Woman's account of Wisel flood concludes
Wednesday, January 04, 2012 2:42 AM
Editor's note: the following is the third and final part of a series of articles compiled by Charlotte Nelson of Canton. The articles include a first-hand account she discovered regarding the deadly 1866 Wisel flash flood that killed 16 men, women and children in Preble Township, Fillmore County, Minnesota.
Charlotte Nelson stands at the point where the Newburg Creek joins the South Fork of the Root River.
The following account of the flood was recorded by Mrs. J.B. (Jerusha Bent) Wisel in the History of Steuben County, Indiana in 1885. At this time, Mrs. Wisel was living in Salem Township.
The first part of this story introduced readers to the Wisel family and the community the family was building with their mills. The second part detailed the events that occurred on the night of the flood and what happened when the floodwaters reached the homes. When we left the story last week, Jerusha Wisel was floating down the creek on her bed.
"Four miles below our place a little stream called Trout Run emptied into the main stream from the west, and I was carried on my bedstead across this stream and beside a piece of timber which grew on the left bank of the creek. There the bottom lands widen out, extending 40 rods between the bluffs, so I went on more gently, and in passing under a tree felt a limb strike my head; reaching up, I grasped the limb with one hand while I held the bedpost to the body of the tree. My bedstead swung around to the lower side, and directly the flood-wood that was following down lodged against the upper side of the tree, so that I climbed upon it, and remained there until daylight.
"The rain had ceased, and a chilling wind came across the water. Being exhausted, I felt inclined to sleep, but feared to do so lest I fall into the water, so I stood on my feet, and exercised what I could to get warm, holding on to the limbs of the tree. The morning was foggy; no sun appeared to warm the atmosphere or cheer the gloom.
"The cattle that had fled to the hills to escape the flood were seeking their way homeward, bellowing as if in fear of the still foaming waters. I, too, felt anxious to return, hoping that I might find my husband yet alive, flattering myself that he might reach some floating timber when he jumped from that upper door, and so have reached the hill; if so, I knew that he would be nearly distracted until he should learn the fate of his family.
"I knew not how far down the stream I had been carried, nor how long I might have to wait for some one to find me. I could not stay here in suspense; I must get to the hill and go far enough back to shun the ravine. But how should I get to the hill, which was separated from me by 20 rods of water?
"A board lay on the flood-wood where I had rested and I resolved to try to raft myself across to the hill, if I could find a pole long enough for the purpose. But through the mercy of a kind providence I found none, for I should probably have been drowned in the undertaking. On the right hand, between me and the creek, were woods filled with flood material, among which I saw drowned animals, and one poor creature struggling to liberate itself from the logs which confined it.
"With anxiety, I looked for some of my own dear friends but found none. Some of my neighbors in hunting for the lost reached the place at sunset, and found Mrs. Brace; she was on her knees, and her hands clenched in the grass, a few rods below my bedstead; doubtless she was alive when I stopped at the tree, and was soon after knocked off by the flood-wood.
"With much effort I succeeded in climbing from one pile of flood-wood to another, until I got out of the water, and soon after reached Trout Run, which was swollen to a river, with a swift current. I followed up the bank until I came to a tree that had fallen across the stream, and lay two or three feet above the water. I was enabled to cross over with steady nerve, and soon after was glad to find a road which I supposed would lead me out to the house of Mr. English, which was one and a half miles from my desolated home.
"With them, I resolved to seek shelter. But I had not traveled far when I observed the fresh tracks of a company of wolves that had gone that way since the rain. I followed on for a mile or so when, seeing a dark ravine in front of me and fearing I might meet the wolves, I left the road and climbed a hill to my right where there were only tall grass and weeds, hoping that I might see a house and find someone to assist me.
"On I traveled, from one hill to another, until noon, sometimes feeling so exhausted that it seemed I could go no further. Then I stopped and asked the Lord for strength and guidance, and in mercy he enabled me to pursue my way to a Norwegian's cabin.
