By Bryce Stenzel
MANKATO — Truth is often the first casualty of war. Nothing epitomizes this statement better than the historiography associated with the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. One hundred fifty years after it was fought, the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, remains one of history’s most significant, but controversial subjects.
Immediately after the event, those who wrote the official histories of the conflict [whites] described the Indians, who were involved, as “bloodthirsty savages.” Consequently, they deserved punishment for “massacring” innocent, white settlers on the frontier. Little attention was given to the underlying causes of the war, such as treaty violations by the U.S. government or its Indian agents and traders, sent to protect the Indians, or encroachment by white settlers on Indian lands.
Beginning in the 1970s, significant revisionist efforts were undertaken to re-tell the story from the Native American perspective — to the point that the historical pendulum has completely shifted in favor of the Dakota side. Many of the earlier efforts to commemorate the conflict, in the form of books, vocabulary, civic observances, museum displays, artifacts, and even monuments “set in stone” have been ridiculed and discarded in favor of this new, “politically correct” historiography.
Some Native American activists, as well as their white, apologist allies, have gone so far as to advocate the removal of, and the destruction of, anything that suggested any wrongdoing on the part of the 38 Dakota warriors tried, convicted and executed in the nation’s largest mass-execution at Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862. For these revisionists, the Dakota were simply protecting their homes, families and culture from annihilation. The end justified the means. (2)
In 1912, fifty years after the execution of the thirty-eight Dakota, Judge Lorin Cray and General James Baker, both Civil War veterans, commissioned a six-foot-tall, eight thousand-five hundred pound monument, on the site of the mass-hanging. Inscribed on it were the words: “HERE WERE HANGED 38 SIOUX INDIANS, DECEMBER 26, 1862.”
In his dedication address, Judge Cray admitted that there had been some opposition to the erection of the monument at Front and Main Streets, and that he could not refrain from answering the criticism. Cray said, “This marker was not so placed to flaunt before the public that we hanged the Indians. It was erected in an entirely different spirit, to perpetuate the immediate history of the region, permitting handing down the history to the generations to come in a correct manner.”
Editor, John C. Wise, of the Mankato Daily Review echoed this same sentiment; however, he went even further by remarking that he [Wise] had no patience for those who indulged in their criticism of the marker. He pointed out that every stranger arriving in Mankato asked to see the location of the hanging. Even President William Howard Taft did so when he visited Mankato. In Wise’s view, the monument marked a site and carried neither praise nor blame. (3)
By 1927, the prevailing attitude had changed considerably, setting off an ongoing debate between Mankato residents and visitors alike, over the “derogatory rock.” Famed lawyer, Clarence Darrow (The lead defense attorney for John Scopes in the 1925 “Monkey Trial”) had this reaction when he visited Mankato, “I would never believe that the people of a civilized community would want to commemorate such an atrocious crime.” Area residents, who shared Darrow’s view that the monument commemorated a travesty of justice, began clamoring for its relocation and ultimate removal.
The monument was moved several times in the intervening decades — from a grassy park area, to a gas station parking lot nearby, and to the other side of the service station that faced incoming traffic to the city. It became a source of vandalism, in the protest decade of the 1960s. In one incident, red paint was poured over it; in another, an attempt was made to set the monument on fire.
By 1971, the City of Mankato decided to remove the marker permanently, claiming it had a plan to re-erect it in a ‘more dignified parkette.’ At the time  the new, public library was being constructed near the execution site, a suggestion was made to place the monument in the heart of the new building. That idea was quickly discarded, in favor of constructing a decorative fountain composed of several, large granite boulders (glacial erratics), rather than replacing “the derogatory rock.” It remained in possession of the City of Mankato, in a maintenance garage, under sand and water pipes for twenty years.
1972 marked the beginning of the Mankato Wacipi, whose slogan was “honoring the 38 Dakota.” In 1980, the Minnesota Historical Society wrote and installed a commemorative plaque, detailing the history of the conflict.
1987 marked the one hundred 125th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War. It was widely acclaimed as the “Year of Reconciliation,” and culminated with the dedication of Thomas Miller’s Winter Warrior statue on Dec. 26.
In 1993, the “derogatory rock” debate resurfaced, when the monument’s location in the maintenance shed was revealed. Concerted pressure was exerted on the City of Mankato by Dakota activists and their white, apologist allies to turn possession of it over to the Dakota people.
In 1995, the marker completely disappeared. A flurry of speculation ensued as to where it went, culminating in an official city report, backed by eye-witness collaboration, that then Mankato Mayor, Stan Christ drove away with the monument in tow, and turned it over to the Dakota Community at Morton. (4)
Whether this was actually the case, or not, remains unclear. Mr. Christ has never confirmed nor denied the allegation. When Free Press reporter, Brian Ojanpa confronted Christ with the question, all Mr. Christ would say is, ‘I got rid of it.’ He vowed to never reveal its whereabouts nor reveal to whom he made that promise. (5)
Even outspoken Dakota activist, Vernell Wabasha, who claimed in 2006, that she knew exactly where the monument was, later admitted to her long-time friend, Bud Lawrence that she really did not. According to Dr. Andrews’ research on the subject of the monument’s disappearance, Ms.Wabasha created this deception because she ‘wanted to stir the pot.’
