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For some time now, I’ve been unable to determine what to do with the Wiseman story. I ran into it when I read the name printed on a map. The specifics have all but disappeared, even though five miles east and one north of a little burg named Wynot, Nebraska, you’ll find a wildlife management area named for the ill-fated pioneers. But even if the name is not dead, the story is all but gone, which I can’t think to be anything but wonderful. For weeks, I didn’t know whether the Wiseman saga should even be repeated. But no more. 

Some months before the attack, Henson Wiseman had enlisted in the local military to fight the Santees in the wake of the Dakota War of 1862. Wiseman was far from home when the events occurred, and Phoebe, his wife, had been waylaid in town by a summer storm, preventing her quick return. That left the kids. Alone. The stone says it was July 24, 1863. 

When she returned, she stumbled over the body of her son Arthur, 16, then heard muffled voices behind her and ran, assuming the murderers were still there. About that she was wrong.

But they most certainly had been–a band of warriors, history suggests, some of them Yankton and the others Santee. For unknown reasons, four young men had decided the Wiseman children should die. 

If I tell the Wiseman story, how should it be told? The specifics are too awful to repeat. The children were not merely put to death; they were butchered. More than that I’ll not say.

Phoebe, pregnant when the attack occurred, birthed a child born significantly deformed because of the remedies she took in recovery. When, a month after the massacre, her husband heard the news about his family and returned home–he drove his horse, non-stop, for almost ten days–Phoebe was not to be found. For 27 days, he searched before finding her, inconsolable, seated alone on a river bank, staring at the water.

Today is Thursday. Any day now, thousands more will die in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s new war government will withhold nothing, and he’ll do so with the consent of most all of the Israeli populace because it’s one thing to attack military installations, to fight army to army, it’s quite another to slaughter children at a music festival or in their beds. In the days since Hamas mounted the attack, the word barbaric is everywhere, while more than 100 hostages anticipate an unthinkable fate.

“But you must know the context,” advocates assert, citing the poisonous erosion of human rights on the Gaza Strip, or the mass hanging of 38 Santee warriors at Mankato in December of 1862. Try to outfit what happened with some bit of effort to understand at least.

It’s very difficult.

War is evil, but flashing your bloody human horrors on social media is what?–vile, heinous, wicked? There are no words. What all of Israel sees when videos picture lines of captive Jewish people–women pulled by their hair to the joy of the assembled crowds–is Auschwitz. More ghastly suffering. 

This week we have seen far more horror than anyone should. For years after the death of his children, people say Henson Wiseman regularly picked up his rifle, found a place in the hills along the Missouri River, and shot Indians indiscriminately as they passed in their canoes.

Those who murdered his children were never found or identified.

For weeks I wondered how to deal with the Wiseman massacre, whether the story should simply be left to die. Maybe we should simply let it alone like an imprecatory psalm. The site is almost impossible to get to. The Wiseman name is even spelled wrong. Let it alone. It’s well on its way to oblivion.

Then, Saturday, Hamas blew into Israeli homes, murdered grandparents barely out of bed, shot children right in front of their parents, then caught the action on their smart phones and put videos up for the world to admire.

An old friend of mine, now passed on, told me proudly of her ancestor, a Lakota warrior named Charger, who, with a few other “Fool Soldiers,” gambled his life and those of his friends to bring back suffering hostages taken earlier during a massacre in that same 1862 Dakota War. We were in the car, driving somewhere on Cheyenne River Reservation land so far and wide all around that the horizon seems barely there at all.

“Some say the Fool Soldiers were traitors to our people,” she said. Clearly, she left that statement hang like a question, wondering what I’d say. I don’t know that I responded. I didn’t think it was my place to answer. 

What I did tell her later was there were too many world religions–including, traditionally, that of her own people–that considered human life to be sacred. Surely what Charger and his warrior society did to end human suffering in the cold of winter of 1863 was a good thing, a moral thing, a blessed thing. 

There really is no good way to tell the Wiseman story. But even if we don’t tell it or remember it, this torturous, killing week reminds us of the same vile humanness, of how evil we can become–all of us, each of us.

Look at these Nazi military guys and friends, having a ball while millions of deaths created smoke that floated peaceably above the camps. 

Must we be reminded? Must we hear the stories? Maybe so. 

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.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is another horrible story, but you told it right, and you told it well, and I thank you.

  • Nancy says:

    Amen to all you said, James.
    Lord help us.

  • Diane Dykgraaf says:

    Words escape us, but God doesn’t. Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Yes, well told … there is no way of telling that can make sense of it, or lessen the pain … but such stories deserve to be told … they are the product of hate, and they can add to the hate, too … or, perhaps, open some doors for something better. I don’t know … I’m stupefied by the present horror, and by this story … blame doesn’t seem to fit anywhere … but somehow or other, the world, me, you, have to work harder.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Raw human evil continues to bloody our history on God’s good earth – how long, oh Lord?!

  • Doug says:

    Well told. Thanks for this.

  • Jack says:

    All but impossible to tell with the appropriate tonal grace, but you did, James.
    With admiration and gratitude,
    Jack R

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