Fear in the Hearts of Children: More from the Autobiography of Francis A. Gross

Last weekend I read Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota and Our Way or the Highway: Inside the Minnehaha Free State. That followed a recent rereading of Folwell’s History of Minnesota, Volume I, and I also had read Spirit Car recently. They were part of my continuing research into the history of Minnehaha Falls. (More on that project soon.)

With the sad story of the disintegration of relations long ago between American Indians and whites fresh in mind, I recalled a passage in the unpublished autobiography of former park commissioner Francis Gross. (Background on Gross and his autobiography.) Gross was born in Minnesota in 1870 and lived near the intersection of Plymouth (13th) Avenue and Washington Avenue North in north Minneapolis from 1875 into his teen years. Among his memories of childhood on the north side was this:

“Until shortly after 1880, the shore lands of the Mississippi river were grandly beautiful. Other than a small sawmill at the bridge on Plymouth Avenue, there stood virgin timber of many varieties. For a few years after our coming to the northside, each spring many Indians, their squaws and papooses, would travel from the north on the river in canoes and locate their camp at about 14th Avenue North on the river flat there. The many Indians, young and old, their tepees, boiling pots, the furs and beaded leather goods and trinkets they had brought to trade or sell was an interesting sight. Each evening they would entertain their white visitors with war dances. Made their drums taut by the heat of the campfire, painted their faces in most hideous designs and wore their best and most beautifully patterned and beaded dress. As this time was not long after the most serious of the wars with Indians in this territory, fear of the Indian was in the heart of every child. It can therefore be easily guessed that the sight of these hideously painted, tomahawk-swinging savages, performing at night in the sinister-appearing light given by a few torches, was a scene as exciting as any small boy could wish for.” (Emphasis added.)

I wonder if that fear may have been heightened for Gross as a child because he grew up in a community of predominantly German immigrants. In another section of his hand-written autobiography he recalled:

“On the north side until after 1885, it was common to hear German spoken whenever people congregated. The early settlers of the north side were mostly of German birth…When German immigrants came to Minneapolis, very few spoke English, hence it was necessary that they were met on their arrival by an American. Often, my father would meet those immigrant German families with his grocery delivery wagon.”

The connection between the fear and the immigrants is that many of the settlers in the Minnesota River Valley—the violent epicenter of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War—were also German immigrants. I suspect the violence of that war was painfully felt by many in the German community in Minneapolis, too. While that war was 13 years in the past by the time Gross’s family moved to north Minneapolis, local newspapers carried many stories in the later 1870s of continuing battles between American Indians and U.S. forces not far to the west, including lurid accounts of battles featuring such famous names as Custer, Sheridan, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

I hadn’t planned to write here about this passage in Gross’s autobiography when I first read it, because it did not relate to parks or early land use in Minneapolis, nor do I believe it reflects on Gross whom I have always admired as a fair, just, and humane man. But I was drawn back to it in the convergence of my research.  Gross’s description had power and it had nothing to do with some anachronistic terms. Rather, the power comes from the poignant phrase: “fear of the Indian was in the heart of every child.”

It is not the object of the fear that impressed me—I can imagine as well fear of the White Man in the hearts of Indian children—but the sad realization that fear in the hearts of children can take lifetimes to conquer.

The greatest injustices, the greatest atrocities grow from fear of some monolithic, broadly-defined “Other” instilled young—a conviction reinforced last night as my daughter described watching the film Hotel Rwanda in her geography class.

The dangers of implanting fear in the hearts of children are as great today as ever. Let’s keep that seed from being planted and nourished in our children’s hearts.

David C. Smith

If you know of accounts or pictures of American Indian encampments along the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis in the 1870s-1880s, such as Gross described, I’d like to learn more.

© David C. Smith


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