— As an amateur history buff, I always enjoy spending time with William Lass, history professor emeritus at Minnesota State University.
Lass has literally written the book on Minnesota history — several books and articles, in fact. Like the best of historians, he’s meticulous, open minded, precise. When he states something about history, you know it’s based on the best and most careful research.
We had a wide-ranging talk about the U.S.-Dakota War — which began this month 150 years ago.
Here are a few interesting tidbits gleaned from Lass:
Much time is spent discussing and debating the atrocities committed by some Dakota during the war. Accounts of a pregnant woman being cut open, fetus removed and nailed to a tree; dismemberments; rape; bludgeoning of babies.
There were atrocities. But says Lass, “My admonition is to be very cautious about the mutilation and atrocity part.”
For starters, Lass notes, bodies bruise and discolor very quickly after death and coyotes, wolves and other animals were plentiful on the prairie. Bodies of dead settlers found a couple of days later could easily have looked like they were mutilated.
And, at the time, everyone from the governor to local newspapers and residents had some stake in portraying the Indians as savage animals that needed to be killed or expelled.
Camp Lincoln’s location
Camp Lincoln, where Dakota prisoners were kept after the war, was always stated as being in South Bend, a village outside Mankato, past current Land of Memories Park.
Lass, after running across a sketch done in 1862 of Camp Lincoln, immediately knew the land topography was wrong for South Bend.
After digging, including finding a letter from Col. Henry Sibley describing the camp’s location, Lass found the true spot of Camp Lincoln was in what is now Sibley Park.
If you go to the top of Sibley Park, you reach what is called Sibley Mound. The topography in the sketch matches the view from the mound with the camp below on level ground. Lass said the artist likely used a common technique of the day — putting a piece of glass on an easel and literally tracing the scene — creating a realistic, near photographic image.
The number of people killed in the war has always been elusive. Early reports, still often cited, say 800 to 1,000 settlers and soldiers were killed. Lass said more detailed research done in the early 1900s and recently, show the death numbers to be between 450 and 600.
Dakota deaths were harder to confirm, but some estimates have been as high as several hundred or more. Lass said Indian deaths from battles were likely several dozen at most. The Indians, he noted, did not approach war as Europeans did — lining up and fighting each other in open fields until one side lost the most people.
They attacked by surprise, using as much cover as possible, limiting their losses.
Significant suffering and death for the Dakota, Lass said, came from malnutrition and disease after the war as they fled, were held captive or put on reservations. “The ones who had no role in the fighting suffered the most.”
The Fourth Estate
Mankato had two opposing newspapers at the time — Democrat and Republican — that couldn’t agree on anything. But they wholeheartedly agreed on the treatment of Indians following the war.
Both papers supported banishing Indians from southern Minnesota, or killing them. One paper encouraged citizens to lynch the Dakota prisoners if President Lincoln pardoned them. There was a lynching attempt.
Discussing covered wagons in a sketch of the hangings in Mankato, Lass noted that people often believe wagons were colored red, white and blue in the name of patriotism. Instead, it was purely functional. Red wheels hid the dust, the white canvas canopy reflected the sun, and the blue box set off the red and white colors.
Tim Krohn is a Free Press staff writer. He can be contacted at 344-6383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.