three more bodies were discovered and identified near the Jones’ place. But neither the soldiers, nor organized bands of neighbors, could find the whereabouts of Robert or Evan Jones after several days of searching.
“Evan was petrified and stayed hidden in that slough for 11 days,” said Miller.
Evan later would tell that the only food he had to eat was a couple of ears of raw corn, an onion and a watermelon that he had found nearby.
As mounted soldiers rode past, Evan, along with two other men who were also hiding, heard a familiar voice and crawled out from the overhanging grass of the slough that completely shielded them all. Although cold, wet and hungry, the men were now safe.
The men had seen and heard people on horses many times before, but always assumed they were the enemy and didn’t want to take any chances.
“They didn’t find Robert’s body until the next spring beside a fence,” said Dennis, referring to his great-great grandfather.
While burning grass, some men discovered Jones’ bones only 400 yards from where John S. Jones’ dead body had been found. Robert’s shoe was found caught between the rails of a Virginia fence near a slough where he was likely headed for protection.
Evan died at his home at age 77 in Lowville Township on Nov. 15, 1904. He is buried alongside his wife, Rachel, in Lake Crystal Cemetery, near his father and mother. Evan and Rachel had eight children. He had been postmaster in the Lowville Post Office for over 15 years. Old wooden post office boxes from the Lowville Post Office can be seen at the Murray County Museum.
In his later years, Evan told his story to a biographer so his future generations of family would know about his life.
Of interest, on Aug. 18, 1862, Evan was having tea with his parents when an alarmed neighbor came to their house and informed them that Dakota warriors had killed several people near New Ulm, and that around 1,000 more Dakota were en route to New Ulm.
Evan grabbed his Kentucky rifle, powder horn and bullets and set off for New Ulm to help keep guard. Not long after, 800 soldiers arrived and Evan returned to his home.
Note: Robert is the great-great grandfather, and Evan is the great grandfather of Dennis Miller. Evan and his wife, Rachel, had one son, Herbert Jones; Dennis’ grandfather. Herbert and his wife, Jennie, had a daughter named Evelyn (Jones) Miller, who was Dennis Miller’s mother.