William ‘Merton’ Eastlick was born in Ohio in 1854, the son of John Eastlick and Lavina Day, destined to become a ‘boy hero’ only a decade later.
John and Lavina worked hard to make ends meet for their five young sons, first moving to Illinois and then to Lake Shetek, Minnesota in search of affordable land. Increasingly, settlers were moving into this southwest corner of Minnesota especially with Minnesota being granted statehood in 1858. Treaties had been reached with the native Dakota and Ojibwe tribes who by this time were settled on reservations. However, due to a combination of the disruption caused by Civil War, unscrupulous land traders and other local circumstances, the obligations of the treaties were not met and tensions increased as the Indians faced survival conditions.
In 1862, the Dakota War erupted resulting in the deaths of 450 to 800 settlers, 77 soldiers and 150 Indians. In addition, another 38 Indians were publicly hung in the largest mass execution in American history. Although some of the trials had lasted only a few minutes and none benefitted from legal support, President Abraham Lincoln ‘personally reviewed the trial records [of over 300 on trial] to distinguish between those who had engaged in warfare against the U.S., versus those who had committed crimes of rape and murder against civilians’.
On 20 August 1862, the warring Dakota had attacked Lake Shetek, killing 15 of the settlers. The victims included John Eastlick and his sons Frank, Giles and Frederick, aged between five and ten years old. Their mother Lavina was shot four times but was able to tell 11-year-old Merton to get 15-month-old Johnny to safety. Merton somehow managed to hide and carry his little brother 50 miles to the nearest town, where the baby was described as suffering from cholera, covered in mosquito bites and having lost his hair. However Merton and Johnny survived and, just as miraculously, their mother was rescued and also recovered.
Merton was immediately hailed as a local hero, even soldiers having heard of the rescue of little Johnny and coming to meet Merton. The following year, his mother Lavina wrote a book recounting the tragic story of that day from a settler’s perspective. The proceeds of this book would help her to fund the upbringing of her two remaining sons and after some years with relatives, the family returned to Minnesota. Merton grew up to become a carpenter, married Mary Ann Alexander and had a son, William Merton, in 1874. Sadly, Merton Sr died the following year probably from pneumonia and is buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Olmsted, Minnesota. His gravestone reads ‘Boy Hero of the Indian Massacre of 1862’. His mother lived to the 1920s and little Johnny grew up to marry Margaret Mary McKee and raise six children including ‘John’, ‘Lavina’ and ‘Merton’.
Cindy K Coffin, ‘Merton Eastlick’, FindaGrave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=sh&GRid=32810024, [accessed 8 Jul 2016].
‘Dakota War of 1862’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_War_of_1862, [accessed 8 Jul 2016].
Eastlick Family: Cindy K Coffin, FindaGrave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=sh&GRid=32810024, [accessed 8 Jul 2016].
Merton Eastlick’s Grave: Barbara (aka Indybaba), FindaGrave, http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=sh&GRid=32810024, [accessed 8 Jul 2016].
‘Attack on New Ulm’ by Anton Gag and ‘Settlers escaping the violence, 1862’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_War_of_1862, [accessed 8 Jul 2016].