There are people who are concerned that nothing will be done to tell the story of the white people in 1862. They seem to believe that what happened to white people that year has yet to be told and that this topic will be neglected once again when the 150th anniversary of those events is noted next year.
I am not sure I know why people are worried. For myself I am worried for entirely different reasons. Since 1862 the public story of the events of that year has been largely about the experiences and points of view of whites. As the winners of the battles of 1862 and the years that followed, white people wrote the history books in which they imprinted their points of view about 1862. And having exiled the Dakota people from the land which the Dakota had named, white people also imprinted their points of view in the Minnesota landscape on dozens, maybe hundreds, of historic markers and monuments in which the record of what happened to white people in 1862 was fixed again and again.
Here is a list of monuments still standing in Brown County Minnesota, which relate to the experiences of whites in 1862 (included in a pdf from the Brown County Historical Society):
Milford Monument. This beautiful granite monument includes a carved statue, cross and tablets inscribed with names of Milford settlers killed during the Dakota Conflict in 1862. County Road 29, 7 miles west of New Ulm.
Ravine Ambush Marker. A Civil War recruiting party was ambushed here at the outbreak of the Dakota Conflict on August 18,1862. Four men lost their lives. County Road 29, 6 1/2 miles west of New Ulm, on north side of road. D
Fort Hanska (Commonly called Fort Hill). Fort Hanska was a log stockade structure built at this location after the Dakota Conflict of 1862. A marker at Lake Hanska County Park tells the archaeological and historic story of this area. A depression marks the spot where a dugout sheltered pioneers from the War and from the weather. Open daylight hours. County Road 11, 3 1/2 miles southwest of Hanska.
John Armstrong Marker. Marks the site where John Armstrong was killed on September 7, 1862, during the Dakota Conflict. Located 1 1/2 miles northeast of Hanska on Hwy 257 north of Linden Lake.
Defenders Monument. This dramatic monument was erected in 1891 by the State of Minnesota to honor the memory of the defenders who aided New Ulm during the Dakota Conflict of 1862. The frieze was created by New Ulm artist Anton Gag. Center and State Street.
Roebbecke Mill Site. A windmill erected on this site in 1859 was used as a defense outpost and was destroyed by fire by the LeSueur Tigers in the second battle of New Ulm during the Dakota Conflict of 1862.
Leavenworth Rescue Expedition Marker. Plaque commemorating the 11 men killed while rescuing settlers from the Leavenworth area during the Dakota Conflict of 1862 is at Garden and 5th North streets.
Dakota Hotel Site. New Ulm’s famous Dakota Hotel was built on this site in 1858. During the Dakota Conflict it served as a hospital and refuge for women and children. The hotel closed in 1971 and was demolished in 1972. A plaque now commemorates its history. 111 North Minnesota Street.
During the same period when many of these monuments and plaques were erected, history textbooks provided the text and sub-text for them. T. H. Kirk, Conductor of the Winona Normal School, wrote in detail about 1862 in a history of Minnesota, “for citizens and general readers,” published in 1887. The author wrote of the “passions,” albeit ones motivated by “heartless traders, and no less fraudulent government traders,” and even some “avaricious settlers,” which caused the Dakota “like the waves of an angry flood” to sweep “down the Minnesota valley.” After taking the story through the execution of the 38 Dakota in December 1862, the author concluded:
Who that did not see shall fitly depict the sufferings of those August and September days, the fortitude of mothers bereft of their children, the self sacrifice of kindred for kindred, and the heroic courage of citizen and soldier in desperate siege and on weary marches by night and day? Alas for Minnesota! The Star of the North, which had so lately and proudly arisen, suddenly waned and lingered wavering on the clouded horizon of future events.
Nothing in these fulsome words was meant to apply to the Dakota, any Dakota at all. There was nothing at all in the book about the exile of the entire Dakota people from Minnesota, their suffering, nor of the subsequent military campaigns on the plains, not just against the Dakota, but against many other tribes which the United States managed to turn into enemies in the process. Thirty years of war against the people of the Plains was missing from the narrative perhaps because it took place outside the borders of the state.
Narratives like this have been common for many generations in Minnesota. Only occasionally has a white author considered that the Dakota were worthy of sympathy or that it was mistake to punish the entire nation for all that happened in 1862. Even when an author tried to write clearly and sympathetically about the Dakota and their experience of 1862, the message did not stick. It was not until several generations had passed that certain among the white could propose the possibility that the traditional white points of view might be narrow and harsh. Clara Searle Painter and Anne Brezler, in Minnesota Grows Up, a geography textbook published in 1936, wrote:
There are people still living in Minnesota whose families were killed in the Sioux Uprising. They are very bitter against the Indians. Today we are safe and secure from Indian attacks in our homes. We are no longer afraid of the Indians. We are beginning to think of them, not as enemies, but as people. They have good points and bad points, just like the rest of us.
The fact that it took so many years to reach even this feeble point of view is significant, but the book did not discuss how it was that the entire Dakota people were exiled from their homeland. And the statement did nothing to change popular views about the Dakota. At the time of Minnesota Statehood Centennial of 1958, a souvenir booklet (“Minnesota Centennial Train, 1858, 1958”) designed to “reflect the total personality of our State,” included the following summary of 1862:
The sullen brooding of the Sioux Indians fans into a flame that brings them thundering down from the hills against the white pioneers. Follows the relentless massacres of helpless settlers in the Minnesota valley. Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. From behind the cabin, shack and wagon, the besieged settlers defend their families until the yelling hordes sweep over them, goaded by myriad causes–hunger, non-payment and bitterness.
The grudging acknowledgment that there might have been causes to what occurred in 1862 is marred by the tone and the words, as if bitterness might be an aspect of personality rather than the result of actual historical events in which whites created the causes for the events that occurred.
Such points of view die hard and have yet to be replaced by a truly balanced history. Yet now that feeble attempts have been made to tell the Dakota story, representing Dakota points of view, there are whites who long for the older predominant history, in which the Dakota were a savage people and who did a great injustice to white people.
It will be illuminating to see what happens and what is said in 2012. I have no doubt that the story of the white people will be told again, though I wonder if that narrative will vary in tone or emphasis from the story told for the last 150 years. I also know that the Dakota story will be told in more detail than in the past. But I wonder whether whites will finally hear that story with respect and without complaint.