As Minnesotans and Americans turn their attention to the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War, Ben Leonard hopes people stop looking for good vs. evil and instead absorb the complexities of 1862 and the ongoing effects of the conflict.
“The way we learn history in school, we oversimplify things. Good and evil, winners and losers. It’s hard to wrap our minds around some good people doing some pretty bad things and some bad people sometimes doing some pretty good things,” said Leonard, director of the Nicollet County Historical Society.
“I hope what people get out of this (anniversary) is there are lots of different perspectives. That doesn’t make someone right and someone else wrong — people just have differing perspectives about the same events.”
While many people will be gaining more insight into the war and others will have their first introduction to the events, Leonard said many descendants on both sides live with the history.
“There are people today who think about the events of 1862 every day of their lives. You can’t discount the emotional attachment to history. Whether you’re a descendant of one of the settlers who were killed or you are a descendant of one of the Dakota who were involved or not involved or who was banished, it had profound effects.”
One place where emotions have in the recent past run strong is in Brown County, where the civilian population was hardest hit by the war. An estimated 122 settlers were killed, including 50 in Milford Township, site of the single largest loss of life during the conflict. New Ulm was twice under siege by the Dakota. About 30 people died and 190 structures in New Ulm were burned, either by the Dakota or by settlers who burned buildings to prevent them being used as cover by the Dakota.
Darla Gebhard, a research archivist and librarian at the Brown County Historical Society, said perceptions have changed dramatically in the past 25 years.
“In 1987 when the state declared the year of reconciliation, things changed,” she said.
People began to understand the devastating effects the war had on the Dakota people, effects that continue today.
“In 1962, on the 100th anniversary, you still had parades and celebrations of the victories. In ’87 the programing started to be speakers and education,” she said.
“For many years people just looked at the victories at New Ulm and the ‘winning’ of the Dakota War as being the end of it. They didn’t look at what happened to the Dakota afterward.”
Leonard and Gebhard said interest in the anniversary has been immense since local and state historical societies began programming and exhibits earlier this year.
“Our attendance is up four times over what it was last year at this time,” Leonard said.
Besides programs and exhibits at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter, the historical society has had programs at Fort Ridgely and created two traveling exhibits. In October, one of the traveling exhibits will be at the Lincoln cottage in Washington, D.C.
And while the war is deemed by most historians as the single most important historical event in Minnesota, it remains largely unknown. The event was overshadowed by the ongoing Civil War and the war was only recently included in Minnesota school history books.
The Brown County Historical Society is putting finishing touches on one of its largest and its most technologically advanced exhibits ever. The interactive exhibit — which opens later this month — allows people to hear oral histories, view exhibits and sit in a recreation of the Erd Building basement where more than 200 settlers found safety during the war.
“We’re hoping people will get the personal experience from the exhibit,” Gebhard said. “They’re going to be able to look at all the different people that went through this and understand their personal experience. The Dakota narratives and lifestyles, the settlers, the military point of view.”
William Lass, history professor emeritus at Minnesota State University, said most people likely don’t know how sparse the Dakota population was at the time of the war and the fact that only a part of all the Dakota tribes were involved in fighting.
“The Dakota population in 1862 was about 6,300 total and a vast majority were women and children,” Lass said. “So the Dakota population in the state was about half the population of St. Peter today.”
Lass said people also tend to view the Dakota as one monolithic group. There were four tribes — the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Mdewakanton and Wahpekute. The Sisseton and Wakpeton, who signed the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux near St. Peter, are commonly referred to as the Upper Sioux and had little involvement in the fighting.
The Mdwakanton and Wahpekute, who had signed the Treaty of Mendota, are commonly called the Lower Sioux.
Lass said that because they were mostly uninvolved, the Sisseton and Wapeton received better treatment after the war, gaining reservations in northeastern South Dakota.
Gebhard, too, said many people, don’t understand that not all the Dakota went to war.
Another common misperception, she said, is about the two attacks on New Ulm. “There’s a misperception that there was U.S. military there. There was no Army troops until after the evacuation. It was all citizen soldiers,” said Gebhard, whose great-grandfather was one of those who came from St. Peter to help defend the city.
Leonard said he’s struck not only by the fact that Minnesota students only recently began learning of the events, but that the Dakota people’s entire history was largely ignored — or misrepresented — in much of the century and a half after the war.
“The idea that an entire people have been absent from the history books for a very long time has to be something that weighs on the Dakota people.”
Leonard said the war was also intriguing in that is wasn’t — like most wars — a case of two people who don’t know each other fighting.
“The war was between the Dakota and the U.S. government, but these weren’t two people who’d never met. They were people who knew each other, had families together,” Leonard said. “They maybe didn’t understand each other as well as they should have, but they certainly knew each other.”