Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Faribault history takes center stage in a must-see play by two high school students September 20, 2018

 

An original play about historic Faribault opens Friday evening, September 18, at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault.

 

REVEALING. THOUGHT-PROVOKING. POWERFUL. Authentic. Relevant.

All describe a debut play, A Celebration of Faribault: The 1855 Live Show, written and directed by high school seniors Logan Ledman and Samuel Temple. I attended a recent press screening of the Paradise Community Theatre production, set to open Friday evening at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault.

 

The cast of A Celebration of Faribault: The 1855 Live Show. Writers and directors are Samuel Temple of Faribault, left center row, and Logan Ledman of Northfield, right center row.

 

Featuring town founder Alexander Faribault, Bishop Henry Whipple, long-time Judge Thomas Buckham and his wife, Anna, as the lead characters, this play personalizes my southeastern Minnesota community’s early history. By the end of this lengthy show, I felt like I really knew the people I’ve read about in historical accounts. The directors/writers tackle real-life issues of the era head-on in a sensitive and relate-able way. They do that in intimate dialogue, in reading of letters exchanged between the Buckhams, in newspaper editorials, in a dramatic battlefield setting, in one especially powerful scene that closes the first act… I won’t share that closing. It needs to be seen and heard. Experienced really.

 

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 during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Located along the eastern edge of the Lower Sioux Reservation, Milford had the highest war death rate of any single township. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The Loyal Indian Monument at Birch Coulee Monument near Morton honors Native Americans and features strong words like humanity, patriotism, fidelity and courage. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

The content of this play takes me beyond Faribault and back to my native southwestern Minnesota prairie, at the epicenter of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a focal point in this production. I know well the history of that war, which I studied decades ago and once researched. Ledman and Temple clearly did their research, too, in writing this play.

 

The youth orchestra plays original music by Sam Dwyer, back in the headset.

 

The crew weaves in audio details that, with a surround sound system, amplify the impact of the script. Mood-setting music written by area high school student Sam Dwyer and performed by an all-youth orchestra enhances the production. Likewise lighting and varied ways of presenting content keep the play interesting and entertaining.

 

This sculpture of Alexander Faribault meeting 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. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As I listened and watched, I considered how, 150-plus years later, my city still struggles with issues similar to those in frontier Faribault. Back then, town founder and fur trader Alexander Faribault, whose mother was the daughter of a Dakota chief and who married a part Dakota woman, welcomed the Dakota into his home, onto his land. Likewise, Bishop Whipple welcomed those native peoples into his church as friends. After the U.S.-Dakota War, locals were no longer so accepting of the Dakota presence here or in other parts of Minnesota.

 

A flag ceremony during a past international festival features national anthems and information about the countries from which Faribault residents have originated. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Today Faribault faces some of those same challenges with immigrants in our community. They have not always been welcomed. But I see that changing as time passes, as cultures adjust, as acceptance grows. So this play, though historically-themed, remains relevant. I would like to believe that Alexander Faribault (as scripted in the play) was right in his assessment: “We are neighbors in the human race. That is the community of Faribault.”

The deeply personal aspects of A Celebration of Faribault come in letters written between Thomas Buckham and his wife, Anna. The teen writers/directors spent hours at the Minnesota Historical Society reading those exchanges. With reluctance, Anna left her family on the East Coast to resettle in Faribault, only to return and care for her ailing sister. The Buckhams would be separated for 17 years with Anna returning to Minnesota upon her husband’s death. At times I felt uncomfortable witnessing the conflicts within this marriage and the choices made. But that says a lot for the script, for the acting, that I experienced those emotions. These were real people torn between family and place. Anna truly never felt at home in Faribault.

 

Anna Buckham gifted the city of Faribault with the Art Nouveau/Greek Revival style Kasota stone Thomas Scott Buckham Memorial Library. It was constructed in 1929-1930 for $240,000. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Still, she left a legacy honoring the husband she loved even through physical separation. That legacy stands just blocks from my home, at the site of a former livery stable. It is the Thomas Scott Buckham Memorial Library, complete with Greek murals celebrating Thomas’ adoration of the Greeks, the Greek language and culture, and Greek classics.

