There is no upside, no silver lining to the six-week war that ravaged a large swath of Minnesota in August and September of 1862. It was a long time in the making, of bloody and intense duration, and brutal in its aftermath. And it was complicated. Still is.
It’s a tough story. In 1851, as whites flooded into Minnesota Territory, the Dakota reluctantly negotiated treaties surrendering most of their land in exchange for promises of goods, cash and a reservation along the Minnesota River. After leaders signed one of these treaties, they were ushered to another document, which some thought was another copy of the treaty. The document turned over a significant percentage of the cash payments to a group of fur traders, including Henry Sibley, to satisfy years of debts accumulated in anticipation of just such a payment. Dakota leaders who had negotiated in good faith were betrayed the following year when the U.S. Senate removed the clause establishing permanent Dakota reservations. In 1858 a group of Dakota leaders were summoned to Washington, D.C., and detained until they signed yet another treaty relinquishing all land north and east of the Minnesota River, but acknowledging title to a 10-by-150-mile strip of land, half of the 1851 reservation.
Government policies imposed by corrupt agents favored assimilation, depriving the Dakota of their traditional way of life. In January 1862, President Lincoln’s own investigator warned him of "voluminous and outrageous frauds upon the Indians" and the probable dire consequences – but Lincoln’s attention was focused on another front. Stripped of their hunting lands, facing a poor harvest, the Dakota were dependent on government support. The government’s failure to deliver annuities as promised brought near-starvation and growing anger.
An isolated violent incident sparked the war, which many Dakota opposed. Some who thought it ill-advised fought anyway, including Little Crow, who led the Dakota forces. About 600 whites, including women and children, were killed; no one knows how many Dakota died. Many settlers who fled never returned, leaving farms and fields empty for years.
Following the fighting, many of the Dakota warriors, including Little Crow, evaded capture. Perfunctory military tribunals sentenced 303 Dakota men to hang for their roles in the fighting. President Lincoln reviewed the cases and reduced that number to 39. Ultimately, 38 mounted the single scaffold in Mankato on December 26, 1862, but they were not, by any means, the war’s last victims.
Leading Minnesotans, including Governor Alexander Ramsey, called for extermination and exile of the Dakota. About 1,700 Dakota women, children, and elders were marched 150 miles and imprisoned under harsh winter conditions at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. Ironically, this site, central to Dakota creation and traditional life for generations, became the place where their exile began. In spring 1863 the Dakota were banished to distant reservations. Punitive expeditions were mounted to pursue Dakota who had fled to the west. Many hundreds died during the cruel execution of these policies, and many thousands since have lived with the consequences, in Minnesota and throughout the Dakota diaspora.
Several years ago, the Minnesota Historical Society decided to take on the challenge of telling the stories of all the parties. Staff began to frame the war in its large and complicated contexts. Numerous projects were initiated to make collections related to the war more accessible for research and to reach a variety of audiences through different media. Staff members cast a broad net, eliciting family stories, recording histories, inviting feedback on projects and exhibition ideas, and doing much, prolonged listening to the descendants of people on all sides. An exhibition at the Minnesota History Center, programs at several historic sites, a website (usdakotawar.org), and other offerings have been shaped for the better by this outreach.
As an historical institution and as staff members, we are much the better, too, for our experiences in developing this year’s projects, many of which will have enduring value. We are deeply grateful to all who have given their time, shared their histories and views, and bared their emotions. This is much more than a year of remembrance and reflection. This is a journey into a shared future of continuing dialogue.
Early on, someone suggested that the war was so tragic that we should not revisit it and its pain. Many others, though, recognized the enormous educational opportunity of tackling this work and pitched in to help. This war bore terrible consequences for the Dakota Oyate (Nation) and for the survivors of settlers who were killed; it inevitably shaped Minnesota, yet many know little about it. That is sad. The war is of enormous historical and current importance to all.
Let us learn together. MHS is providing many opportunities for doing just that. As one writer closed a recent letter to MHS, "I shake your hand with a good heart."
Director and CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society