Where to begin?
In the mid-1990s, my great aunt Emily Coller told me that my great grandmother, as a child of 8 (she was actually 10), had watched her family get "scalped by the Indians" while she hid behind a wagon wheel. By the time Emily told me that story, I had already spent years studying American Indian lit and had developed a healthy skepticism of such dramatic narratives. My great aunt's story was complicated by the fact that the great grandmother to whom she referred, Pauline Zeller, wasn't even biologically related to her; she was my paternal grandmother's mother-in-law, and Emily was my paternal grandmother’s sister. I tried to get more information from Emily, but she wasn't compelled to share. I wrote it off as a fabricated account until, in 2008, my cousin, who was completing genealogical work, emailed me a photo that included Emily (sitting in front with a child on her lap) as a young girl, and Pauline (standing behind her on the far right). So, it seems their paths had crossed.
By the time I had confirmation that the two knew one another, Emily had been dead a long time, but my cousin had, serendipitously, completed enough genealogical work for me to trace my ancestors back to Milford Township.
The story is a complex one that I continue to research to this day, and the more I research and try to piece together the events before and after August 18th, 1862, the more I know that my family story was dramatically changed in this war that I have studied for decades. Many of my ancestors died on the first day.
My great-great-grandparents settled in Milford Township around 1856. Conrad Zeller and Philipine (Fink) Zeller moved to Milford with their children in a major family resettlement, part of a German group attempting to establish a community in the Minnesota River valley. They were neighbors to several of Philipine's sisters and their spouses, nieces and nephews, and her parents, Johann and Monika Fink.
I still haven't gotten a firm count of family members who died on August 18th, 1862, but a cursory glance at the Milford memorial monument is like a who's who in my family's history: John Martin Fink, Monika Fink, Max Fink, Carl Merkle, Florian Hartmann, John Baptist Zettel, Barbara Zettel, Elizabeth Zettel, Stephan Zettel, Anton Zettel, Johana Zettel, Max Zeller, Ludrella (Lucretia) Zeller, John Zeller, Monica Zeller, Cecilla Zeller, Conrad Zeller, Martin Zeller . . .
Of the first 18 names on that monument, I have confirmed all but one, Florian Hartmann, are related to me. And many of the stories are heartbreaking, from my great-great-great-grandparents along with their son and grandson, who left no witnesses to their final moments; to Conrad and Philipine’s brother-in-law, who was killed while offering a loaf of bread to the Dakota men who showed up at his homestead; to Philipine's death months after the war ended, presumably from grief.
But perhaps the most poignant death amongst my relatives was that of John Zeller, my paternal great-great-grandparents’ double nephew. John's parents, Max Zeller and Lucretia (Fink) Zeller, were married to siblings, Conrad Zeller and Philipine (Fink) Zeller. Their families must have been close. They even named their children after one another. And I can't help but feel that the death of not only Max and Lucretia but all but one of their children must have been particularly painful to my great- great -grandparents.
John alone survived. He was 15 years old.
After his family died, Conrad Zeller adopted John, so he was legally the older brother to my great grandmother, Pauline, the same girl who had watched her relatives die while hiding behind a wagon wheel, or from another aunt’s account, under the cover of the woods. Five years his junior, I imagine Pauline looked up to John, her older cousin/brother who had miraculously survived the attack. But, much like the aftermath of the war was too much for Philipine, who faded and died in the months following the deaths of so many of her family members, John eventually moved to Ohio to live with relatives and, some three years after the War of 1862, killed himself.
Pauline grew up, moved away, and married eventually. She named her only son after John Zeller. John Gfrerer, my grandfather (standing in the photo), married and fathered six children, who had children of their own, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
John Zeller's immediate family was destroyed on August 18th, 1862, and when he killed himself, he ensured that there would never be a Max Zeller-Lucretia Fink heir, but I'd like to believe that my branch of the family lives in John Zeller's honor.
Someday I hope we can further honor John, the people who were killed during the war, the families of the Dakota men who were hung, and the descendants of the Dakota people who were driven from Minnesota; I hope we can come together in peace and begin to heal.