2012 marked the sesquicentennial of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. A proposal to expand Mankato’s Reconciliation Park ( established in 1997, with the creation of Miller’s Buffalo statue), in order to erect still another memorial next to it, inscribed with the names of the 38 warriors hanged, sparked an angry debate. Numerous letters to the editor were written either in favor or against the proposal — many written by descendants of both white settlers and Indians who participated in the tragic series of events, culminating in the mass-execution at Mankato.
These letters revealed that the raw emotions unleashed by the ferocity of the fighting, as well as in the way the thirty-eight death sentences were originally determined had not diminished with the passage of time. It was clear by the misrepresentation of facts contained in many of these letters that despite all previous efforts to memorialize the hanging site, none of them have accomplished the main purpose of any memorial — providing a thought-provoking, objective explanation of the event being commemorated, based on truth.
Historical truth can only be determined by examining an event from multiple, cultural perspectives — especially in the case of the U.S.-Dakota War, where there still exists a heated, ongoing controversy, between Dakota and Euro-American descendants of those who fought the 1862 war. While it is accurate to make the claim that the more recent monuments and efforts in seeking the Dakota perspective on the war and the hanging have helped build a more multi-dimensional outlook to aid in the ongoing process of reconciliation (6), allowing the 1912 monument to be taken down, discarded, or destroyed, does just the opposite.
If it is their intention to rewrite history by burying any evidence that suggests either wrongdoing or a cultural perspective different than their own (example: use of the historically correct, but culturally biased word “Sioux,” meaning snake, on the 1912 monument), these revisionist activists are repeating the same wrong that was originally done to the Dakota, when the story was only told from the white settlers’ perspective.
It should be pointed out that not all of the modern Dakota people support this view, just as not all modern whites believe the Dakota were “snakes.”
Providing future generations of Dakota (or Euro-American) children with only the positive aspects of their ancestors’ lives prior to the war, as advocated by Sheldon Wolfchild, Tribal Chair of the Lower Sioux Community, does them (and all of us) a disservice.
Imagine for a moment, if the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust decided to tear down all of the concentration camps in Europe; because they believed these symbols of their oppression were too painful to leave standing.
Those camps remain there as a memorial, precisely to remind people of the suffering the Jewish people and other ethnic groups endured in the hands of the Third Reich, as well as to remind future generations of these survivors’ resistance to the Nazi regime. Without these camps to act as a grim reminder, deniers of the Holocaust would have a much easier time convincing the modern world (made up mostly of people not alive during WWII) that the notion of Jewish oppression was a fallacy. Dr. Andrews was correct when she stated, “You certainly don’t learn anything if you bury things and try to forget them.” (7)
To bury the 1912 hanging memorial or deny its existence, simply because it makes people uncomfortable is both shortsighted, and dangerous. The value of history is to avoid repeating the same mistakes as our ancestors did. To rewrite it, in favor of any particular interest group, in the name of “political correctness,” is a poor precedent to set. Who determines what is “politically correct?” While it is difficult to fathom in the modern world; in the not too distant past, Indians, blacks and women were all believed to be inferior. What if this “politically correct” attitude had been allowed to prevail?
Anna Wiecking, author of, “As We Once Were: Stories about the Settlement and Life of Blue Earth County from 1850 to the Early 1900s,” offered clues in finally resolving the question of what to do with the “derogatory rock.” She stated, “Historians, officials of historical societies and other citizens take the view that the monument marks a very important national historic event, and that we need to profit from history, not try to reject or cover it up.” (8)
If the monument still exists, it should be offered to, and accepted by, a reputable historical agency, whose mission is to preserve, display and interpret as many artifacts as possible, associated with a major historical event such as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Efforts should be made to point out that the monument’s gravestone design and use of the word “Sioux,” in its inscription reflect “politically correct” attitudes of the day, not necessarily those of the current audience. In this way, the 1912 hanging monument will finally become a useful learning tool, instead of remaining that “derogatory rock.”
Bryce Stenzel is a native of Mankato. He holds both Bachelor of Arts in Teaching and Master of Arts degrees (History) from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His most recent book, “…We Cannot Escape History…” Abraham Lincoln’s Trials by Fire, was published in 2012, by Minnesota Heritage Publishing of Mankato.
2. Bryce O. Stenzel, Acknowledgments, “…We Cannot Escape History…” Abraham Lincoln’s Trials by Fire, (Mankato, Minnesota: Minnesota Heritage Publishing, 2012), 53.
3. Anna Wiecking, As We Once Were: Stories about the Settlement and Life of Blue Earth County from 1850 to the Early 1900s, (Mankato, Minnesota, 1971), 46.
4. Amanda Dyslin, Lecture Addresses Pervasive Mystery Surrounding That Derogatory Rock, The Free Press, (Mankato, Minnesota: 5 April, 2012).
5. Brian Ojanpa, Ex-Mankato Mayor Christ Weighs in on Missing Dakota War Marker, The Free Press, (Mankato, Minnesota: 6 April, 2012).
6. Dyslin, Lecture Addresses Persuasive Mystery, Surrounding That Derogatory Rock, The Free Press, (Mankato, Minnesota: 5 April, 2012).
7. Dan Linehan, Students Search for Missing Monument, The Free Press, (Mankato, Minnesota: 14 May, 2006).
8. Wiecking, As We Once Were: Stories About the Settlement and Life of Blue Earth County from 1850 to the Early 1900s, 45.