Dakota War Stories: Mary Schwandt and Snana


My upcoming novel Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale tells the story of Sarah Wakefield, a woman who was taken captive with her two young children during the Dakota War of 1862, which took place in southern Minnesota.

Today, I want to tell you about another remarkable captivity narrative from this war: the story of Mary Schwandt and Snana, the woman who protected her.

Mary was a fourteen-year-old German immigrant who was working as a servant for the Joseph Reynolds family at the beginning of the war. Being at her employers’ home most likely saved her life that day. Back at her family’s place, six of her relatives were killed, and only her younger brother August managed to escape.

As the Reynolds family and their servants (including Mary) tried to flee to the town of New Ulm for safety along with several others, a party of about fifty Indians accosted them. Most of the settlers were killed in the attack, but Mary and two other girls (one of whom was mortally wounded) were carried away.

While she was in captivity, Mary was taken in by a 23-year-old Dakota woman named Snana (also known as Maggie Good Thunder or Maggie Brass). Snana had recently lost her own young daughter, and when she saw Mary, her maternal feelings caused her to take pity on the girl and care for her. She protected Mary for the duration of the war, even going so far as to hide her in a hole in the tepee floor covered over with buffalo robes and blankets.

Mary was among the more than 200 prisoners set free at Camp Release on September 26, 1862, at the end of the war. Four years later, she married a man named William Schmidt and had several children with him. Yet, she never ceased to be grateful to her adopted Dakota mother Snana, as the photograph above shows. It was taken in 1899, long after the conflict that brought these two women together.

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Little Crow: Caught by Contradictions

My upcoming novel Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale tells the story of Sarah Wakefield, a woman who was taken captive with her two young children during the Dakota War of 1862, which took place in southern Minnesota. Between now and publication in June, I will be sharing background about the war and a few excerpts from the novel.

Today, I will talk about Little Crow, the Dakota warrior who was the chief Indian leader during the fighting.



During the early 1860s, the Dakota people of Minnesota lived on a reservation along the Minnesota River, having ceded the rest of their lands to the U.S. government. The reservation was divided into the Upper reservation, home to the Sisseton and Wahpeton bands of the Eastern Dakota, and the Lower reservation, home to the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands. Little Crow, more properly called Taoyateduta (His Scarlet nation), was a chief of the Mdewakanton. It was four young men from his band who committed the massacre at Acton, the event that began the Dakota War of 1862.

Early in my novel, before the war breaks out, my main character Sarah Wakefield muses on what she knows of Little Crow and the seeming inconsistencies in his character:

Late in the afternoon as we draw near the agency, we pass through several Mdewakanton Sioux villages—including those of Big Eagle and Little Crow. In each, tepees and bark lodges cluster around a common central area, and in Little Crow’s village, a still-unpainted, two-story frame house stands. The sharp scent of freshly cut lumber hangs in the air. Bob, the teamster who drives my wagon, says that the government recently built the dwelling for the chief.

I have seen Little Crow only once, but I remember him as a handsome man in his fifties with an intelligent expression in his hooded eyes. John has told me a great deal about him, having learned bits of the story from Galbraith. Taoyateduta or “His Red Nation,” as Little Crow was originally called, was a wastrel as a youth. He traveled out west where he hunted buffalo, traded furs and whiskey, became a proficient poker player, and married and divorced a couple of wives. The Sioux say he matured only after his father died, leaving the chieftainship to a younger half brother. Taoyateduta returned to his father’s village to challenge that decision, and two of his half brothers shot him through both forearms, mangling his wrists and crippling his hands. His bravery on that occasion won him the band’s loyalty, and he became chief, adding his father’s name of Little Crow to his own.

As a leader, Little Crow is said to be educated, charismatic, pragmatic, and full of contradictions. He urges his people to farm but will not plow his own land. He dresses in white men’s clothing but still wears a Sioux medicine bag. He attends Dr. Hinman’s Episcopal mission but refuses to convert. Little Crow’s paradoxes fascinate me, as I too struggle to find middle ground, striving to balance the strangling propriety of my New England upbringing with the freedom—and dangers—of my current life.

Once the Acton massacre occurred, Little Crow was overtaken by events. He knew that war might be possibly destroy his people, but as a respected chief, he felt he had no choice but to lead them in the fight. He survived the war and escaped to the west. The following year, he returned to Minnesota with his son, was recognized, and murdered.

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Free Giveaway

“You say my father haunts the White House. . . .”



I am giving away electronic copies of my historical short story “Robert Todd Lincoln’s Last Words.” All you need to do is to follow this link to sign up for my mailing list.


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New Book by M.K. Tod

It’s publication day for my friend Mary Tod! Her third historical novel Time and Regret is available today.

When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long buried secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determine to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her.