 

This bronze sculpture of Thomas Scott Buckham hangs above a fireplace in the library’s second floor Great Hall meeting space. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

As someone who grew up in a rural community without a library, I deeply appreciate this gift to the city I’ve called home for 36 years. I value Buckham library and the content therein from magazines to books to the art gracing walls to a stained glass window crafted by Charles Connick of Boston. Today my son lives and works in greater Boston. Growing up, he visited the library often, checking out books to teach himself computer programming. He would not be where he is today professionally without the resources of Buckham library. Likewise, my daughters worked as pages there, experiences that would later land them library jobs as college students. The library holds personal significance in my family’s history. Thus I appreciate its prominence in A Celebration of Faribault and its continued importance in my community as a welcoming place for all peoples.

 

High school students Logan Ledman, left, and Samuel Temple produce “1855: A Faribault History Series on FCTV” in Faribault. File photo courtesy of Samuel Temple.

 

Exiting the Paradise Center for the Arts theater following the performance, I felt a sense of gratitude to the young men who care enough about Faribault to research and embrace its history and then share their discoveries with others. Ledman and Logan are also creators of 1855, an acclaimed history documentary series aired on local public television. It’s hard to believe these two are still in high school. There’s no doubt these 17-year-olds possess a clear and deep love of history, of heritage and of this place we call Faribault.

FYI: Performances of A Celebration of Faribault: The 1855 Live Show are set for 7:30 p.m. on two Fridays, September 21 and 28, and at 2 p.m. on two Sundays, September 23 and September 30. Click here to purchase tickets.

A $3,000 grant from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council helped fund this production.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Dresbach & Dakota, that would be in Minnesota June 27, 2017

Following Interstate 90 along the Mississippi River bluffs in southeastern Minnesota.

 

IN THE MANY YEARS I’VE TRAVELED Interstate 90 along the Minnesota/Wisconsin border in southeastern Minnesota, I’ve never exited to explore Dresbach or Dakota.

That changed this past spring when Randy and I were returning from a day trip to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Time allowed for the pull off onto Riverview Drive which passes through unincorporated Dresbach and Dakota, population 323 or thereabouts.

 

We pulled off Riverview Drive and curved the van to a small riverside park in Dresbach where I took this photo of the Mississippi.

 

Traffic signs in Dresbach.

 

Leaving Dresbach, I noticed this lengthy, leaning retaining wall.

 

We did a drive through with thoughts of returning again to poke around more. Both villages sit along the western bank of the Mississippi River between La Crosse and Winona, in Minnesota. The river setting is scenic, beautiful, worthy of a second look when the weather warms and river traffic increases.

 

A welcoming sign outside a business in Dakota. That’s quite a name, Trynowski.

 

Holy Cross Church in Dakota.

 

A well-preserved former corner gas station in Dakota that I found absolutely charming.

 

I snapped a few quick photos from the van and called it good. While both villages deserve more of my photographic study, this is a start.

TELL ME: Have you ever driven through/visited Dresbach or Dakota? If yes, what should I see the next time I’m in either community.

If anyone can provide information about any of the places photographed here, please share.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sleepy Eye: the man behind the name January 14, 2015

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WHEN I LIVED AND WORKED in Sleepy Eye for six months in the early 1980s, I didn’t fully appreciate this southwestern Minnesota community.

Mostly, I was too busy laboring away at my more than full-time job as a newspaper reporter and photographer for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. Anyone who’s ever worked as a community journalist understands that the profession demands much time, energy and an endless skill set. Basically, I didn’t have a life outside of work.

Now that I’m much older and long ago realized that life should be about more than a profession, I realize what I missed. I may have covered the people, places and events of Sleepy Eye well. But I didn’t really notice. I didn’t take time to personally value sense of place.

A passing shot shows Chief Sleepy Eye's image painted on the water tower.

A passing shot shows Chief Sleepy Eye’s image painted on the water tower.

Like most small towns, Sleepy Eye possesses unique characteristics, most notably its name. The community is named after Sleepy Eye, a long ago chief of the Lower Sisseton Dakota. You’ll spot his image on the water tower, on the town’s welcome sign, on the public school website (the school mascot remains the Indians) and probably additional places.

Sleepy Eye seems to take positive historical pride in its name. And it should.

Painted on the sign, under the image of Chief Sleepy Eye, are these words: "Made possible by OSE member Willie of Kansas."

Painted on the sign, under the image of Chief Sleepy Eye, are these words: “Made possible by OSE member Willie of Kansas.”

On my last pass through Sleepy Eye en route to my hometown area further to the west, I noticed a painting of Chief Sleepy Eye on the side of a downtown building. The sign was strategically placed by a stoplight. So I snapped a quick frame while waiting for the light to turn green.

