US-Dakota War still debated in Minn. 150 years later

11:10 PM, Jun 28, 2012   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 lasted six weeks.

The Minnesota History Center has been intensely researching the topic for the better part of two years talking to dozens of direct descendents of settlers and native people who have spread out across the nation and into Canada. Researchers work will be on display beginning June 30.

"There aren't two sides to this story. This is like a mosaic," History Center Director Dan Spock said.

This divisive war has been a very controversial topic for decades for hundreds of people on the home front in Minnesota. The Dakota Sioux hope to rewrite history hoping the story is told from beginning to end. Tribal historians have been trying to educate people on what happened that led up to the conflict and what happened to the native people afterwards.

"It's painful because it's like trauma that my people have gone through and for this healing, we need to be, everybody needs to be taught the truth of what happened before the Dakota War," Pam Halverson said.

Halverson has long been a historian for the Lower Sioux. She is also a direct descendent of Little Crow a prominent figure in the conflict.

Sioux members say the Treaty of 1851, signed near present day St. Peter, promised the aboriginal people cash, goods, education and land around the Minnesota River. Halverson and hundreds of historians note the promises went unfulfilled. Several people are working on a very thorough documentary to show the world what led up this conflict.

"This war could have been prevented if they would have stood by their treaties," Halverson notes.

The land didn't produce a way to live and the Dakota were starving in the summer of 1862. U.S. Government official George Day, who was sent to Western Minnesota to assess the situation, wrote to President Abraham Lincoln about the "abuses and cruelty to the Indian" that preceded the war.

Little Crow, a tribal leader, was called in action in early August of that fateful year.

"One of the men that was there (at a meeting of warriors) called him a coward and he said I am not a coward! I'll fight with you, we'll go to battle, but I want you to know we're not going to win," Halverson recounted.

The Government Indian Agency building, which is very near Halverson's present day home, was attacked on Aug. 18, 1862. Then Dakota warriors began to move eastward.

"My great grandmother's family was the family that was really decimated," Fred Juni said, standing outside of his home in Milford Township.

His farm is just across Highway 29 from the very spot his mother's side of the family, the Massopusts, were massacred.

"The mother and daughter were killed. They were trying to flee and they were killed and some of the recount said that they were killed a short distance from the homestead," he recalled.

Dozens of neighbors around New Ulm tell similar family tales.

But Juni tells a conflicting tale when talking about what happened to his father's side of the family.

"My grandfather's brother, who was captured, was treated well."

Benedict Juni, then an 11-year-old boy, was a prisoner of the native people for several weeks. He would write a short book called "Held in Captivity" a few years later.

Fred Juni often thinks about what happened 150 years ago on the very land he still farms.

"I have moments when I almost feel guilty for being here, living the good life (and I do), when I consider the cost of getting to this point," he surmised.

Within a few miles of the Juni farm sits the Milford monument which memorializes the settlers killed. His relatives from the mid-1800s are buried close to the family farm too.

Throughout Southwestern Minnesota, in and around the Minnesota River Valley, there are dozens of markers commemorating the difficult battles of this six-week war. There's a monument in New Ulm where two attacks occurred, there's a trail to mark the brutal Battle of Birch Coulee (just north of Morton), and there are buildings still standing after intense fighting at Fort Ridgely near Fairfax, Minn.

By the end of September, Little Crow's forces were defeated by the U.S. forces led by General Henry Sibley. The war ended just a few weeks after Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey would state "the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state."

"For us the war didn't end at the last battle," Pam Halverson explained.

There were 303 Dakota men condemned to death by a U.S. court after very brief trials. President Lincoln would approve the death sentences for 39 of them. After one warrior was given a reprieve, 38 men were hanged in Mankato. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

"And the women and children were marched from Lower Sioux to Fort Snelling to a prison camp there," Halverson explained.

Hundreds would die during the harsh winter. Those who survived were shipped out of state where hundreds more starved to death.

Little Crow managed to return to Minnesota after surviving the war. In July of 1863, he was picking berries near Hutchinson when he was killed by a father and son who lived in the area. The state of Minnesota awarded Nathan Lamson with a bounty check for $500.

This conflict 150 years ago was a defining moment in Minnesota history. Historians say between 400 and 600 white civilians were killed during the war and thousands more were displaced. Native historians say the entire nation of Dakota Sioux was displaced. Adding up the number of war-time casualties is difficult, but tribal leaders say it was definitely hundreds upon hundreds.

"I think this is a legacy that the United States has to contend with and always will have to contend with," History Center Director Dan Spock concluded.

Fred Juni agreed. He still has a hard time thinking about the price paid for his land, the price paid by both his ancestors and the native people who hunted the land before his ancestors ever arrived.

"History is history. We are what we are because of our past and to deny that is ludicrous in my view," he concluded.

The Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm is also sponsoring a weeks worth of activities to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the conflict in mid-August.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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