Retracing the war that shaped Minnesota

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2012 - 10:49 AM

Important sites help tell the tale of the bloody U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 that helped define early Minnesota.

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Attacked twice during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, the wall-less Fort Ridgely became the refuge for hundreds of displaced settlers. Today, the foundation remains.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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GROVE CITY, MINN.

Amid the patchwork quilted farm fields of corn and soybeans in Meeker County, Donna and Scott Whitcomb have a monument planted in their front yard. It's right next to a galvanized steel grain bin with the ironic brand name "Sioux" emblazoned up top in yellow.

You'll find the squat obelisk monument 4 miles south of Grove City just off Hwy. 4 in Acton Township. Just remounted on a new stone base, it commemorates the deadly dispute that left five settlers fatally shot near a trading post, igniting the bloody six-week U.S.-Dakota War that erupted in southern Minnesota 150 summers ago. It's one of dozens of monuments that punctuate the Minnesota landscape, off-the-beaten-path reminders of the awful history that shaped the state's early years.

"I grew up here, but my husband had to get used to people driving through the yard all the time and stopping to ask questions," says Donna, 50, whose family has lived in the area for six generations.

She has studied the myriad accounts of what happened on Aug. 17, 1862. If you're lucky enough to find her at home, she's happy to serve as a volunteer tour guide. She can even walk you over to the depression in the nearby woods where the trading post's cellar stored roots and whiskey. "I try to get people to understand that there are two sides to this story," she says, "and they have to have an open mind."

Earlier this year, photographer David Joles and I criss-crossed the Minnesota River Valley to retell the war's story through the life of the reluctant Dakota war chief, Little Crow. (Go to www.startribune.com/dakota to see stories, photographs, maps and videos.)

On our trek, we visited several county historical museums. Our favorite is in Litchfield, a little brick castle known as the G.A.R. Building, for Grand Army of the Republic. Built by returning Civil War soldiers, the hall is loaded with artifacts from 1862, including old maps, bullets and pieces of the trading post. Capt. James B. Atkinson's old journal, left from the punitive raids following the war, includes this inscription in pencil: "God knows what next."

Five miles southwest of Litchfield, beside the little white Ness Church, the first five victims share a common grave below a tombstone that reads, simply: FIRST BLOOD.

For fellow history buffs or newcomers to the story, here are nine other spots worth visiting on the war's 150th anniversary. We haven't arranged them in any sequential or geographic order, opting instead to let you choose and map your own journey through the past:

The end is near

The U.S.-Dakota War raged over a huge swath of Minnesota, from Lake Shetek in the state's southwestern corner to Fort Abercrombie 200 miles north, just across the North Dakota border. What's amazing, though, is how close the war's symbolic closing scene sits to where the war began in Acton Township.

About 24 miles southeast of the Whitcombs' house, a half-mile west of Hwy. 15 on Meeker County Road 18, a boulder with a plaque juts up from the road's south shoulder. Erected in 1929, the monument points out a spot 100 yards away where Little Crow was shot and killed while picking raspberries with his son on July 3, 1863.

His son said he'd walked back to Minnesota from the Dakota plains to steal horses for his kids the spring following the war. Others insist he had a death wish and wanted to see his homeland one more time. Farmers Nathan and Chauncey Lamson were awarded $575 in bounties from the state once it was confirmed that the man they shot was Little Crow.

Kaposia Park

While Acton and Little Crow's death spot bookend the war's opening and closing scenes in Minnesota, it's worth a trip to the Mississippi River banks in South St. Paul to get a feel for the true beginnings of the story. Little Crow was born around 1810 near Kaposia Park.

Wild rhubarb still grows along the banks. A disc golf course now weaves through the high-banked ravines of birch and oak, along with a nearby off-leash dog park, foot paths and railroad tracks. The bellow of freight trains drowns out the trill of cardinals while informational signs along Butler Avenue and Concord Street augment the sense of history seeping through the landscape.

Fort Snelling

It's a coincidence how close Acton sits to the spot where Little Crow was shot, but it's no fluke that his legacy is intertwined with the stone fort that rose in the 1820s only 7 miles west of Little Crow's birthplace. Once the farthest outpost on the U.S. frontier, Fort Snelling grew up with Little Crow. His band was among the easternmost of a Dakota nation sprawling west to the Black Hills in South Dakota. It only follows that he would be among the first to clash with the encroaching wave of white settlers.