Later, studying the details of that image and after some Googling, I learned that Ish Tak Ha Ba is Chief Sleepy Eye’s name in his native Dakota tongue. And I discovered that an Old Sleepy Eye Collectors Club exists, focused on preserving Sleepy Eye antiques, memorabilia and collectibles.

One of these times traveling through Sleepy Eye, I am going to stop and explore. And this time I will really see the place I once called home. See and appreciate.

IF YOU KNOW SLEEPY EYE well, what are some must-sees there? Remember, I’m always seeking out the lesser-known, the unusual, the treasures.

Wherever you live, tell me what you would like visitors to see in your community.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“Mending generations of bad feelings” in Redwood County during “The Year of the Dakota” February 28, 2013

WILL THE DIVIDING LINES ever connect into a complete circle of healing?

A century and a half after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 ended, can the Dakota and descendants of white settlers, and others, ever fully reconcile and forgive?

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862.

The issues that divide—of blame and of animosity, of death and of punishment, of land and of banishment, and more—remain, sometimes subtle and below the surface, sometimes exposed.

As a native of Redwood County in southwestern Minnesota and as a descendant of settlers who fled their New Ulm area homestead during the U.S.-Dakota War, I have always been especially interested in this conflict.

So when I learned that the City of Redwood Falls on January 15 joined the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in adopting resolutions “recognizing the 150th anniversary of the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 and declaring 2012-2013 the Year of the Dakota,” I took note.

The resolution states, in part in paragraph two:

WHEREAS, much has yet to be learned about issues revolving around land, reparations and restitution, treaties, genocide, suppression of American Indian Spirituality and Ceremonies, suppression on Indigenous languages, bounties, concentration camps, force marches, mass executions and forcible removals; and…

For my home county, at the geographical center of the war and home to the Dakota, then and now, passage of this resolution reflects a desire to understand, to educate, to heal.

Now you wouldn’t think, after 150 years, that such a resolution would even be needed. Trust me. Hard feelings still exist. But because I have not lived in Redwood County for decades and am therefore only an outside observer, I contacted Redwood Falls Mayor and avid local historian Gary Revier with a few questions.

I posed this question, among others, to Revier: All these years after the Dakota War ended, what, if any, tensions still exist between the Dakota and Whites in Redwood County?

As I expected, the mayor, who could have danced around my question with political rhetoric, told it like he sees it:

To answer your question about tensions between the Dakota and White communities, I would have to say emphatically “yes.” I believe it is more of a trust issue for the Dakota. On the White side, I would have to say there is a lot of envy because of the success of the gaming industry among the various Indian communities.

When I hear from my fellow members of the White community, they almost always begin by saying, “I am not prejudiced, but…” They then go on to explain some good deed they did for a Native American or some distant cousin three times removed who they are related to.

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.

The Milford State Monument along Brown County Road 29 west of New Ulm commemorates the deaths of 52 settlers in Milford Township during the U.S.-Dakota War.

Revier, who also happens to be a descendant of white settlers impacted by the U.S.-Dakota War, endorses the resolution which calls for presenting the Dakota perspective through discussion; efforts by the City of Redwood Falls to promote the well-being and growth of the American Indian Community; and that such efforts “will mark the beginning of future dialogues and efforts to rectify the wrongs that were perpetrated during, and since, the year 1862, a tragic and traumatic event for the Dakota People of Minnesota.”

Says Revier:

I do support the resolution for many reasons, but the one that provides me with the most satisfaction really starts mending generations of bad feelings between the two nations. The first step towards reconciliation is admitting to the aggrieved party that there were atrocities committed. Once again this is more complex than can be explained in one or two sentences.

The mayor is right. Summarizing and defining issues spanning 150 years would be a difficult undertaking, especially in the context of a blog post.

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society.

A photo panel at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center in St. Peter shows Dakota leaders photographed in Washington D.C. in 1858. The photo is from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Now, though, through adoption of the “Year of the Dakota” resolution, the City of Redwood Falls, in discussion with the Dakota community and others, is aiming to “open additional dialogue and create better communication and feelings among the citizens of both communities,” Revier says.

