Wintering Over at
St. Peter’s Agency
BY MID-NOVEMBER, ICE blocked the river, making it completely impassable by boat. The community was sealed in, bound together, encircled by ice for better or worse for the next six months.
Although the coming of winter in Minnesota is marked by the first snow, it is the first snow that actually stays on the ground that really counts. The snowfall on the day that the Mackinac boat left melted in a few days time. By midNovember, however, another six inches of snow had been laid down. The dull brown prairie grass was now covered with a thick, bright white blanket. The world was reborn as fresh and new. Within two weeks though, the temperature fell to 10 below zero, too cold to snow. The soft-fallen snow became crusty as sugar that remains too long in the bowl. The ice on the rivers was solid, eight or nine inches deep.1
That fall, the sutler’s old slave woman, Hannah, died. Old Hannah and Horace were owned as a couple. There is no indication that they were formally married, but they may have formed an attachment, in the manner of servants forced by their captivity to live in close proximity. An attachment was a means of accommodating their circumstances, of mutual survival, or simply a human response to the isolation they experienced from other social ties in their lives. Horace had died only a short time earlier, and often when one life mate passes on, the other dies shortly thereafter. Or perhaps Hannah had simply caught a chill spending so many days exposed to the elements and sleeping on the wet ground on the open keelboat trip from Prairie du Chien.
On the night that the old woman died, the northern lights came again. Watching the skies that night, one observer at the fort described the phenomenon: “Broad sheets of light shot from the zenith directly overhead to the edge of the horizon in every direction … illuminating the heavens like noon day…. the Aurora was tinged of a most beautiful orange color from the reflection of the immense fires on the prairies.”2 Each community of people imposed their own interpretation on the