After the war, about 1,600 Dakota were penned up in a wooden enclosure on the river flats below the fort. More than a hundred died there during a measles epidemic. Dozens of Little Crow's relatives, including a wife and children, were held there. Two Dakota warriors, Medicine Bottle and Shakopee, were hanged at the fort in 1865 after being drugged and kidnapped in Canada.

Many modern-day Dakota are offended by the fort's re-enactments of cannon blasts and other "celebratory narratives." They consider it the site of a concentration camp. Despite its unfortunate name, the Thomas C. Savage visitors' center at Fort Snelling State Park offers worthwhile Dakota perspectives.

New Ulm

No other Minnesota town has embraced its role in the 1862 war more than New Ulm, where the fanciful stone Brown County Historical Society is chock-full of stories and artifacts. Admittedly skewed toward the settlers' perspective, the museum is a must-see and so is its website (www.browncountydakotawarcommemoration.com).

Museum researcher Darla Gebhard's ancestor fought in the two battles of New Ulm, when townsfolk barricaded themselves in a six-block area and withstood Dakota attacks.

"He never talked much about it, but he was fishing once with my uncle, who was at the time a young boy, and my great-grandfather told him he still had nightmares about picking up dead bodies," says Gebhard, a treasure trove of New Ulm history.

Another New Ulm resident, John LaBatte, descends from Dakota, traders and mixed-blood scouts. His frequent tours are equally rich and detailed.

Lower Sioux Agency

About 40 miles northwest of New Ulm, you'll find the stone warehouse that is perhaps the most historically important remnant of the war still standing. It was packed with food that could have eased Dakota starvation in August 1862, but President Abraham Lincoln's new Indian agent, Thomas Galbraith, refused to distribute any until the delayed gold annuity payments arrived. They showed up at Fort Ridgely one day too late. Galbraith's initials can be seen carved in the stone above the warehouse window.

'Door to the valley'

With no walls for defense, Fort Ridgely wasn't much of a fort in 1862 and not much is left today. Former St. Paul newspaper reporter, Civil War veteran and historian Return Ira Holcombe, who placed many of the monuments, also was among the first to interview Dakota war participants in the 1890s. Big Eagle, a Little Crow contemporary, told Holcombe:

"We thought the fort was the door to the valley as far St. Paul, and that if we got through the door nothing could stop us this side of the Mississippi. But the defenders of the fort were very brave and kept the door shut."

A mile west, on a rise just beyond cannon range, is where Little Crow unsuccessfully urged warriors to attack the then-understaffed fort on the second day of the war. Had they listened, instead of riding south to New Ulm, the Dakota likely would have taken the fort and the war might have played out much differently.

Birch Coulee Battlefield

On Sept. 2, 1862, a burial party picked this exposed prairie to camp. Big mistake. Dakota warriors attacked and nearly overran the camp in a 36-hour siege before relief arrived. It was the last Dakota victory.

The turning point

About 11 miles southeast of Granite Falls, just west of Hwy. 67, a rickety fence and an open gate are covered with a white-lettered sign proclaiming "Sioux Indian War 1862." Inside, a towering obelisk festooned with rifles serves as a monument to the Battle of Wood Lake. On Sept. 23, 1862, some U.S. soldiers sick of the food went foraging for potatoes. Dakota warriors were about to ambush hundreds of soldiers, but the foragers sprung the ambush and the battle became a turning point, prompting Little Crow to flee as hostages were freed at a nearby spot dubbed Camp Release.

Mankato

While most folks nowadays know this Minnesota River city as the home of Vikings training camp, three months after Wood Lake it became the site of the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Lincoln reduced from 303 the number of condemned Dakota men to 39 and one more last-minute reprieve left 38 hanged the day after Christmas 1862. A beam from the scaffold remains in storage at the Blue Earth County Heritage Center, considered too ghoulish to display.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

To read the series "In the Footsteps of Little Crow" on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, and see videos, photo galleries and more, go to startribune.com/dakota.

To download "In the Footsteps of Little Crow" as a 10-chapter e-book for Apple, Kindle and Nook e-readers, go to startribune.com/ebooks.

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