Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesota politician & writer shares his insights on “The Dakota War, a clash of cultures” May 18, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 3:15 PM
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This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle ending the U.S.-Dakota Conflict.

Dean Urdahl has written the trilogy of Uprising, Retribution and Pursuit.

I COULD HAVE LISTENED to Dean Urdahl for hours. Not Urdahl the Minnesota State Representative from District 18B. But Urdahl the historian, the retired American history teacher, the storyteller, the writer.

The southern Minnesota politician, who co-chairs the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force, was in Faribault Thursday evening to talk about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and to promote his trilogy of historical fiction novels about that conflict.

Urdahl’s interest in the U.S.-Dakota War is rooted deep in family history, in the soil of Meeker County where his Norwegian immigrant ancestors settled in 1856 and where, on August 17, 1862, five settlers were killed by a small group of Dakota. That attack in Acton Township, only 1 ½ miles from Urdahl’s current home, marked the beginning of the war.

Urdahl’s great-great-grandfather helped bury those five victims in the cemetery of Ness Lutheran Church, a country church southwest of Litchfield. A monument there honors the five who were slain. The Representative grew up attending Ness Lutheran, listening to his mother tell stories about his ancestors and the area’s history. That sparked his interest in history and specifically a strong interest in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

“What happened in 1862 (in Minnesota) is largely ignored by historians,” Urdahl said, adding that the U.S.-Dakota War “gets scant attention and deserves more.”

In 1862, a divided nation was more focused on the conflict between North and South than on the clash between cultures in Minnesota, Urdahl explained.

This historian, however, certainly drew attention to the war between the white settlers/soldiers and the Dakota during his presentation, “The Dakota War, a clash of cultures,” at the monthly Cannon Valley Civil War Roundtable meeting in Faribault in this, the 150th anniversary year of the War.

Cultures collided, Urdahl said, as immigrants settled in the native home of the Dakota and the government adopted a policy “to turn them (the Dakota) into farmers.”

Conflict also existed among the Dakota—between “the blankets,” those sticking to traditional ways, and “cut-hairs,” those turning into farmers, he said.

Speaking without notes and with the skill of a master storyteller passionate about his subject, Urdahl mesmerized his audience, sharing information and a story-style time-line of how the U.S.-Dakota War unfolded.

The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers who were killed in the area. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township.

Urdahl’s talk was a refresher course for me, a native of Redwood County located at the geographical center of the War. I’ve always been interested in the conflict and even penned a term paper on “The Sioux Uprising of 1862,” as it was labeled when I was a high school student. My maternal ancestors lived in the New Ulm area in 1862 and were warned by friendly Indians to leave; the families fled to the safety of nearby St. Peter.

“We find throughout the war, friendly Indians warning people to leave,” Urdahl said.

That, and much of what this historian said, I already knew. You’ll find it written in books. But some of what Urdahl shared I had forgotten or never heard such as…

  • A drought in 1861 left the Dakota near starvation and relying on government food. (I didn’t recall the drought as preemptive to the desperate situation among the Dakota.)
  • In late July 1862, some 5,000 Dakota gathered at the Yellow Medicine Agency ready to storm the warehouses. Agents eventually released the storehouse of grain to the hungry Dakota, thus averting the start of the war for several weeks.
  • The settlers at Acton were challenged to a target shooting contest by the Dakota before they were killed.
  • The Dakota were intent on attacking New Ulm because they thought the town was built on reservation land. The reservation covered a 10-mile by 150-mile area along the Minnesota River.
  • From 500 – 800 Minnesotans were killed/died during the six-week war, only 75 of whom were soldiers. “The rest,” said Urdahl, “were Swedish, German and Norwegian immigrants who didn’t know what was going on.”
  • Although there is not an accurate count on the number of soldiers who died in the Battle of Birch Coulee, the count of dead horses stands at 90. “They could replace men, not horses,” Urdahl said.
  • When Fort Ridgely was under attack, fort leader Lt. Thomas P. Gere was coming down with the mumps.
  • During the final battle at Ft. Ridgely, doors on both ends of the surgeon’s quarters/headquarters were opened and a cannon ball fired down the hallway toward the stables where the Dakota were stationed.
  • A Confederate officer was reportedly spotted in Little Crow’s (Dakota leader) camp. Some speculate that the Confederacy played a role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, thus diverting soldiers from the Confederate front by keeping them in Minnesota to fight the Dakota.
  • Little Crow lived in a brick house at the time of the War.

Trader Andrew Myrick refused to grant the Dakota credit, remarking, “Let them eat grass.” After an attack on the Lower Agency, Myrick was found dead, his mouth stuffed with grass.

The message on a marker near the Lower Sioux Agency reads: 75 feet north stood the building in which upwards of 100 Sioux Indians were tried by court martial, convicted and sentenced to death Nov. 1862.

As I listened to Urdahl’s presentation, I wondered how Native Americans would react to the information he shared. What perspective would they offer? Would they disagree with him, challenge his facts, voice their opinions? How would they feel?

“There are still very hard feelings on both sides,” this descendant of Norwegian immigrants told his audience. He occasionally gets e-mails from angry descendants of settlers killed during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Growing up in Redwood County decades ago, I was well aware of the animosity between whites and the Dakota passed down through the generations. I know the bad feelings still linger on both sides.

But perhaps in this 150th anniversary year, we can all (white and Dakota) strive to overcome, to understand and to, finally, forgive.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on December 26, 1862. This stands as the largest mass execution in American history. Initially, 303 were sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln approved the deaths of 39 and granted a last-minute reprieve to one other.

FYI: All of the above monument images were photographed within the past several years.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


9 Responses to “A Minnesota politician & writer shares his insights on “The Dakota War, a clash of cultures””

  1. hotlyspiced Says:

    Your area is full of amazing history. It would have been fascinating listening to this man speak xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Yes, lots of history in Minnesota. This occurred to the west of where I currently live.

  2. bdale56 Says:

    The Milford marker is just a few miles from my house. Sometimes when the wind blows it almost sounds like the prairie still cries.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      What a profound, powerful and poetic statement, about the wind and the prairie crying. Did you notice the rose at the base of the monument in my photo? We stopped at the monument perhaps five years ago while traveling “back home” to Vesta and discovered the roses. Apparently someone leaves them there every Memorial Day…

      • bdale56 Says:

        There is so much history all around us. Did you know that the
        St. Croix river was named by a French missionary and that the Native
        American name for the waters was “The River of Tears.” This was because the river was a border between the Dakota and
        Chippewa. The bones of the warriors were said to be washed on both shores…

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        No, I didn’t know this. Sad, so sad.

  3. bdale56 Says:

    I see the rose.

  4. Sank Says:

    Fascinating. I recently did some digging into the history of my Masonic lodge in Shakopee, turns out men from our lodge were front and center in this conflict. Amazing to make the connection.
    I’ll have to see if can find what I wrote up.. basically the first western doctor at Yellow Medicine was a past master, the one of the agents who went on to become a state/territorial senator was a member.. lots of names. I’m interested in learning more.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, this is the year to learn, what with the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Check out the Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm to learn about upcoming events. This conflict has always been of great interest to me given my roots in Redwood County. As a child, we drove the “river road,” a winding gravel road in the Minnesota River valley west of Granite Falls to Morton which passes several historical sites/markers relate to the War. Just drove the road a few years ago; it’s a beautiful drive in the fall. Anyway, good luck in uncovering more of the history.

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