While methods of accomplishing this have not yet been fully defined, the Redwood Falls community has already hosted roundtable discussions, author visits, video showings, presentations and historic site tours related to the U.S.-Dakota War during the war’s sesquicentennial in 2012.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Additionally, Revier notes that when the city celebrates the dedication anniversary of its 219-acre Alexander Ramsey Park this year, the event will also be “a celebration of the Dakota who consider it a very special place.”  The Dakota once lived on the land (which eventually became the park) and the name Redwood comes from the Dakota word Can-say-api, meaning “where they paint the tree red,” the mayor says. A “101st Celebration and Ramsey Park Jamboree” is set for June 5 at the Redwood Area Community Center, according to the Alexander Ramsey Park Facebook page.

The park is named after first Minnesota Territorial and (second) Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey who negotiated treaties with the Dakota and was accused, but later cleared, of fraud in those negotiations. Revier is interested in possibly renaming the park, he says, “to something that would be more descriptive of the area which is home to so many indigenous people.”

This artwork by Gordon M. Coons, which was on recent temporary display at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center, marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. According to information posted with the piece, "...the crows, known as messengers, are silent and unable to carry the stories of the 38 Dakota hanged in Mankato. Each crow carries the name of a Dakota hanged in Mankato. The texture on the crows is a blend of acrylic paint and soil from the historical sites of the Sioux Uprising of 1862. The soil is from the Traverse des Sioux treaty site of 1851 and eight other locations of the Sioux Uprising of 1862."

This artwork by Gordon M. Coons, which was on recent temporary display at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter, marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. According to information posted with the piece, “…the crows, known as messengers, are silent and unable to carry the stories of the 38 Dakota hanged in Mankato. Each crow carries the name of a Dakota hanged in Mankato. The texture on the crows is a blend of acrylic paint and soil from the …Traverse des Sioux treaty site of 1851 and eight other locations of the Sioux Uprising of 1862.” Coons is an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe of northern Wisconsin and now lives in Minneapolis.

WHILE COMMUNICATING with Revier and researching for this post, I noticed that the “Year of the Dakota” resolution passed by the city of Redwood Falls varies from those approved in Minneapolis and St. Paul. One difference comes in the number of Dakota who were executed, a figure referenced in the first paragraph of the resolution. The Twin Cities resolutions note the number of executed Dakota—those hung in a mass hanging in Mankato—at 38. The resolution from Redwood Falls defines the number as 38+2 Dakota.

I asked the mayor to clarify. Revier added the “2” to represent Medicine Bottle and Little Six (Shakopee), Dakota leaders who were hung at Fort Snelling for their roles in the U.S.-Dakota War.

When I consider all the mayor has shared with me and my own knowledge of the tensions that have existed in Redwood County for 150 years, I wonder how reconciliation will ever be achieved. But I have to hold onto hope—hope that this newly-adopted resolution will foster discussion and understanding, hope that each side can stop blaming the other, hope that forgiveness will come…

Gordon M. Coons also created this 1862 U.S. flag which features the names of the 38 Dakota who were executed during a mass hanging in Mankato. "...the 38 Dakota are woven into the history of the U.S. and appear to be woven into the flag," information posted with the display at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Center states.

Gordon M. Coons also created this 1862 U.S. flag which features the names of the 38 Dakota who were executed during a mass hanging in Mankato. “…the 38 Dakota are woven into the history of the U.S. and appear to be woven into the flag,” information posted with the display at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter states.

NOTE: I contacted Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa,  retired former associate professor of Indigenous Nations and Dakota Studies who authored the resolution along with other Dakota people and supporters. He declined to comment.

To read the entire resolution adopted by the Minneapolis City Council, click here. The Redwood Falls version varies only in the number of Dakota specified (38+2) and, of course, in the council name stated in the resolution.

The Saint Paul City Council resolution differs from that of the other two cities as the city’s parks and recreation department  is directed to “work with the Dakota Bdote Restoration Consortium to identify, name and interpret sacred Native American sites at and nearby the sacred Bdote…” You can read the entire resolution by clicking here.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The educating & healing continue 150 years after The U.S.-Dakota War December 28, 2012

STUDYING MINNESOTA HISTORY decades ago, I learned about “The Sioux Uprising of 1862” and even wrote a term paper on the topic bearing that title.

This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle which ended the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.

This archway leads to the Wood Lake State Monument, on the site of the battle which ended the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862.

I thought nothing negative of that word, Sioux, which translates to “snake.” The Ojibway, once enemies of the Dakota, gave the tribe that name. I did not know; it was the word I was taught.

