A dead body embalmed and dried after the manner of the ancient Egyptians; also, a body preserved, by any means, in a dry state, from the process of putrefaction. — Webster, 1882
It’s an Indian mummy, Dave, a genuine mummy, a papoose, and they’ve mummified it somehow. There’s a whole grove of trees hanging full of them… about sixty miles west of Turtle Creek…” -Rose Wilder Lane, Free Land, Chapter 19
In the handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the story of an Indian scare that had supposedly taken place after the Hard Winter of 1880-1881. When Almanzo Wilder and two boys from near De Smet, Homer and Horace Heath, are working in Stebbins’ railroad camp on the line being constructed between Huron and Pierre, a doctor from Chicago finds the body of an Indian baby, mummified and hanging in a basket at the top of a tree. He removes the body and sends it to Chicago. When the Indians return to complete funeral rites and find no body, they go to the railroad camp and demand the body is returned, threatening harm if it is not. It was a tense ten days before the body was returned and work resumed on the railroad as usual.
As part of his homestead proof submitted in September 1884, Almanzo testified that he had only been away from his claim for short periods of about a month at a time, either visiting or working on the railroad in order to earn money with which to live. Homer Heath was too young to homestead in the early 1880s, and Horace swore that he was not absent from his claim after working on the railroad in 1880, supporting that the incident was probably one that appeared in the Brookings County Press of June 17, 1880: Some doctor from Minneapolis, has just returned from West where he had captured the corpse of an Indian girl. He took it on to Minneapolis.
The following appeared the next week: A great Indian scare has been pervading the West for a few days. It is reported that 300 Indians have raided the Wessington hills and killed a number of men. There is little foundation for a scare of this kind. [-Brookings County Press, June 21, 1880] Whether the two incidents were at all related is not known. There was no follow-up newspaper story about the Indian corpse.
In Pioneer Girl, Wilder writes that Stebbins’s camp was on Turkey Creek at the time of the incident. She must have meant Turtle Creek. Little Turkey Creek (Miller, South Dakota) and Big Turkey Creek (St. Lawrence, South Dakota) were both crossed by the railroad in Township 112 north, Ranges 66 and 67 west. (According to tract book filings, claims along the railroad in this vicinity of Hand County were first filed the following year, in the fall of 1881, although there were a dozen or more squatters in the area during the summer of 1880.) From the August 10, 1880, Yankton Press and Daily Dakotaian: The railroad track is now laid to a point 41 miles west of Huron on Turtle creek, and they are laying the iron at the rate of one and a half miles per day, at which rate of progress they will reach Fort Pierre on the Missouri, sometimes in October next.
Most likely, the “Indian mummy and the doctor” story was told in the Wilder family over the years. Rose Wilder Lane used a similar story in Free Land, published in 1938, the year before her mother published By the Shores of Silver Lake. When a Free Land reader questioned the book’s timeline, Rose must have written her mother about it. In a letter dated April 15, 1938, Laura confirmed the year of the events in question: The events of which you have written, building of R.R. west, Indian trouble on Turtle creek, were in 1880… Remember the R.R. was not completed to De Smet until the spring of 1880. Turtle creek and the Indian scare was the same summer so your story is dated 1880 and after.
In Free Land, Stebbins’ camp is named Gebbert, and Dr. Thorne is the name of the man who stole the baby’s body from the burial grove. The main character, David Beaton (loosely based on Almanzo Wilder), is shown the mummy, which the doctor plans to send to the Smithsonian Museum or to showman P.T. Barnum. Dr. Thorne’s son and David are friends from back home. Five hundred Indians show up in war paint and the railroad workers realize that unless the body is returned, there will be a massacre. David Beaton is told to ride east and telegraph to the doctor to return the body within three days, and it’s an action-packed couple of dozen pages until the situation is resolved.
The Sioux Indian tribes in the area historically buried their dead above ground, believing that scaffold burial allowed the deceased’s soul to rise to the sky. If a scaffold couldn’t be built, a platform in a tree was used. Tree and scaffold Sioux burial customs in Dakota Territory are described in the following report. Note that the body wasn’t embalmed or mummified at all. Exposure to the sun and wind led to normal decay and desiccation.
The body was usually tightly wrapped in blankets or robes and secured with thongs wound about it. It was then placed in a reclining position in the branches of a tree or a scaffold built for the purpose, the body being placed about eight feet above ground. Four sticks were planted firmly in the ground, one at each corner, then other sticks were placed across the top so as to form a floor upon which the body was securely fastened. After the body had been on the scaffold for two years, it was taken down and buried under ground. — J.W. Powell, First Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1881), 158-160.