• Robbins Island Historical Site

  • Location:

    Between Willmar and Foot Lake
    Willmar, MN 56201

On August 21, 1862, Swan Swanson, his wife and three children fled to this island to escape the Dakota besieging the Oscar Erickson cabin about two miles to the north. The Swansons spent the night of August 21 here, and began to the long walk to Paynesville the next day. Swan Swanson tells his story what happened in 1862.

“…We understood that there was no ammunition for the guns. Mrs. Foot stood at one side with a scythe, having removed the handle and tied rags about one end to improvise a sword. Along in the afternoon the Indians abandoned the siege for a time and my wife insisted that we leave the cabin and seek safety in flight, which we did about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. We went down to the wooded peninsula in Foot Lake (now known as Robbins’s island) and spent the night there.

In the morning I went up to our cabin to try to find something to eat, as we were all very hungry. No sooner had I come into the house and begun to look for food than a dog stuck in his head through the door and I saw at once that it was once of the wolfish curs such as the Indians kept. I looked out and saw the Indians coming at some distance with a lot of cattle and wagons which they had robbed from the settlers. Breaking out a window on the opposite side of the cabin I ran down into a slough below the house and concealed myself and here became the unwilling witness to the destruction of the home upon the building which we had spent much time and labor. I was in mortal dread lest the dogs should track me. Whenever the dogs strayed away from the party the redskins commanded them to come back, which circumstances probably saved me.

There were about nineteen or twenty Indians in the party. They had gathered a heard of about 200 cattle, and these they drove into an enclosure of four or five acres which we had fenced in. They had fourteen wagons leaded with spoils from the houses they had robbed…

…After the band had disappeared I hurried back to where my family was in hiding. We started north towards Eagle Lake as best we could. The oldest of our three children was five or six years of age, the boy was a little over three years and the baby some over a year. Having to carry the younger children, and weak from the lack of food, we could make but little headway. During the night we came as far as Andreas Peterson’s cabin on the northwest shore of Eagle Lake and here we rested. We saw a light on the other side of the lake, where a party was camping. It was very likely another band of Indians en route for the Agency with booty. During all the time that I had lived in this community I had never been very far north or east of Eagle Lake and did not know the way to go to get to a place of safety. We lay in hiding during the day and traveled at night. One day we found a boy on the prairie who had been wounded in the attack upon the settlers near the Yellow Medicine Agency, but who made his escape across the prairie.

In the course of two or three days we found our way around Green Lake toward Paynesville. In the hills near this place we saw a band of men in the distance, but could not distinguish whether they were Indians or not. Placing wife and children in hiding, we started around a hill to reconnoiter. The horsemen approached and finding the women and children, took them to Paynesville and from there to St. Cloud, where finally I found them. We were in the most exhausted state, having subsisted for several days with nothing but turnips to eat, and being footsore and worn out. These events, after a large lapse of forty years, remain in my memory as a horrible nightmare. Those were certainly times that tried men’s souls”. (1905 Illustrated Kandiyohi County History, page 385, 386)

The Swanson’s returned to their homestead; but moved to St. Paul shortly after returning to Kandiyohi County. This island was later owned by John S. Robbins, a pioneer lumber, fuel and farm machinery merchant in Willmar. He acquired the property in 1875. The island has borne his name ever since.

Where: This marker is located in Willmar at Robbins Island Park on Foot Lake off of Business 71-23.