By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — New York historian and author Walt Bachman is direct in his assessment of the Blue Earth County Historical Society and its director, Jessica Potter.
“I’ve dealt with lots and lots of historical societies, and I’ve never encountered another historical society like this that is just (involved in) out and out censorship.”
Bachman, who practiced law in Minnesota for decades before moving to New York, has extensively researched and written about the U.S.-Dakota War.
Bachman clashed with the Blue Earth County Historical Society a few years ago after asking for more information about a purported beam from the gallows in the county’s collection. He said Potter didn’t provide information and tried to keep him from writing about the beam.
“It was well-intentioned censorship, which is the most pernicious censorship — people who think they have a just reason for denying things to people,” Bachman said recently in a telephone interview with The Free Press.
“They were trying not to offend native people and to withhold things that may or may not offend Native Americans,” he said.
“History ought to be told with all its warts. Let the facts come out and let people reach their own conclusions. Deciding what people have access to and what they don’t — you’re tinkering with history.”
Ten years ago Bachman was in Mankato doing research at the county Historical Society. He provided The Free Press with copies of letters exchanged at the time as well as detailed notes he’d kept of phone conversations at the time. His experience is also part of a study on the disputed gallows beam done by independent historian Carrie Zeman. (See related story.)
During his research in Mankato, a volunteer offered to show him some of the Dakota-related artifacts in the society’s collection that were not on public display.
“He showed me the scaffold beam and two models (of the gallows) and some beer trays with images of the hanging on them,” Bachman said. “I didn’t think much about it at the time.”
But in 2004, he decided to learn more about the gallows beam and wrote a letter to Potter, who was then the collection manager.
He also found and copied a photo from the Minnesota Historical Society website of the beam when it was still at the University of Minnesota, before it had been returned to Mankato in 1927.
He never heard back from Potter, so he phoned her.
“She told me I shouldn’t have been shown those items, that they can’t be shown to anyone and she said I couldn’t write about them — which I laughed at.”
He wrote a letter to then county Historical Society Director James Lundgren to complain.
“I was doing serious scholarship. They were censoring history,” Bachman said.
Lundgren responded in a letter and apologized for “a miscommunication between our staff and you.” Lundgren wrote that it was not their policy to hide items in the collection, but that Potter was following the society’s policy that the storage room is for authorized personnel only.
Lundgren wrote that he’d also contacted the Minnesota Historical Society about the beam photo in their collection.
Bachman said he was surprised to find that shortly after his conflict with the county Historical Society, the photo on the state website was removed. Minnesota Historical Society officials have said the photo was thrown out during a routine purging of photos from the collection.
Although the photo appeared lost, their staff recently found a copy of the photo.
Bachman said he’s skeptical that the Minnesota Historical Society routinely purged the gallows beam photo shortly after his clash with the county Historical Society.
“Why, after I had a discussion with Blue Earth County and they discussed it with the state Historical Society, did the photo disappear? Why would you throw it out after it was already posted online? They obviously thought it was a photo of a significant historic artifact to post it online.”
Bachman said the approach of the Minnesota Historical Society at the time was to avoid sensitive and emotional items in regard to Native Americans. “Fortunately the state Historical Society has changed that attitude. They are much better now.”
Potter said she couldn’t provide the kind of information Bachman wanted at the time because the county historical society hadn’t done the research on the beam.
“He was asking questions and drawing conclusions when we hadn’t done the research yet.”
She does not deny telling him he should not write about the beam.
“It’s putting out a story that hasn’t been proven.”
And she said Bachman shouldn’t have been allowed in the closed storage area in the first place. A volunteer invited Bachman to look at the Dakota related artifacts while he was doing research at the museum on a Saturday.
“We have a process for people coming into our closed collection. The volunteer made a mistake. (Bachman) wasn’t supposed to be allowed into the closed storage room.”