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The view from the old log church

By May 27, 2022 2 Comments

He was just eleven years old. He was at the post office on a Saturday, a place where, back then, the news was told every two weeks, when all the rural folks picked up mail. What he heard was that there was a mass grave in a place not a far away. It was 1866. The Dakota War was four years behind them, if all that blood could ever be.

That mass grave was seven miles away. The next day, Sunday, Gabriel Stene says he decided to have a look. He started out, skirting lakes and passing the lean-tos where Norwegian farmers were trying to put down roots in a cold new land called Minnesota. 

When he got to the place he’d been told he could find that grave–13 people buried together, victims of what they called “the Sioux uprising”–the farmer who owned the land, Andrew Monson, was hitching up a horse for a Sabbath visit to his brother’s place. Still, Mr. Monson took the time to point out the stone that marked the spot. 

Gabriel Stene may have been expecting more. “I found the grave which was not much to see.” It was, he says, “a sunken neglected grave overgrown with weeds.” 

He was only a kid. It was a Sunday morning, and he’d walked seven miles. “Being only 11 years old, it had a sad effect on my boyish mind and brought tears to my eyes. I tried to eat a dry sandwich but could not do it.”

How much later he put this whole experience together and wrote it down, I don’t know. But when he set his memories to paper those early days around Norway Lake, he said he couldn’t help thinking what was there at that messy mass gravesite was somehow his story too.

“A sunken neglected grave overgrown with weeds. But every weed had a story underneath,” he says. “My roots rest in that remains of 13 of those, of that little Swedish colony who dressed that fatal Sunday morning to go and listen to a religious service,. . .little knowing that the clothes they put on that morning were to be their funeral garb.”

In 1862, people, scared and horrified, had left that brand new colony, left in droves, afraid of attack from the Dakota people, who were starving. All those Norwegians and Swedes were bound and determined to get far enough away from what none of them wanted to think about or remember. 

But when, once again, solid peace spread a quilt across the region, once the Dakota Sioux were gone, those settlers moved back into a landscape that looked so much like home, like Norway, lakes and hills and patches of hardwoods. Six years later, in 1868, enough of them had returned to build the original Log Church.

At the old log church site, north and west of Wilmar, the church signs tell more old stories. Once the uprising was over, things grew greatly busy in this fledgling community: 490 baptisms, 72 weddings, 142 confirmations, and 77 burials in the next eight years. For the record, that’s more than a baptism a week, a model of church growth maybe.

Out there around those Minnesota lakes, when the uprising was over and the Dakota people were run out of the state, life went on, don’t you know? 

You’ve got to admire a place so committed to remembering its story with a replica log church in a narrow slot of land way off the beaten path. The signs tell stories and explain that if you would like to know more, you can go the website, where you’ll find Gabriel Stene’s memories, a man who could never quite forget a Sunday morning, seven-mile hike to a grave people claimed 13 dead were buried in a mass grave. But you know all of that.

It’s history, and it’s precious, and if it’s yours you should tell the story. But you have to be careful how, don’t you?–because it’s like Gabriel Stene says: even though he was just a little shyster at the time, he knew his roots were there too, in that unmarked grave. And so are ours; roots of every last color we carry are somehow there too, even those Dakota Sioux.

These days, it seems we don’t know how to tell our story. My story?–sure. I can do that. And yours too, I’m sure.

But ours? Lots of us would just as soon not think about all of that because our story requires throwing bright lights on a dark past that’s sometimes prone to burn, oddly enough.

It’s not as easy as it might appear when you stand out in the country in the late summer shadows of the venerable old Log Church.


ADDENDUM: Like Tim, yesterday, I had my contribution ready to go, this one. I’m staying with it despite the fact that everything seems silly in light of what we are, once more, suffering through in Texas, a story that has only grown worse. Tim’s moving piece yesterday says everything I would have liked to say. I’d like to add just one line from Christine Emba’s moving op-ed in yesterday’s Washington Post: “It’s time to admit that we — we Americans, and the rationalizations we tolerate — are to blame. Only then can we shoulder the responsibility to act.”

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    When will we and our leaders stop telling ourselves “We are good people”? When will we acknowledge the evil spirit that keeps us from facing ourselves and confessing our collective sins?

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jim, Yes, we are to blame for much of the violence in our country. It is sad to think that way but we need to own up to our self-centered existence. We need to pray, “Forgive us Lord and help make us more like you.”

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