Stories of American Life and Adventure - Edward Eggleston

Peter Petersen

A Story of the Minnesota Indian War

Peter Petersen was a very little boy living in Minnesota. He lived on the very edge of the Indian country when the Indian War of 1862 broke out.

Settlers were killed in their cabins before they knew that a war had begun. As the news spread, the people left their houses, and hurried into the large towns. Some of them saw their houses burning before they got out of sight. The roads were crowded with ox wagons full of women and children.

Peter Petersen's father was a Norwegian settler. When the news of the Indian attack came, Peter's father hitched up his oxen, and put his wife and daughters and little Peter into the wagon. They drove the oxen hard, and got to Mankato in safety.

The town was crowded with frightened people. Many were living in woodsheds and barns. In their hurry, these country people had not brought food enough with them. Before long they began to suffer hunger.

Peter Petersen's father thought of the potato field he had at home. If he could only go back to his house long enough to dig his potatoes, his family would have enough to eat.

When he made up his mind to go, Peter wanted to go along with him. As there were now soldiers within a mile of his farm, Peter's father thought the Indians would not be so bold as to come there. So he and Peter went back to the little house.

The next morning Peter's father went out to dig potatoes. Peter, who was but five years old, was asleep in his bed. He was awakened by the yells of Indians. He ran to the door just in time to see his father shot with an arrow.

Little Peter ran like a frightened rabbit to the nearest bushes. The Indians chased him and caught him. They were amused to see him run, and they thought he would be a funny little plaything to have. So they just set him up on the back of a cow, and drove the cow ahead of them. They laughed to see Peter trying to keep his seat on the cow's back.

[Illustration] from American Life and Adventure by Edward Eggleston

The little boy lived among the Indians for weeks. They did not give him anything to eat. When he came into their tents to get food, they would knock him down. But he would pick up something to eat at last, and then run away. When he could not get any food, he would go out among the cows the Indians had taken from the white people. Little as he was, he would manage to milk one of the cows. He had no other cup to catch the milk in but his mouth. Whenever any of the Indians threatened to kill him, he would run away and dodge about between the legs of the cows or among the horses, so as to get out of their way. Sometimes he was so much afraid that he slept out in the grass, in the dew or rain.

After some weeks, Peter and the other captives were retaken by the white soldiers sent to fight the Indians. But the poor little boy could speak no language but Norwegian. He could not tell whose child he was, nor where he came from. His mother and sisters had left the dangerous country near the Indians. They had gone to Winona, a hundred and fifty miles away. One of his sisters heard somebody read in the paper that such a little boy had been taken from the Indians. The kind-hearted doctor in whose house she lived tried to find the boy, but nobody could tell what had become of little Peter. His family at last gave up all hope of seeing him again.

When Peter was taken by the soldiers, he had worn out all his clothes in traveling through the prairie grass. He had nothing on him but part of a shirt. The soldiers took an old suit of uniform and made him some clothes. He was soon dressed from top to toe in army blue.

He was as much of a plaything for the soldiers as he had been for the Indians. They laughed at his pranks, as they might have done if he had been a monkey. He passed from one squad of soldiers to another. They fed him on hard-tack, and shared their blankets with him. He was the pet and plaything of them all. But after a while the Indians were driven away from the settlements, and the soldiers were ordered to the South, for it was in the time of the Civil War.

The regiment that Peter happened to be with got on a steamboat, and Peter went aboard with them. The soldiers knew that if Peter should be taken to the South, he would be farther than ever away from his friends. So the soldiers made up their minds to put him ashore at Winona. It was the last place at which he would find Norwegian people. To put such a little fellow ashore in a large and busy place like this was a hard thing to do. Peter was hardly more than a baby, and he could not speak English. He stood about as much chance of starving to death here as he had in the Indian camp.

When the boat landed at Winona, the soldiers gave some money to one of the hotel porters, and told him to give the child something to eat, and send him out into the country where there were Norwegian people. But as soon as Peter had eaten the dinner they gave him at the hotel, he slipped away, and went back to the river. He expected to find his friends, the soldiers, waiting for him; but the boat had gone. Peter was now in a strange city, without friends. Not without friends, either, for his sisters were in this same city. But he did not think any more of getting to his mother or his sisters. He was only thinking of the soldiers who had been so kind to him.

When the next boat came down the river, Peter Petersen, in his little blue uniform, marched aboard. He thought he might overtake the soldiers, but the boatmen put him ashore again. He stood gazing after the boat, not knowing what to do or where to go.

There stood on the bank that day a Norwegian. He was a guest at the Norwegian hotel in the town. He heard Peter say something in his own language, and he thought the boy must be a son of the man who kept the hotel. So he said to him in Norwegian, "Let's go home."

It had been a long time since Peter had heard his own language spoken. Nobody had said anything to him about home since he was taken away from his father's cabin by the Indians. The words sounded sweet to him. He followed the strange man. He did not know where he was going, except that it was to some place called home. When he got to the hotel, he went in and sat down. He did not know what else to do.

Presently the landlady came in. Seeing a strange little boy in army blue, she said, "Whose child are you?"

Peter did not know whose child he was. Since the soldiers left him, he didn't seem to be anybody's child. As he did not answer, the landlady spoke to him rather sharply.

"What do you want here, little boy?" she said.

"A drink of water," said Peter.

A little boy nearly always wants a drink of water.

"Go through into the kitchen there, and get a drink," said the landlady.

Peter opened the door into the kitchen, and went through. In a moment two arms were about him. Peter knew what home meant then. His sister, Matilda, had recognized her lost brother Peter in the little soldier boy. The next day he was put into a wagon and sent out to Rushford, where his mother was living. The wanderings of the little captive were over.