Thomas Rice Stewart came west as an 11-year-old boy with his parents and siblings from Massachusetts to the wilderness of Minnesota in 1853, five years before statehood. The family was one of only a half-dozen to spend the winter of 1853-54 in the new settlement that would become Caledonia. A half-century later, he wrote about those early years.
Shortly after their arrival in Brownsville on the Mississippi River, Thomas and his brother Ed took a walk into the woods where they saw many pigeons. ”The woods seemed to be fairly alive with them,” Thomas recalled. “It stirred up all the hunter’s blood there was in us.”
They ran back to the hotel in Brownsville where no attempts were successful in persuading their mother to agree to this impromptu hunting venture. The landlord had overheard their pleas and told the boys, ”Why don’t you go? You can just go around by the bedroom window, get your guns, go out in the woods, get a nice string of pigeons and get back before your mother knows you are gone.”
The boys had some misgivings, but “visions of the pigeons were too strong.” Their shot and powder horns were hanging near the guns close to the open window, and they were soon shooting pigeons as quickly as possible. “After each shot, they would fly further into the woods, and we would reload and follow until our shot was gone and our powder horn and guns empty.” The lads tied the pigeons together as best they could and started back, each with a string of pigeons hanging from his gun barrel and slung over his shoulder.
About then, they discovered they were lost. “In our excitement, following the pigeons wherever they flew, we had made no note of direction or landmarks passed.” Brother Ed believed the houses were in one direction, Thomas another. They wandered until coming to a trail which likely led to Brownsville, provided they chose the correct direction. As they argued over which way to walk, they heard a strange noise in the distance. “At first we thought it might be hounds on the track of some game, as we had often heard in the East. But we were soon convinced that it was not hounds. Whatever it was, it seemed to be coming toward us at quite a rapid gait. About once a minute that terrible yell, half brutal and half human, would belch forth. The sound was coming nearer, until the echo there among the hills sounded as though a thousand demons were let loose.”
The brothers would have run but which way was home? They soon saw a head bobbing up and down, a head with some feathers in its hair. As it came over the hill, a pony’s head came into view, then its body. Behind the first rider and pony another head appeared, then another pony and then a third rider and horse – all advancing at full speed. “As the first Indian came out in full view, he gave us a yell that fairly raised our hair. They were coming toward us down the trail as fast as their ponies could go.”
Hoping the riders had not seen them, the boys quickly hid in a patch of large hazel brush just off the trail. However, their hopes of not being discovered were soon dashed. “They did not slack up until they came in front of where we were.” Then the first stopped his pony and raised himself up as high as he could and “looking toward us, he swung his arms over his head two or three times, then gave a yell that would range anywhere between the human voice and a steam whistle.”
The yelling continued until he got off his horse and walked towards the hazel brush hiding place. He parted the brush with one hand while grabbing Ed’s gun with the other. While leaning over, he lost his balance and let go of the gun when Ed gave his end of the gun a sudden jerk. The boys jumped up and ran down the trail as fast as they could. Meanwhile, their pursuer rushed back to his pony, but had some difficulty getting back on. Soon the lads heard another yell and saw all three of them again in pursuit as fast as their ponies could run.
“My brother being older could run much faster than I could. Besides, he had a pair of light shoes, while I was weighted down by a pair of heavy cowhide boots, about two sizes too large… The Indians kept just as close to us as they could without having their ponies step on me. Ed would keep just about four rods ahead of me. He could easily have run away from me, but didn’t want to leave me… He would keep looking back, urging me to run faster. It did seem to me as though I must drop,” continued Thomas. “But whenever I would lag or show signs of faltering, the ugly old fellow in the lead would give one of his blood-curdling yells, and that would put new life into me… He was almost on me and was leaning out as far as he could, just ready to grab me.”
When Thomas tripped and fell, two ponies jumped over him before they could be stopped. This chase lasted until the Indians slowed down and fell back when they approached the few houses that comprised the village of Brownsville. When townsfolk emerged to investigate the commotion, the large, old Indian, as best he could in broken English, described in detail the boys’ ordeal, which to him to him was quite a humorous event.
That old Indian had “whiskied up” in town and was being escorted back to camp by his adult sons when he furtively turned back to race back to town and soon all three seized the opportunity for fun with the Stewart boys.
The boys’ mother evidently felt their ordeal was enough punishment for ignoring her wishes.
Source: The Memoirs of T. R. Stewart as published in Caledonia Pride 1854-2004