That I even studied “The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862,” the proper terminology for the six-week war fought primarily in my native southwestern Minnesota 150 years ago, seems remarkable. So many in Minnesota never knew of this conflict in our state’s history.

I don’t pretend to know every detail of the war between the Dakota and the white settlers and soldiers. But I do remember that I grew up with a fear of “Indians,” reinforced by the television westerns especially popular during my formative years and by the history lessons delivered about The Sioux Uprising of 1862, as it was then called.

Those classroom lessons were decidedly one-sided: The whites were the good guys, the Indians the bad guys. That line of thinking was wrong, oh, so wrong. I realize that now, having reached that conclusion decades ago.

The maltreatment of the Dakota by greedy traders, broken treaty promises, starvation, efforts to convert and transform the Dakota people into Christian farmers, expulsion from their homeland and more contributed to the war.

Yet, even the Dakota disagreed about the need to wage this battle. Some helped settlers escape to safety while others plundered and killed. My own maternal forefathers fled the New Ulm area to St. Peter, making this war a part of my personal family history.

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.

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.

While I carry no ill will toward the Dakota, I will tell you, unequivocally, that feelings still run deep in southwestern Minnesota. I am also honest enough to admit that perhaps I would feel differently if my family members had been massacred or if I was of Dakota, instead of German, heritage.

Although time can heal, it doesn’t always. Misconceptions and misguided expectations, even after 150 years, exist on multiple sides of the issue. I won’t delve into that here, but I do think the healing is still ongoing, forgiveness (on both sides) still not attained.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862.

Words on a marker in Reconciliation Park in Mankato where 38 Dakota were hung on Dec. 26, 1862. On Wednesday, a new Dakota 38 Memorial was dedicated listing the names of the 38 men who died here. This file photo was taken of an existing plaque in the park.

In a ceremony in Mankato on Wednesday marking the 150th anniversary of the hanging of 38 Dakota, Mayor Eric Anderson proclaimed this the year of “forgiveness and understanding.”

The Dakota also called upon all to “forgive everyone everything.” Those words will be engraved into Kasota stone benches to be installed next summer at the site of the new Dakota 38 Memorial dedicated in Reconciliation Park on Wednesday.

Strides toward understanding and forgiveness, and education, can perhaps finally heal the still festering wounds of this long ago war.

TO VIEW PHOTOS from the event in Mankato on Wednesday, click to link here to Minnesota Public Radio.

TELL ME, ESPECIALLY if you grew up in Minnesota, did you study The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862? Also, are Minnesota students today being taught about this war?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Chief Sleepy Eye shouldn’t have a mustache June 6, 2012

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In mid-April I photographed this sign featuring Chief Sleepy Eye on the east end of Sleepy Eye, MN.

HIS EYELIDS MAY HAVE DROOPED, but I’m quite certain Chief Sleepy Eye didn’t sport a mustache.

However, on this sign welcoming visitors to Sleepy Eye, in Brown County, Minnesota, the town’s namesake clearly has facial hair.

I didn’t notice the apparent defacing of Chief Sleepy Eye until now, while sorting through on-the-road photos I shot in April.

I expect that’s exactly the problem. Locals and travelers pass by the welcome sign along U.S. Highway 14 and don’t even notice. We get so accustomed to something that we overlook the details.

Scratching a mustache onto a person’s photo in a newspaper (haven’t we all done that?) is one thing. But marring a Sisseton Dakota chief’s image on a public welcoming sign is quite another.

So who, exactly, was Chief Sleepy Eye?

Born in 1780, this leader of the Swan Lake or Little Rock band of hunters was considered a friend of explorers, traders, settlers, missionaries and others. He was among those signing, albeit reluctantly, the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851. In that historic treaty, the Dakota ceded land in exchange for promises of cash, goods, education and a reservation.

From 1857-1859, Ishtakhaba’s (Sleepy Eye’s) main village sat along Sleepy Eye Lake. He died in 1860 while hunting in South Dakota. His remains were eventually buried beneath a granite obelisk monument that stands near the historic railroad depot in Sleepy Eye.

Even though I lived and worked in Sleepy Eye briefly in the early 1980s, I don’t recall ever taking time to view this monument or to appreciate the Dakota chief it honors. Perhaps it’s time to detour a block off highway 14 and educate myself.

FYI: To view Chief Sleepy Eye without a mustache, click here to an image on the City of Sleepy Eye website.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

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

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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