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State history lessons on a tank of gas

Historical sites give a glimpse into wild and tragic times of 1862 Burr oak trees live a long time. Along the edge of the ridge separating the grass land from the forest at the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site near Morton are Burr Oaks that are certainly in excess of 200 years old. They were likely young witnesses to the human tragedy and folly at the Lower Sioux Agency one and forty-nine years ago this August. The Lower Sioux Agency, near Morton, along Renville County Road 2, is one of a series of historical sites in the Minnesota River Valley between St. Peter and Montevideo that recall and interpret the war between the United States and the Dakota in the late summer and fall of 1862. This war has significance for all Minnesotans today. It also has national significance in that it was the beginning of what are called the “Indian Wars” which raged across the United States for nearly three decades following the first shots fired at Lower Sioux Agency, or Redwood, on August 18, 1862. A visit to one, or all of the sites, all owned by the Minnesota Historical Society except for the Minnesota DNR’s Upper Sioux Agency State Park, can provide visitors with a deeper sense of history as well as vistas of some of Minnesota’s most magnificent scenery. Historians say that the war started at the Lower Sioux Agency, in Renville County, on the 18th. But the first shots were fired a day earlier, some miles to the north, in Acton Township in Meeker County. On August 17, some young Dakota men were on a hunting trip when they decided to steal some eggs from a farm. History doesn’t explain how this egg theft turned to murder, but in the end five white people lay dead. The rage and humiliation that brought Dakota hunters to egg theft and murder is given context at the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site. The Site, managed by the Lower Sioux Indian Community, has a series of paths. The Agency and Traders Trails are short, gravel, flat, and easy to walk. The Minnesota River Trail is longer and challenging. Along the paths are signs telling the visitor that the Agency was a U.S. government outpost charged with distributing goods and money promised the Dakota people in treaties.  Near the beginning of the Agency Trail are two gardens. One of them is a traditional Dakota garden with heirloom variety vegetables grown by the Dakota. The other garden is a European style garden. “The primary responsibility of the Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies was to teach Euro-American farming methods to the Dakota,” says a brochure handed to visitors by the Historic Site manager Anthony Morse. Morse, a friendly and knowledgeable young man, explains that the site is only officially open on summer weekends. But, he says, tours can be arranged by appointment at most any time. “We really enjoy giving tours for groups,” he says. “We’ll even do a tour for one person.” “If you have any questions just holler,” says Chris, Anthony’s wife, on a weekday when the Site is not officially open. If Anthony was to give a visitor a tour he would point out the gardens. Then he would tell that in Dakota culture women were the farmers and men hunted. But the government was forcing the men to not only do the women’s work of gardening but to wear tight fitting European clothes and shoes. Dakotas that agreed to live this way were rewarded with a piece of land to farm, a house, and agricultural instruction. The purpose of an Indian Agency, and its government employees, was to uphold the treaties made by the U.S. government with the Dakota. On a tour, Anthony Morse will show the visitor the restored 1861 agency warehouse. Dakota laborers built this massive stone structure with barred windows in 1861. In August of 1862 they burned it. Behind its locked doors was everything the Dakota needed to live. But the Indian Agent refused to release any of it. He would not give the Dakota anything until they gave him money. He knew the regulations. But the money due the Dakota, by treaty agreement from the same government employing the Indian Agent, was months overdue. The Dakota were starving, thanks to crop failures in 1861, humiliated, and deeply angry. You can ask Anthony Morse to give you a tour of the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site or you can walk quietly, on your own, past the gardens, past the warehouse, past the signs, through the long silent battlefield, and to the edge of the bluffs. Stand under the ancient oaks. Gaze out over the Minnesota River Valley and listen to what those oaks have to tell of human tragedy and folly. BIRCH COULEE HISTORIC SITE Three miles north of Morton, at the junction of Renville County Road 2 and 18, and one mile east of U.S. Highway 71, is the Birch Coulee Battlefield Historic Site. On any summer day in this century the prairie and woodlands are peaceful. They invite the picnicker, hiker, or camper to rest awhile. But on the evening of September 1, 1862 some 170 U.S. soldiers sought rest on the prairie above the steep and wooded coulee. The U.S. – Dakota War had been raging since mid-August and battles had been fought at the Lower Sioux Agency, the ferry below the Agency, Fort Ridgely, and New Ulm. History does not tell us whether the soldiers, who were a burial detail assigned to locate and bury dead settlers, slept well that night at Birch Coulee. But it does tell us that by sunrise those soldiers were engaged in what was one of the major battles of the war. By noon on September 4th, when the survivors were