"Although my labor and fatigue had been so great I was still shivering with cold; while the women prepared me warm refreshments, the man went and called a neighbor who could talk English. They were surprised to learn of the disaster, as there had been no uncommon rain there.
"The two men took an ax and accompanied me through the woods to Mr. English's. His wife met me saying, 'My dear lamb, I did not look for you to come alive.' To my grief, I then learned that Mr. Wisel had not been seen. He must have been drowned. They also told me that Mr. Wellington, who lived half a mile below us, was swept away with all his family and buildings. Their house, after going a few rods, broke up, the roof and chamber floor settling together.
"On raising the roof, Mrs. Wellington was found with her little grandson, Charley Gage, in her arms; they were in bed, looking as if in a sweet sleep. They had come to their death without any warning. Mr. Wellington had arisen and dressed himself. His body was found in the timber where I had lodged. He was buried under the drifted sand, only one boot sticking out in sight. They were from New Hampshire.
"The next day the remains of our poor old mother were brought to me. With the assistance of a few neighbors, I had just got her laid out when Cyrus Wellington called to see me; he was at work from home at the time of the freshet and so escaped being drowned with the rest of the family.
"It was decided to take the bodies as fast as they were found to the schoolhouse to be kept until the burial. With sadness, Cyrus told me that his mother and Charley had not been laid out, but were at the schoolhouse. I was then reminded of a singular request that his mother had made of me but a few weeks before, as she stood admiring my flowerbeds. She said she believed she would sleep sweeter in the grave with flowers around her, and requested me to see to laying her out, if I should outlive her, and place flowers about her grave.
"I told Cyrus that I would go and attend to their bodies immediately and soon had a carriage to take me to the schoolhouse, where I was assisted by two Norwegian ladies. We had but few American neighbors, and they were unable to render any assistance.
"On the afternoon of Wednesday, my poor husband was found and brought to the schoolhouse. Mr. Brace and wife were taken home to Burr Oak for burial. On Thursday, Mr. Wisel and his mother, Mr. and Mrs. Wellington and Charley Gage were borne to their silent graves, followed by only five relatives.
"On Friday, a few neighbors volunteered to go with me down the stream hoping we might find Jonathan. We searched a day in vain and returned home in the evening sad and weary. Jonathan was found on the following Sunday five miles below my place. He had floated down the stream and lodged in a clump of willows. He was buried that evening without funeral services."
Mrs. Wisel, after surviving the terrible experience related above, returned to her friends and relatives in Steuben County, Ind., where she had previously lived from 1836 to 1853.
The 16 men, women and children killed in the 1866 flash flood were:
Jonathan Wisel (David's nephew)
Julia Read (David's mother)
Calvin and Almira Brace (from Burr Oak)
Jones C. and Cornelia Wellington
Charley Gage (Wellington's grandson)
Jens and Kari Soli and 3 children
Jens Hanson's widow (Elen) and two children
Maybe now, after discovering Mrs. Wisel's first hand account, I can more fully understand the hardship the pioneers endured. My own great-grandparents, Knud and Gunhild Knudson, were the first white people in Amherst Township and started Stringtown (Amherst) in 1853, five years before Minnesota was a state.
Lars and Celia Lund lived up a hill from my childhood fishing spot. After Grandma Thompson and I had been fishing awhile, Celia would come out of their house waiving a white dishtowel and invite us up for lunch. Her little white dog was always at her side.
Even with a pole in my hand to steady myself as I walked the wobbly log, I was always frightened of falling into the rapid flowing creek in order to visit Lund's. Grandma Thompson wasn't afraid; she just skipped across and hollered for me to hurry up. Then it was once again time to cross the Wisel Creek before we could walk back through the Big Woods to Grandpa Ole, who always had food ready for us when we returned with our fresh berries and fish.
Charlotte Nelson is currently putting together a booklet about those involved in the 1866 Wisel flash flood in order to provide some insight into the pioneer lives and preserve their memory as they struggled to tame the Preble Township wilderness.