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History Mystery Vanished Settlers

September 13, 2008

On a hot July day in 1860, assistant Marshal, Elias D. Bruner, collected the census from the lone dwellers of Nobles County.

By Meredith Stanton Vaselaar Review Staff Writer

On a hot July day in 1860, assistant Marshal, Elias D. Bruner, collected the census from the lone dwellers of Nobles County. Bruner found eleven households in what is now Graham Lakes township, located in the northeast part of Nobles County. At the time, thirty-five people called Nobles County “home.”

William Hertwinkle and his wife, Julia, were the wealthiest people in the settlement, with personal property totaling somewhere between $275 and $375, quite a sum back in those days. They brought with them their teenaged children, Mourice, Marie and William. A relative – perhaps a brother or two? – lived next door: John & Joanna Hertwinkle, their daughter, Minnie, and John’s brother, Thomas. Both William and John were farmers, as was John Oleson, who came from Norway with wife, Barbara, and youngsters Maria, George and Betsey. Three more families are listed in the area – Uriah & Betsey Kushman and their small children Hownis, William and Ann. Two dwellings from them lived the Bumgardner family, parents George and Ann, and daughters Henrietta, Willmetta and Maria. The last family was the Evens, an older couple, William and Maria, and their adults son, Thomas. All of the parents in these families were from overseas, some families from Bavaria and the rest from Norway. Of the children, only two were born in the United States: Both Ann Kushman and baby Minnie Hertwinkle were born in Wisconsin. Had the Kushman and Hertwinkle families known each other in Wisconsin?

Rounding out the settlement were a handful of bachelors, most listed as being born in the United States. They must have been a rugged bunch, with trappers John Bell, Thomas Marks, and Henry Jordan. George Wilkin is listed as an Indian Trader, and two others, George Evert and Henry Hanson listed as Traders. There is no occupation listed for the McFarlane boys, George and Henry, who hailed from Ireland, the only bachelors listed not born in the United States. Everyone in the settlement was a “squatter.” The land was still in the process of being handed over from the Indians to the US government, although white settlers from far and near were rapidly populating the Midwest.

Sometime in 1862, when visitors came through the Graham Lakes settlement, they found . . . nothing. No signs of the inhabitants remained. Nothing was left of the settlement, or not enough to indicate when the settlers had left or where they went. All that was known for sure that, like the Lost Colony of Roanoke, Virginia, the settlers had vanished.

In 1908, author A. Rose wrote, “Although I have made extensive research for information concerning [the settlement], I have been able to find little more than it contained in the bare census returns. These people doubtless came to Nobles county sometime after the Spirit Lake massacre, and probably only a short time before the census was taken. . . How they happened to locate in this frontier land, stories of their adventures, when and why they left, will probably always remain a mystery.” (From “An Illustrated History of Nobles County,” A. Rose, c1908, page 40.)

In the decades that followed, local historians and curiosity seekers tried to solve the mystery of the vanishings. There was no trace of the settlers after the census of 1860. Searching brought up nothing – no indication of where the settlers had gone after leaving. Had they encountered foul play, or marauding Indians? If so, why was their no trace of the thirty-five? Had they left as one group? It would appear so, as none appeared to have remained in the area. Had they settled in Iowa, or gone back east, or back to their home countries? Had the traders and trappers moved on, to ply their trades elsewhere?

Lew Hudson, former editor of “The Daily Globe” of Worthington was unable to provide further answers for his book “From New Cloth: the making of Worthington,” c1976, despite searching for clues as to where the members of the settlement went after leaving the area. Hudson concludes that the inhabitants left “for parts unknown.”

Enter the advent of the Internet. Would the mystery be solved, as online census records, genealogy databases, immigration records, etc., became available? One would think, with the plethora of sites containing information of all kinds, from all over the world, that at least one of the members of the settlement could be traced after leaving Nobles county, circa 1862. But it is here that the mystery deepens.

So far, there is still no trace of the descendants of any of the inhabitants of the settlement. One difficulty could lie in the enumerator’s information. Did Marshal Bruner spell surnames correctly? What about given names? So far, some of the surnames are nearly impossible to find – “Hertwinkle” is all but non-existant and “Kushman” could be “Rushman” or is it “Cushman?” either way, there are no connections using birthdates and given names for any of the inhabitants in terms of descendants.

What, then, of ancestors? With sites such as,,,, Ships Transcribers Guild at, one would hope that tracing where the families came from might offer a clue. However, despite extensive research, not one of the families has been traced PRIOR TO the 1860 census. The two children born in Wisconsin between 1856 and 1859 have not been found, despite the fact that the early Wisconsin records are quite complete. Nothing was found for the immigration of the families from Norway, or Bavaria, Germany.

It is as if the families suddenly appeared in Nobles county in 1860, then disappeared just as suddenly. Is it possible that every single surname was spelled incorrectly? That seems unlikely, as only one adult in the settlement, Thomas Marks, was unable to read or write. Did the settlement exist, or was it a figment of Bruner’s imagination? That seems equally unlikely. How does one explain that the families and bachelors cannot be found through searches involving individual states, the entire country, and sites overseas?

And so the Graham Lakes settlement remains a mystery to this day, just as A. Rose speculated one hundred years ago. If you are up for a genealogical mystery, try your hand at finding clues to their existence. Many of us have tried and failed. Maybe there is someone out there that can find the key to the Lost Settlers of Nobles County.

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