rescued by a detachment of hundreds of U.S. troops and artillery, thirteen soldiers and ninety horses were dead and forty-seven men were severely wounded. The battle at Birch Coulee was the most deadly for the United States forces in the Dakota War. The number of Dakota dead is unknown. Modern day visitors can walk the half mile long self-guided trail, through a recreated prairie of blue-stem, brome, and switch grass, and read about the battle from the perspectives of Joseph Anderson, a captain in the U.S. Army, and Wamditanka (Big Eagle), a Mdewakanton soldier. Sketches from U.S. soldier Albert Colgrave provide vivid battle details. Guide posts along the wide flat trail pinpoint where the U.S. soldiers were camped and the positions the Dakota took while surrounding the U.S. soldiers. In addition to the handi-capped accessible trails and interpretive markers, the Historical Society has recently built a small picnic shelter. Below the battleground in the actual coulee, or wooded ravine, Renville County maintains an attractive park with another picnic shelter, running water, walking trails, and camp ground. The County Park includes a beautiful WPA era stone bridge as well as a wooden footbridge.  Birch Coulee visitors can learn more about the U.S.-Dakota War at nearby Fort Ridgely or Lower Sioux Agency Historic Sites. A slide show of the County Park can be located at FORT RIDGELY HISTORIC SITE Fort Ridgely State Park is 100 years old this year. Within the park, which includes a 9-hole golf course, are the remains of Fort Ridgely as well as a visitor center and museum. Throughout the grounds of the fort are extensive excavated remains of the Fort as well as signs that provides self-guided interpretation of life at the fort as well as the two battles fought for control of the fort during the Dakota War. Fort Ridgely, which was a four-day steamboat journey from Fort Snelling, was built in 1851 in the territory of southern Minnesota. Its main purpose was to serve as a buffer between the Dakota, on their newly created reservation in the Minnesota River Valley, and the settlers. Unlike Birch Coulee and the Lower Sioux Agency, there are no paths at the Fort Ridgely Historical Site. Visitors are free to roam across a carefully maintained lawn reading signs, look at excavated stone foundations, or visit the museum (open on summer weekends) in whatever order they choose. The signage is excellent. It includes exerpts from soldiers and surgeons diaries and from newspaper stories of the day. The informative text of the signs is often illustrated by the excellent paintings of David Geister. One of Geister’s paintings is illustrated with the following text: “In 1856, Dr. Alex Hanson, assistant surgeon at Fort Ridgely, wrote about a patient with a dislocated shoulder:” “The patient was brought to the hospital somewhat drunk and in great agony, and being a powerful man, was almost unmanageable. Without the induction of anesthesia, all attempts at reduction . . . would have been attended with great risk of aggravating the original injury. . . . A towel strongly charged with chloroform, partly through persuasion and partly by force, was applied to his mouth and nostrils, and almost in a moment he lay senseless and relaxed.” Dakota forces attacked the fort on August 20 and again on August 22 of 1862. The fighting was fierce and the Dakota burned many buildings. But in the end, after many losses, the Americans held the fort. This is the text from another sign at Fort Ridgely: “Tasina Wakanhde (Lightening Blanket) recalled that “During the day many small buildings were burned, and we tried to burn the big ones with fire arrows.” The warriors moved into the fort’s stable and sutler’s store but those buildings went up in flames after they were shelled. After several hours, the attack began to falter. The warriors were divided in their opinions. Some wanted to wage another battle, while others wanted to attack New Ulm again for the spoils.” It is in the text of the signage at Fort Ridgely that the slippery nature of history telling and interpreting is laid bare. To make this point the Historical Society points out there are three versions to what Sunka Ska, a Dakota who had turned to farming, told the American soldiers at the ferry crossing. Since Sunka Ska said these words within the hearing of many men, American and Dakota, the truth should have been easy to determine. Never mind. Sunka Ska died by hanging for his role in the War, whatever the truth may have been. The fact of Sunka Ska’s death by hanging suggests another truth, largely missing from the historical sites. The settlers and government at the time felt fully justified in hanging Sunka Ska, and many other Dakota warriors. A massive and tall memorial to the fallen Americans at Fort Ridgely asserts that the Dakota were in violation of their treaty and deserved to be driven from Minnesota for ravaging the countryside. The memorial is not dated but was likely erected by the survivors or their children. All other text on signage at all three historical sites either implies, or states directly, that the Americans were in violation of their treaty obligations. What is the truth? Who and what caused the war? Does the answer matter today? Visit the historical sites and decide for yourself. In addition to the three historical sites mentioned in this article, the Minnesota Historical Society, and its partners, manage the Lac qui Parle Mission in Montevideo and Traverse des Sioux in St. Peter. Visits to them will further enrich your understanding of this time in Minnesota history.

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