The boxes of historical documents have been missing in the bowels of the National Archives for more than 140 years. They contain more than 1,000 claims from settlers and Dakota Indians who lost crops, homes and property in the bloody, six-week U.S. Dakota War of 1862.
Now, the Brown County Historical Society has landed the first of what it hopes will be more state grants to locate, scour and digitize these long-lost clues that can help historians and descendants learn more details of a critical chapter in the shaping of early Minnesota history.
"The Archives are a huge, huge, huge collection and each claim includes a personal narrative about where that person was that day," said Darla Gebhard, the research librarian at the county museum in New Ulm -- the vortex of the war.
Two battles in August 1862 were centered around New Ulm and nearly 3,000 claims were filed after the war as settlers tried to recoup what they'd lost. More than 600 settlers, mostly immigrants, were killed in the war, which ended with the largest execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato. Gov. Alexander Ramsey banished Dakota people from the state after the war.
About half those claims, roughly 1,400 documents, have been missing and Minnesota historians have been trying to track them down since the 1950s.
The breakthrough, Gebhard says, came when reseachers realized the larger claims were routed through the U.S. Treasury Department, which audited the claims and tucked them away. They include beer maker August Schell's claims, which give the precise location of furniture in his house that was burned. Gebhard said some of the claims come from Dakota Indians who had become farmers and sat out the war, losing crops and property in the process.
Brown County Historical Society President Annie Earl and a volunteer will join two Washington-based researchers soon to dig through the archives, thanks to a so-called legacy grant of $9,000 from the state Historical Society. Larger grants will request money to make digital copies of all the claims to help historians and family members doing genealogical research.