Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

New exhibit highlights Rice County in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 September 2, 2012

IT IS EASY TO FORGET SOMETIMES, because I grew up in the region of Minnesota where the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was centered, that residents of the county in which I now live also played an integral role in the conflict.

Specifically, Rice County residents Bishop Henry Whipple and Alexander Faribault, after whom my community of Faribault is named, are key persons often noted in historical information written about the war.

I am always surprised that relatively few people from outside of southwestern and central Minnesota know so little about the bloody, six-week war between the Dakota and the white settlers and soldiers given it is a major, defining event in Minnesota history.

An overview of 1862, Through Rice County’s Eyes, which opened August 22 in Northfield.

However, awareness has grown considerably this year on the 150th anniversary of the war, including right here in Rice County. The Northfield Historical Society, partnering with the Rice County Historical Society, is currently showcasing an exhibit, 1862, Through Rice County’s Eyes.

I recently checked out the Northfield exhibit, which features mostly memorable quotes, volumes of summarized information and copies of photos. It’s a lot of reading.

But if you’re interested in educating yourself, it’s worth the time and concentration needed to absorb the information presented in this exhibit. And I’ll admit to occasionally skimming the postings because I am more of a visual, multi media, show-and-tell kind of history learner. I also had a pretty good background of knowledge going into the exhibit.

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault trading with a Dakota trading partner stands in Faribault’s Heritage Park near the Straight River and site of Faribault’s trading post. Faribault artist Ivan Whillock created this sculpture which sits atop a fountain known as the Bea Duncan Memorial Fountain.

I knew, for example, that fur trader Alexander Faribault was one-quarter Dakota and married to Mary Elizabeth Graham, whose mother was a family member of a Dakota chief. I knew, too, that Faribault was involved in the negotiating and translating of land treaties between the government and the Dakota before the war and that he benefited financially.

I was aware that Alexander Faribault sheltered the Dakota.

Above the photos and info is this quote by Bishop Henry Whipple to President Buchanan in August 1860: “In my visits to them, my heart had been pained to see the utter helplessness of these poor souls, fast passing away, caused in great part by the curse which our people have pressed to their lips.”

But I had forgotten that Bishop Henry Whipple, a long-time advocate for the rights of the Dakota and known to them as “Straight Tongue,” worked to find a safe refuge for them in the city of Faribault.

Alexander Faribault opened his land to the Dakota. Information in the exhibit states:

This land was the only safe-haven of its kind in a state now prejudiced in fear and anger against anyone with Dakota blood.

According to info in the exhibit, Alexander Faribault, whom you recall was one-fourth Dakota, also experienced prejudice against him. By 1869, this once successful fur trader, flour mill owner and politician had to sell his land and assets, including the land occupied by the Dakota.

Equally interesting is the quote, below, attributed to Mary Whipple. Even though her husband, the bishop, worked tirelessly to help the Dakota, fear still existed in his home community.

A quote from a letter written by Mary Whipple to her sister during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Perhaps the most interesting fact I learned relates to that of Lt. Rollin Olin, a decade-long resident of Northfield. He was second in command of the Third Minnesota Regiment at the Battle of Wood Lake—the final battle of the war—and a member of a five-man military tribunal which tried the Dakota following the war. He signed more than 300 death sentences for nearly 400 Dakota charged with murder, rape and/or robbery.

For me, that raises the obvious question: How could someone who fought against the Dakota judge them without bias? All members of the tribunal, in fact, had fought the Dakota. The answer, of course, is that Lt. Olin and the other four could not.

Likewise, the Northfield Historical Society is wisely careful to indicate that its new, temporary exhibit may not please everyone or include everything on the topic of Rice County’s connection to the war. On the NHS website, you’ll read this disclaimer:

As varied as these and other local perspectives may be, any exploration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 suffers from the inevitable limitations facing every historical examination—limitations such as scope and biases, past and present, which impact the telling and perception of the stories and data. In presenting the exhibit 1862, Through Rice County’s Eyes this fall, NHS endeavors to draw visitors into thoughtful interest and discussion of this momentous event and its aftermath by sharing local connections. Come and critically examine this exhibit.

The exterior of the Northfield Historical Society, 408 Division Street, Northfield.

FYI: To learn more about 1862—Through Rice County’s Eyes, click here to the NHS website.

To learn more about the Minnesota counties, county by county, involved in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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