Civil War Connections

When the homesteaders came to the Farm, the Civil War had been over for about six years. Although there was no direct involvement by family members who lived here on the Farm, one of the sons (Grandpa George) married the daughter (Grandma Daisy) of a Civil War veteran who had homesteaded a few miles up the Creek. He was part of a group of veterans living near each other along Kanaranzi Creek.

James O. Walker took a soldier’s homestead claim in the spring of 1871, which was the same year that his future son-in-law’s family homesteaded farther south along the Creek. His sister and her husband were also part of the cluster of Civil War veterans who settled in the same neighborhood. Biographies for both men are included in an unpublished manuscript written by Ray Crippen available in the files of the Nobles County Historical Society. Crippen includes some political details about Great-grandpa Walker that are not a part of our family tradition. Walker served one term as county auditor in the late 1870s at a time of confusion and division among Republicans. The veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) dominated county politics and also played a significant role at the national level.

The Walkers left the farm and moved to town in 1888. That was the year that historians tell us the tumultuous presidential election hinged on the admission of new states, including nearby South Dakota. The power shifted from the Democrats to the Republicans and James Walker was appointed as the postmaster of Ellsworth in 1889. Although we can’t be certain, his appointment may have been related to being a Civil War veteran and role that the G.A.R. played in politics. The politics in that election stretched all the way back to the Civil War and the struggles with Reconstruction after it. Ironically, our family stories about him don’t mention his involvement with the G.A.R., but then we never knew about his term as county auditor until reading about it in the Crippen manuscript.

James Walker was born in county Donegal, Ireland in 1838. The Walkers had moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland in the 1700s in what was probably part of the English plantation system. This photo shows the driveway up to the Walker farmstead near Corkermore when we visited there in 2012. Unfortunately, the cousin living there was hospitalized at the time so we never talked to him. We did, however, find lots of Walker relatives in several cemeteries. That included the family of Mary Walker, James’ wife. Although she had the same last name, her family were fishermen down on the coast of the Donegal peninsula while James came from farmers who lived farther inland. Mary had a very sad and complicated life. Her first husband died at sea when they were immigrating to America. She returned to Ireland for several years, but then immigrated again. James and Mary were married in Hampton, Iowa, in 1870 five years after James returned from the Civil War. My Dad remembers his Grandma Walker as a sad and somewhat bitter old lady. However, my aunt enjoyed her company more than her more severe Grandma Hattie Shurr. Kids who are different ages have different memories. Although Mary was some thirteen years younger than James, she died in 1927, several years before he did.

James immigrated to the Unites States in 1860 and in 1862 he enlisted in the 32nd Iowa Infantry at the age of 24. We don’t know for sure that he was paid to join in place of another man, but that possibility was part of our family tradition and it was apparently a fairly common practice early in the war. The story goes that because he had very good handwriting, he was given courier duties. That suggests that he may have had some interesting experiences, but the family never heard much about any wartime adventures. In any case, his involvement with the G.A.R. was minimal, except perhaps during the election for county auditor. We don’t have any family stories about his direct participation in G.A.R. activities. That matches the impression of the descendant of another Civil War veteran in the county who shared that her great-grandfather “just didn’t care for all the fuss made about the Civil War”. My Dad always said that any of his friends who saw a lot of action in World War II never discussed them much. The men most enthusiastic about veterans’ organizations generally had pretty low-key experiences and that was probably true for the Grand Army of the Republic as well.

But, the G.A.R. was a busy organization. It’s possible that the posse that chased Jesse and Frank James through the county after the Northfield bank robbery in 1876 included a lot of Civil War veterans. Ray Crippen’s manuscript has the following quote: “It is today questionable whether any portion of the United States has an equal portion of veterans of the war among its inhabitant as has Southwestern Minnesota.” The Confederates’ “guerilla attack” in southern Minnesota turned out the Union boys in blue to meet the challenge. The James boys escape through this area is part of another of our family traditions related to the Civil War.

The story goes that several of the older boys were plowing and saw two riders in the distance who they thought might be the James brothers. So the Shurr brothers unhitched the team and mounted up to give chase. These guys would have been teenagers and probably didn’t have any guns as they headed out on a couple of old plow horses. The exciting climax to the family story says that the two strangers rode away, but fired over their shoulders at the pursing farm boys. One of the bullets supposedly lodged in a horse collar and the Shurr brothers gave up on the chase. Unfortunately, the horse collar with the bullet has been misplaced over the years and that has caused some family members to question the whole episode. It does make a good story though!

There is another Civil War connection to Lone Tree Farm, however, that carries more serious implications. This land was once part of the homeland for the Dakota people. During the Civil War in 1862, the Dakota-US War provided an excuse for the removal of the Dakota Nation (and other Native Americans) from a wide area of the upper Midwest. That included the land homesteaded a few years later by the Shurr family.

James Walker spent the last few years of his life moving between his daughters’ homes in Sioux City, Iowa, and the Lone Tree Farm. He loved the poems by Bobby Burns; his grandchildren gave this book to him in 1921. Our Civil War veteran died in 1930 in the farmhouse built by the homesteaders where three more generations of the Shurr family subsequently lived.

About Lone Tree Farm on Kanaranzi Creek

Recovering academic, earth scientist in phased retirement, farm manager by default, son, husband, father, grandfather.
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