Plains Folk

The Mystery of the Martyrs of Walhalla


When Charlotte O. Van Cleve happened on the grave of Cornelia Leonard Spencer in Walhalla in 1885, as described in a previous essay, she set in motion a train of remembrance that runs right through to a remarkable historic site in Walhalla Hillside Cemetery today. The site of the Martyrs of Walhalla is beautifully situated and well kept—worth visiting, and the visit is the more interesting if you know the story.


Mrs. Van Cleve’s quest for knowledge of the early missionaries who died in Walhalla was, as young folks like to say these days, epic. She wrote an article about finding the unmarked grave of Cornelia Spencer, killed by Indians in 1854. This resulted in her making contact with former associates of Cornelia and her husband David, associates by the time of contact, 1885, engaged in mission work in India.


These contacts shared letters from Mr. Spencer and others that detailed how Cornelia, shot through an open window by parties unknown, had died in her husband’s arms. Mrs. Van Cleve began receiving contributions for a memorial, even as additional facts surfaced. It turned out there was another grave, that of Sarah Philena Barnard, a missionary who had died of tuberculosis (or “consumption,” as they called it then) in 1853. Mrs. Barnard’s gravestone had been broken—by parties unknown—and unceremoniously appropriated by a settler for use as a doorstep.


Then there surfaced the case of the mission teacher Elijah Terry, shot with arrows by Indians, it was said, while cutting timber in 1852.


In 1888 the remains of all the martyrs were relocated from rural sites to the cemetery at Walhalla. Local historian Diane Yeado recounts that the grave-digging was done by Felix Latraille, “because he knew where they were buried. He was the one who buried them when they died 30 years before,” Yeado writes. “In pictures taken on that day [June 21, 1888, the day the martyr site was dedicated], you can see that Felix and his Chippewa wife Marguerite are in a place of honor in the very first row. Felix is holding a shovel and an axe.”


Now we come to mystery of the martyrs, or more specifically, of the lead martyr, Cornelia Leonard Spencer. We have the account written by her husband—how after shots rang out in the night, and she fell pierced by two bullets, he comforted the three children and tried to make his wife comfortable as she died. But who fired those shots? No one saw, so the act was just attributed to “Indians.”


What Indians? What individuals, of what tribe, what band? The situation is complicated. There was plenty of bad blood among multiple parties in the region during the 1850s. There was the endemic warfare between the Chippewa (or Ojibway, or Anishinaabe) and the various bands of Dakota. In the middle were the Métis of the Red River Valley, mixed-bloods most closely associated with the Chippewa, and bitter enemies of all Dakota people. In 1851 the Métis had fought a spectacular and bloody battle with the Pabaksa, or Cuthead, band of the Dakota, the Battle of the Grand Coteau, over control of the buffalo range.


The Protestant missionaries were supported by the trader Norman Kittson, whose oxcarts carried goods back and forth from St. Paul. Many Métis Catholics and their priests resented the Protestant inroads in their territory. Mr. Spencer writes of an episode when Kittson was present and some young Dakotas admitted having killed his wife, but I am suspicious of this account. It seems like a case of pinning blame on convenient suspects.


So the mystery remains. I do not think the killing of Mrs. Spencer was a random act. It was somehow the product of cultural and political rivalries in the Pembina Gorge. And the mystery broods yet today over the historic site in Walhalla.

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