We eight independent historians have spent years studying the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Facts drawn from primary sources, such as contemporary military reports, letters and newspaper accounts, rather than recent publications, form the basis for our quest to determine what took place in Minnesota during the war.
Many facts were laid out in the counterpoint by Curtis Dahlin (“U.S.-Dakota exhibit has some things wrong,” Dec. 3), which dealt with an exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society titled “States of Incarceration.” We stand behind the facts Dahlin cited, in spite of the assertions in subsequent Counterpoints by John R. Legg (“Remember the trauma of the Dakota in recalling the 1862 war,” Dec. 6) and by Charles R. Vig, Shelley Buck and Brian Pendleton (“Paint the Dakota’s plight in the 1862 winter as it was: Horrific,” Dec. 11), along with a letter from Kate Beane of the Historical Society (Readers Write, Dec. 11).
In August and September 1862, Dakota warriors killed about 600 mostly unarmed settlers. These killings enraged the settlers and soldiers. Historical records from that time document that after the defeat of the Dakota at Wood Lake, Gen. Henry Sibley had to prevent soldiers under his command from attacking those Dakota who remained at Camp Release. On Nov. 9, residents of New Ulm attacked the Dakota men who were prisoners as they passed close to New Ulm, killing two (the New Ulmers’ emotions were raw, as on that very day, they were reburying their family and friends whom the Dakota had killed in August).
On Nov. 11, enraged settlers in Henderson, Minn., attacked the caravan of Dakota dependents as they passed through on the way to Fort Snelling, killing a Dakota baby. And on Dec. 4, Col. Stephen Miller turned back a mob intending to attack those Dakota men who were held prisoner at Mankato.
Letters and newspapers at the time called for taking revenge on the Dakota.
It is documented in contemporary records that Gen. Sibley, Lt. Col. William R. Marshall and Gen. John Pope all recognized that the Dakota dependents were noncombatants and that the general public was crying for blood. The authorities determined to protect the Dakota from revenge-minded whites.
So in November 1862, nearly 1,700 Dakota dependents were taken to a camp at Fort Snelling. Here, the camp provided them protection, food and medical care. That was clearly a compassionate thing to do, but the Dec. 11 writers disagree. Yet how was it not compassionate to keep innocent people from being killed or starving to death if left on the prairie? To be sure, these Dakota very likely wished that they were not being held there. But given the alternatives, it was the best option available.
Legg states that the march of the Dakota from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling passed through New Ulm, where residents poured boiling water on them. (The Dakota men who were prisoners passed near New Ulm, as was cited earlier.) The myth that this group of Dakota dependents passed through New Ulm has been around for many years. In 2008, a group of us published the extensively researched and documented book “Trails of Tears: The Dakota Indian Exile Begins,” specifically to debunk this myth. But evidently the myth is still alive and well. “Trails of Tears” also debunks the myth that many Dakota died during this march, per Legg’s “ … ancestors who died along that forced march,” and Vig, Buck and Pendleton’s “ … mourning the loss of many who died on the way to the camp …”
One person, a Dakota baby, was killed in Henderson, as noted earlier. In addition to Lt. Col. Marshall, some missionaries and mixed-blood people such as Samuel J. Brown were also on the march. Surely, they would have reported any more killings of Dakota on the march. Brown, who had great credibility and integrity, did report the killing of the baby in Henderson.
Another myth is that the Dakota were unable to leave the Fort Snelling camp. Yes, there was a wall, but its purpose was to keep marauding whites out. The Dakota were able to leave as they wanted, to fish, hunt or sell items in St. Paul. Whites, including Bishop Henry Whipple, who was a champion for the Dakota, even needed a pass to enter.
The Dakota undoubtedly were uneasy about their future that winter in the camp at Fort Snelling, but at least they were alive, unlike the approximately 600 settlers who had been killed. And the survivors of those 600 certainly did not have a good winter, as they huddled in close quarters, away from their homes and loved ones, grieving the loss of family members.
Kate Beane’s reference to Gov. Alexander Ramsey’s statement about either exterminating the Dakota or driving them forever beyond the borders of Minnesota is correct. But the context is that the Minnesota state government in 1862 had failed in its solemn duty to protect its citizens, and Ramsey was determined not to fail again. (Some Dakota did not easily give up on their objective of killing Minnesotans, killing 28 in 1863-65.) While Ramsey’s statement was certainly harsh, the situation was dire. Tough times called for tough measures, but extermination was not pursued.
The story of the Dakota and other tribes is compelling enough without incorrect assertions. Facts are the basis for all that historians do, and political agendas should not intrude on this.
This article was submitted by the following independent historians: Mary Bakeman, Roseville; Gary Brueggemann, St. Paul; Stephanie Chappell, Glencoe; Nancy Goodman and Robert Goodman, Stillwater; Jan Klein, Casa Grande, Ariz.; Corinne L. Monjeau-Marz, Cottage Grove; Stephen Osman, Minneapolis.