Family ancestor part of Dakota War
Monday, August 13, 2012 8:31 AM
News headlines today will comprise the text of future history books. In the last few years, the Serfling family of Greenleafton has become aware of their family ties to major historical events and are writing chapters to share with generations to come.
Richard and Cheryl Serfling of Greenleafton are making history for their children and grandchildren today as they research the connections to the Dakota and Civil Wars tracing the history of the Serfling family tree.
The idea of searching for their ancestral background dawned on Cheryl and Richard Serfling as they viewed "Roots," a series involving slavery, based on an Alex Haley novel, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family."
As they searched their family tree, the Serflings never suspected the ties to the Civil War they would find.
Cheryl remarked, "I grew up knowing my great-grandmother, Jane Vrieze, and hearing my family's stories, but we didn't seem to know much about Richard's family. 'Roots' got us interested in researching."
Richard added, "It took us a few years to get going though, so it was about three or four years ago that we really started digging into the Serfling timeline and my first cousin, Sharon Schmidt, of Spring Valley was a great help."
Other leads came when the Serflings entertained guests from Deer River, Minn., located near Grand Rapids, who had accidentally discovered Serflings in southern Minnesota.
"Whenever we go anywhere, I look in the phone book to see if my family's name is there and I've yet to run across a Serfling that I can't connect with," Richard shared.
The family tree reaches forward with Cheryl and Richard's children, Nathan, Lori and Vicki, and grandchildren Hailey and Kadrian. The tree is grounded with Richard, back to his father, Emmett, back to grandfather Herman and great-grandfather John.
It is Richard's great-grandfather, John Serfling, who has a Civil War and a Dakota War connection.
"He was born in Germany and came to the United States in 1850 at the age of 12 with his parents and brothers in an attempt to avoid the draft in Germany," Richard explained. "It wasn't too many years until he volunteered to serve in the Union Army of Minnesota, 5th Infantry, Company B. His two brothers were drafted later. All the Serfling men from Fillmore County survived and came home."
John Grabko, president and founder of Historic Adventure & Travel Tours, welcomed Richard and Cheryl on his tour of the Land of the Dakota War of 1862 in late July. This year marks the 150th anniversary of that historic battle. This group toured Fort Ridgely, Lower Sioux Agency, Battle of Birch Coulee, New Ulm, Camp Release, the Battle of Wood Lake, Lake Shetek site, Yellow Medicine Agency, the Native American Cemetery where Little Crow is buried and the Mankato execution site.
"The U.S. Dakota War was the result of disastrous U.S. Government policy and broken treaty promises to the Dakota people," said Grabko. "We are all on a pilgrimage of study to better understand these events of 1862. This was evident at Fort Ridgely and the Lower Sioux Agency where there was a special connection for the Serfling family. This was a place which had been caught up in the whirlwind of Minnesota and American history."
Richard's great-grandfather, John Serfling, was a part of Company B Minnesota 5th led by Captain John Marsh. In this first battle of the Dakota War, the Union soldiers were attacked by Dakota warriors on Aug. 18, 1862, at Redwood Ferry.
Grabko commented, "We had arranged for an ATV to trek through the woods down the muddy incline allowing Richard a chance to stand right by the Minnesota River. I remember asking him if he was game for this adventure and the answer was in his eyes, no question - he was going! Rejoining us back on top of the hill next to the Lower Sioux Agency government warehouse, Richard's smile told the story of his short but important trip into his family's history."
In October, Grabko will lead another Historic Adventure and Travel tour to continue following the trail of history by going west to the Black Hills and the Little Big Horn Battlefield as well as the Plains Indian Wars. Those who served their country as enlisted men or volunteers will also be honored.
Back to the Serfling story, after being mustered in February of 1862, John Serfling served for three years. In sorting through piles of pension research, Sharon Schmidt of Spring Valley found that her great-grandfather participated in marches, battles, sieges and skirmishes, including the siege of Corinth, Redwood, Fort Ridgely, Fort Abercrombie, the battle of Iuka, Corinth, Jackson, the siege and the assault of Vicksburg, Mechanicsburg and Richmond, and Fort DeRussy and River Expeditions in 1863 and marches in 1864 in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.
On Feb. 10, 1865, John Serfling was discharged at Fort Snelling, Minn.
John Serfling returned to civilian life, marrying twice and fathering 12 children. In April of 1883, he homesteaded 160 acres near Slayton, not far from Lake Shetek where the Dakota Conflict took place.
His death occurred in January of 1901 in Montreal, Mo. A "Defender of Fort Ridgely medal" is a treasured family keepsake.
In school, history held little interest for Richard. Once he discovered a connection with a blood relative who survived the massacre at Redwood Ferry, a new spark for history developed and today he views many programs on the History Channel.
"The connection we had discovered with my great-grandfather, John, got me thinking about learning more about the Civil War and exploring the lives of other relatives," Richard said.
The words inscribed at Fort Ridgely give an understanding to how important it is to remember. Approved by the 1895 Legislature and dedicated on Aug. 20, 1896, the Fort Ridgely State Monument proclaims, "In memory of the fallen; in recognition of the living; and for the emulation of future generations" - a commitment to remembering.
John Serfling's name is listed on that monument among the soldiers.
Joseph Chase, a Chatfield native and writer and director of "The Last Boy in Blue" for Wits End Theater of Chatfield shared, "The story our play tells is a piece of local and Minnesota history that has never been explored. At the time (August of 1862) the events fell on Chatfield and Fillmore County like a ton of bricks - 13 young soldiers from one small town killed in battle on the first morning of the Dakota War - 23 from one county. But there was no time to take it all in when it happened. It was only a part of a much larger event in Minnesota history, and the whole Dakota War was itself lost against the background of the much greater maelstrom of the Civil War. So what happened to these men and what they did - as dramatic and inspiring a tale as you'll ever hear - was a story that was almost lost, even in those soldiers' hometowns and county."
Chase added, "But it wasn't lost. It just waited between, literally, dusty pages for someone to re-discover it. And I had the good luck to be that guy."
During the 2012 celebration of Western Days, names that haven't been heard or thought about in Chatfield for more than a century were heard again as the Wit's End Theatre group brought the story to stage.
The story of what these lads did was told by a group of young actors that is approximately seven generations removed from the boys at Fort Ridgely, Chase shared. They will now have a lifelong connection to those soldiers.
"And these youngsters will be alive 75 years from now, telling their great-grandchildren about the summer they spent in Union blue on the stage in Chatfield," Chase concluded.
Richard proudly wore his Civil War Uniform in honor of his great-grandfather, John Serfling, to a production of "The Last Boy in Blue."
He concluded, "We're still searching for our family roots. There's always more to discover. We encourage people to take historic tours, get to know their family history and tell others, especially your children and your grandchildren about your experiences. Remember, today is tomorrow's history!"