The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 26, 2013

Author distills forces behind U.S.-Dakota War into historical fiction

Dale Swanson holding discussion today in Henderson

By Tanner Kent

---- — Dale Swanson couldn't help himself.

When the lifetime Minnesota resident and Prior Lake author came across a reference to the so-called "thirty-ninth man" while working on another project, he had to find out more.

For six years, Swanson searched records at the Minnesota Historical Society, interviewed sources and read period biographies, meticulously combing written materials and living experts for information about Tatemina, or Round Wind, the Dakota man spared from the infamous gallows of Dec. 26, 1862, with an eleventh-hour pardon.

What he found was at once gratifying and frustratingly incomplete — and compelling enough to form the foundation of "The Thirty-Ninth Man," a work of historical fiction released in June by North Star Press of St. Cloud.

"When I set out to write, I had no outline, nothing specific in mind," said Swanson, who is hosting a book discussion on Thursday at the Henderson library and another on Oct. 20 at the Arlington Public Library. "The only thing I had was the 39th man."

By accounts, Tatemina was short, squat and powerful with piercing eyes. The brother to Big Thunder (Little Crow IV) was also said to have a penchant for stealth on the battlefield and a master's skill with a bow.

Court transcripts show that, like many of the 303 Dakota sentenced to death by the mock courts held in Mankato to exact revenge for the actions of the U.S.-Dakota War, Tatemina was convicted on flimsy, if perhaps completely false, testimony. In Tatemina's case, two boys accused him of attacking and killing their mother — though, an investigation proved that Tatemina was not in the area at the time and, in fact, tried to protect white families during the war.

Swanson relays as much in his book, which adheres strictly to historical fact though its narrative is fictional.

Interwoven with the real-life stories of Tatemina and Lawrence Taliaferro, the well-respected and even-handed Indian agent who served at Fort Snelling from 1820-1839, Swanson imagines the character of Anton McAllister. A mixed-blood army scout, McAllister's friendships with both Taliaferro and Tatemina serve as a plot device for the author to offer readers a more intimate portrait of the men behind the names writ in history.

What's more, Swanson's prose is crisp and swift. He distills complex political and cultural forces into densely packed but unobtrusively written episodes that carry readers with increasing tempo until they are deposited at the gallows in Mankato along with the thousands in attendance to see the hanging.

The result is a well-sculpted and tautly written work that adds another layer of understanding to an historical event that that the author said continues to be misunderstood.

"When I was in high school, I don't remember hearing about any of this in Mankato," Swanson said. "I hope readers take away some of this truth that's never been told."

If You Go What Dale Swason book discussion When 7 p.m. today Where Henderson Public Library Admission Free and open to the public More info