 From her grandfather’s vivid writing and Grace’s own travels, a picture emerges of a many very unlike the one who raised her: one who watched countless friends and loved ones die horrifically in battle; one who lived a life of regret. But her grandfather wasn’t the only one harbouring secrets, and the more Grace learns about her family, the less she thinks she can trust them.

About M.K. Tod: Time and Regret is M.K. Tod’s third novel. She began writing while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at www.awriterofhistory.com.

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Praise for Time and Regret:

“With fluid prose and a keen eye for detail, M.K. Tod takes readers on a decades-spanning journey of wartime loss, family secrets, and, ultimately, redemption.”

— Holly Smith, Managing Editor, Washington Independent Review of Books


Spiced with mystery and a spark of romance, TIME AND REGRET is an immersive journey into one man’s brave but terrifying slog through the killing fields of France and Flanders during WWI. Tod’s prose brims with exquisite atmospheric detail, drawing the reader into an unforgettable story.

— Juliet Grey: author of the acclaimed Marie Antoinette trilogy


Time and Regret, equally captivating and suspenseful, presents well-drawn characters who strive to resolve past mysteries and overcome present obstacles. M.K. Tod is an impressively gifted storyteller who creates relatable conflicts and believable dangers. Highly recommended!

— Bestselling author Margaret Porter


“Hugely satisfying – impossible to put down.”

— Elizabeth St. John author of The Lady of the Tower


“Time and Regret is something as rare as a treasure hunt with heart. Between the gritty trenches of World War I, the romantic allure of present-day France, and the cut-throat New York arts scene, M.K. Tod has spun a gripping family drama that delves deeply into the effects of war on the human soul and takes us on an intriguing journey of self-discovery. It is a book rich in hard-won wisdom and crucial historical insights, and Tod’s perceptive voice leads us unfalteringly through some of the darkest chapters in human history to a very satisfying conclusion.” Anne Fortier author of The Lost Sisterhood

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Upcoming Novel: The Captive’s Tale

I am proud and pleased to finally announce the project that I have been working on since before the publication of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. I hope this new book will be published in early 2017:


Southern Minnesota. August 1862. Smoke fills the horizon and blood soaks the prairie as Little Crow fights to drive white settlers from his ancestral homeland. Sarah Wakefield and her two young children are fleeing for their lives when two warriors capture them. One is Hapa, an enraged murderer who wants her life. The other is Chaska, an old acquaintance who promises protection. Chaska takes her to live in his mother’s tepee, but emotions run so high among both Indians and whites that Sarah and Chaska may not survive the war that rages around them.


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A Tiny Candle in the Dark

All morning, I felt agitated by the news of the attacks in Paris and Beirut yesterday and found it hard to settle to any productive tasks. Then about noon, I reminded myself why I’m writing my current novel.

Like The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, it’s another novel based on real events—the story of an oppressed people, starving and without hope, and how a minority faction rises up and turns to violence and terrorism. My main character is a woman from the dominant culture, taken captive and held hostage with her two young children for several weeks. While she is captive, she forms a bond with someone who acts as her protector. These two try to reach across the cultural divide and misunderstandings, but events race out of their control, and their efforts do not work out quite as they planned.

This story is so pertinent to the times in which we live. So this afternoon when I felt distracted by what’s happening, I reminded myself that one of the best ways I can help the world right now is to continue telling this tale of two courageous people who tried to bridge the chasm of hate.


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Review of Madame Picasso

410LZWzaT7L._AA160_ When I attended the Historical Novel Society convention in June, I heard a panel that included Diane Haeger, who also writes under the name Anne Girard. Her discussion of her novel Madame Picasso intrigued me, partially because it’s set in a fascinating time period and partially because it—like my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte—tells the story of a bold, clever woman who isn’t widely known today.

The novel recounts five years in the life of Eva Gouel, one of Pablo Picasso’s early lovers. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Eva wanted more from life than an early marriage and a domestic existence. In this way, she reminded me a little bit of my own Betsy Bonaparte. Eva moved to Paris without her parents’ knowledge or permission and eventually got a position as a seamstress at the famous Moulin Rouge. It was in this milieu that she came to know Picasso.

The book effectively portrays Eva’s complex personality. When it came to her job, she was determined and at times daring. When it came to her love life, she was generous and supportive of the man she adored. The psychological portraits of Picasso is also quite interesting; Girard portrays a more vulnerable and giving man than the Picasso of legend—although one that is every bit as arrogant!

The settings add further interest to the book. Seeing backstage at the Moulin Rouge made me feel like an insider for a day, and I loved the chapters that covered Picasso’s painting excursions to various locales in France and Spain.

I don’t want to give too much away about the development of the two main characters’ relationship except to say that it did not disappoint. I thoroughly enjoyed this historical novel and give it five stars.


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