Who will tell the story of the white people in 1862?

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.

Milford Monument, one of many in Minnesota, inscribed with the names of white settlers killed in 1862.

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.

A monument erected in 1878 at the Ness Lutheran Cemetery, marking the graves of the five white settlers killed at Acton in Meeker County, Minnesota, in what was said to be the beginning of what used to be called "The Sioux Uprising of 1862."

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.


Who will tell the story of the white people in 1862? — 15 Comments

  1. Pidamaya.

    If only all the institutions nervous about “what to do ” for 2012 would get resources to Dakota people to do what Dakota people think is important. Art. Curricula. Panels. Tribunals. Plays. Honoring and Remembering.

    Mnisota Makoce 2062

    Again, thanks.

  2. perhaps a slightly different route…….focus…..

    “Dear White People,
    don’t you just hate immigrants”
    Thank you,
    The Native American Indians

    Old saying: “What goes round, comes round.”

    Yes, this is sassy… I am white…. I dislike untruth from any people. I do NOT like violence , discrimination etc. When will people learn to accept differences… differences are not wrong. Certain behaviors are wrong. Good and bad in all races.

  3. The problem isn’t the battle of the memorials; the problem is that there is little or no communication going on between Whites and Dakotas over the 1862 conflict. What we need is a project like the revision of the Little BigHorn site in Montana – and work out a common story that both sides can relate to and understand. Being one-sided, either way, just won’t do the job for the commemoration in 2012

  4. Those in control of the celebration do not dispute the truth. They just don’t care. This is a celebration, and no one wants to hear about the negative legacy tarnishing Minnesota’s history.

  5. When atrocities such as land theft, genocide, and ethnic cleansing are perpetrated by invaders to a land not their own, there can be no neutral interpretation. Either people seek to justify these heinous crimes and become collaborators in the colonial project, or they condemn these heinous crimes and work toward justice. There is, however, only one moral perspective.

  6. Everyone seems to speak about truth but the truth is not being spoken from either side. Facts are facts no matter how ugly they are. The government lied to both the settlers and the Dakota. Settlers were told the land was available settled, this was not the truth. Dakota were told they would be provided for and this was not the truth. Dakota were intent on killing all white settlers that were on land they believed was theirs, not just military but farmers; men, women and children who had no way to defend themselves. Everyone who could be killed was killed, is this not also genocide? To kill all white people in a land where Dakota only want Dakota people, is this not considered ethnic cleansing? Settlers were forced to walk for hundreds of miles, to forts, without food and water with the constant fear of being killed, was this not also a death march? I do not believe what was done to the Dakota Nation was right. They should not have had their land taken from them, they should not have been forced to change their ways and beliefs but I also believe that white settlers suffered greatly for things they did not understand. The truth needs to be told on both sides, both settlers and Dakota had grievous wrongs done to them. Neither side is completely innocent and neither is completely guilty.

    • There aren’t two sides to genocide. There is no pro and con. However it is important to tell the story of the people against whom it was committed and the story of those who commit it. In 1862 many Dakota were put on trial and 300 some were convicted; 38 were hanged. This was ostensibly for crimes they were said to have committed during all the various events of the summer and fall, though some were convicted simply for admitting to firing a gun in battle, which meant that they were convicted of fighting in war; which is in itself a violation. Two of those hanged are said to have committed rape; a harsh punishment never inflicted on the soldiers at Fort Snelling who raped Dakota women. Many of the other Dakota–who were never convicted of anything–were held in a prison camp over the winter then exiled from their homeland to a place where many of them died. There were white people who died in 1862 but the punishment inflicted on the entire Dakota people was out of all proportion to what happened to whites. It would be very hard to make the comparable case that the Dakota committed genocide against whites, in the context of the way the Dakota were treated in the ten years leading up to 1862, but I am sure that someone will try to make that case. It strikes me as a highly defensive maneuver.

  7. NPR got me started on a fact about Lincoln and 1962. Now I landed on your page and want to express gratitude for enrichment of historic perspectives. Yes, we need a big ritual in the US. All of us.
    Loved the comment about immigrants being hard to accept them- what goes around comes around.

  8. The first thing is to learn. Our children can go through 12 years of school in which nothing of the events of 1862, their causes or their aftermath is mentioned. Few adults know nor care about them. Once we have learned, we can think about what happened, share our thoughts and arrive at some conclusions.

    But without learning there is nothing but ignorant people on all sides who bother each other with their foolish words. Those who do not know, those who are unaware, should maintain respectful silence until they have learned from the others about what took place and what it means. Once they have learned they may enter into an adult discussion of the costs and consequences of that and how to commemorate them.

  9. Mandy, there is no point asking for a balanced view here. This is a website which supports only the Native American viewpoint of anything and, it seems to me, encourages Indians to see themselves as victims in perpetuity. That is hardly to road to empowerment. The wrongs committed against the natives of Minnesota by agents of the US government are known and acknowledged, but for men to “go to war” against innocent people, women and children who had no way to redress the lack of payment of monies the Dakota were incensed about, is nothing more than savagery. Where is the acknowledgment of that here? Abraham Lincoln, himself, reviewed the files on the men hung at Mankato. I doubt that, at the time, any person living in America had a better chance at justice than that. As to the women and children and old men interned at Fort Snelling–at least they were fed there. Before the Dakota Uprising, they were starving and many died as a result of that, too.

  10. Waziyatawin, Ph.D. wrote:

    “When atrocities such as land theft, genocide, and ethnic cleansing are perpetrated by invaders to a land not their own, there can be no neutral interpretation.”

    Just one note: Reading here, one would think that the experience of the natives of the North American continent was unique and shocking. Actually, it is the history of the world since remote antiquity. Lands were invaded, peoples persecuted and killed, the indigenous language, religion, changed by the invaders and conquerors. And nobody so much as mentioned a treaty. What happened to the American Indians was the experience, at one time or another, of the people of every nation accessible to outsiders. Their populations became altered as a result and the conquerors and conquered had to learn to live together in the end, find a united purpose, or be in a state of constant internal warfare. Get over it! It’s over and done. We’re all Americans now and to be opening up old wounds serves no purpose.

    • “Get over it!” What a tired old interpretation of history. As Americans we have the illusion that we live in a country that values justice, liberty, and government of “laws, not men.” Yet when someone points out the injustices, illegalities, and atrocities perpetrated by our own country, the answer is that hey, that’s the way it has always been throughout history. In the case of the American Indians, their land was taken through a system of treaties, signed, supposedly by willing signers. These were legal documents considered the law of the land. It is not too much to look at the history of those treaties and ask if they were respected or carried out justly. In a system in which justice is the aim, the question of whether justice took place is something always worth asking.

  11. “Historywoman”, thank you so much for advising me to “get over it.” I may now fall into an ignorant blissful sleep knowing that the genocide and exile forced upon my “savage” family is something that I am supposed to forget. I can now forget the pain that my ancestors endured, just as I have forgotten my Dakota language, which was handed down to my people by god, and forcefully and violently stolen from our tongues by people like you who devalue culture and tradition. Thank you so much for permission to forget and get over the suffering of my people, as life will be so much easier now. I will now stop learning about my history and culture, I will now stop having compassion for what my grandmothers and grandfathers experienced, even though these teachings have made me such a strong Dakota woman in my community, because according to you these things, and healing, are not important. Thank you “Historywoman” for opening my eyes to the realities of ignorance and racism that are alive and well in Mni Sota Makoce, my ancestral homeland where many of my people are still in exile 150 years after the war. Nina pidamaya ye.

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