A century and a half after Indian warriors killed hundreds of Minnesota settlers and the government retaliated with a mass hanging and banishment of the Dakota people, the wounds inflicted during the U.S.-Dakota War are still open, historian Dean Urdahl says. But he hopes an event this month commemorating the start of the conflict in August 1862 will begin to heal the injuries. Urdahl, who lives near Grove City not far from where the war broke out and has written three novels about it, discussed what’s also known as the Sioux Uprising at a Kimball Area Historical Society meeting and in an interview. Against a backdrop of Indian resentment and hatred over harsh treatment by the white government on the reservation, the six-week war exploded across the Minnesota River Valley on Aug. 17 that year. On a bright Sunday afternoon, four Santee Dakota braves, returning from an unsuccessful hunt, murdered five white people near Acton, about 40 miles north of their reservation along the Minnesota River and just south of what is now Grove City in Meeker County. By the time it ended on Sept. 23, when the U.S. Army defeated Chief Little Crow and his warriors at the Battle of Wood Lake, 400 to 800 white homesteaders and about 50 Indians had been killed. In the aftermath, the federal government hanged 38 Dakota men in Mankato on Dec. 26 and removed what was left of the Dakota, or Sioux, people from Minnesota after then Gov. Alexander Ramsey ordered them exterminated or driven out of the state. “The wounds are still there, for people on both sides,” Urdahl said, though “not everyone” feels that way. Some white people from New Ulm, where an Indian attack killed 34, have told him: ‘“Don’t you dare talk about reconciliation. They killed my great-grandpa.’” And some Dakota descendants, unable to forget that their land was taken and that 38 of their ancestors were hanged, don’t want reconciliation either. The losses are “still very real in their minds.” “These are 150-year-old wounds that we should try to heal,” he said, and an event scheduled to observe the anniversary will provide an opportunity to start the process. Descendants of Dakota exiles will walk the 15 miles from Flandreau, S.D., to Pipestone, Minn., on Friday, Aug. 17, “the day it all started,” said Urdahl, a Minnesota legislator who will be there with other officials. Based on a meeting with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton in July, Urdahl said he expects a state official to issue a statement at Pipestone on behalf of Dayton repudiating Ramsey’s 1862 proclamation calling for the extermination and removal of the Dakota people. That’s one of three requests Dakota leaders have made. They also want September designated as Dakota history month and a review of how Indian history is taught in Minnesota. The governor’s statement won’t be an apology or reconciliation, Urdahl said. “This is about healing. Healing doesn’t mean you have to say you’re sorry. “It’s a step toward better relations.” Dakota people and Minnesota officials will also attend a ceremony Sunday, Aug. 19, at the Ness Church south of Litchfield, where the first five victims of the war are buried. Minnesota lawmakers, in a resolution sponsored by Urdahl, have asked the U.S. Congress to repeal the Dakota Exclusion Act of 1863, but he doesn’t expect any action on that. Congress would be more likely to amend the act to make Dakota people welcome in Minnesota, he said. The war was the result of broken treaties and “a clash of cultures” between the whites and Indians and within the Indian culture itself, he said. Most of the whites who died in the war were immigrant homesteaders who were “for the most part murdered,” Urdahl said. As a result of the conflict, no white people lived in western Minnesota for years. While the number of Dakota deaths is unknown, he estimated about 50 died in the fighting. But “hundreds, maybe thousands died in the coming years.” About 7,500 Dakota lived in Minnesota before the war, but by the time it was over about 5,500 of them had fled, he said, leaving roughly 2,000, not counting a few hundred who stayed because they worked for the government. More than 400 Dakota were put on trial as war criminals, and 303 were sentenced to death. But the convictions were “very suspect,” and President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of 265, who were sent to a prison in Iowa. About 1,600 remaining Dakota, mostly women and children, were confined at Fort Snelling in St. Paul where about 300 died of smallpox during the winter of 1862-63. The survivors were crowded into two river boats and moved up the Minnesota and Missouri rivers to the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. Little Crow and his followers fled to the Dakota Territory, and in June 1863, the army dispatched 6,000 soldiers under Gen. Henry Sibley, who had commanded the war effort, and Gen. Alfred Sully after them. But Little Crow returned to Minnesota, and a farmer shot and killed him July 3 as the chief and his son picked berries north of Hutchinson. The expedition ended in 1864 at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain when Sully chased the Indians out of the Dakota Territory. But few of them were Santee Dakota, whom the army had been sent to find and punish, Urdahl said. What happened in Minnesota was the start of the Indian wars, he said, and was probably a bigger event than the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where Indians massacred nearly 300 members of the U.S. 7th Cavalry including Gen. George Custer in 1876. But the Dakota conflict occurred during the Civil War and was overshadowed by it. “Even today it doesn’t receive the notoriety it should.” And Minnesotans don’t know much about the war, he said. “We need to do a better job” of teaching it, the retired American history teacher added. Urdahl has family ties to the conflict. His great-grandfather, Ole Ness, had come from Norway in 1856 and helped bury the first victims. Ness also supervised construction of the Forest City stockade, one of many forts that frightened settlers around central Minnesota built for protection. Urdahl has chronicled the war in three volumes – Uprising, Retribution and Pursuit – that weave a fictional narrative around a historically accurate account of the events. A fourth book, Conspiracy, which wraps up the Dakota saga and focuses on the assassination of Lincoln, will be published this month.
Wounds still open, 150 years later