Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History and its Revisions

In Minnesota, we are celebrating (or, perhaps, commemorating is the more appropriate word) the sesquicentennial of the U.S.—Dakota War of 1862.
by Charlie Leck

Years ago, as a Christmas gift, my father-in-law gave me a copy of an extraordinary book published in 1863: History of the Sioux War (and Massacres of 1862 and 1863) by Isaac V.D. Heard.*  I have always cherished the book even though I recognized that it was an early, sensationalized and limited history of the actual events because it was rushed to print in order to take advantage of the large market that sought information about “the events that had taken place out there in Minnesota.”

History almost always matures with age and often can be more trustworthy when recorded after there has been a settling of the sensationalism that surrounds an event. The history of the events that took place in Minnesota in 1862 is an extremely good example of this.

A recent issue of Minnesota History, a publication of the Minnesota Historical Society (in an issue devoted to the events of 1862 in Minnesota), makes this interesting statement about the recording of history:

“This essay is restricted to 13 histories that deal exclusively or mainly with the war and its aftermath. Their publication dates range from 1863 to 2009.
“Considering these volumes offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on the axiom that each generation writes its own history. This claim does not mean that succeeding generations change history capriciously. Nor does it rule out the reversion to earlier biases and emphases. Rather, it suggests that perspectives on the past change with time, new information and interpretations become available, and perceptions of the nature of history per se can be altered.
“All of these characteristics are evident in the U.S. – Dakota War histories collectively. The first books stressed the frontier viewpoint that the Dakota were backward, evil, pagan savages who committed atrocious acts. As the number of eyewitnesses and contemporaries decreased and ultimately disappeared, the war tended to become an object of academic interest, and authors placed more emphasis on the Dakota as an oppressed minority group. The meaning of the past was obviously influenced by each era’s interests and prejudices.”

One of the 13 histories to which the article refers is to Isaac V.D. Heard’s account; and the article credits him with a degree of balance and objectivism absent in the other very early histories of this extraordinary event.

“Only Heard acknowledged that each side in the war had some justification. While he deplored the actions of some warriors and defended the conduct of the hasty, arbitrary military trials, he also believed that the Dakota had been provoked. He was especially critical of the deceitful cession treaties and the conduct of unscrupulous white traders. Writing when the white hatred of the Dakota was at a fever pitch, Heard clearly presented a minority opinion:
‘The treaties are born in fraud, and all their stipulations for the future are curtailed by iniquity.’
“Although he insisted that another reason for the war was traditional Indian hatred of the inevitable white frontier advance, he nonetheless saw the Dakota as victims who deserved humane treatment.”

I have written here before about the U.S. – Dakota War and I won't go into a full scale explanation of it again. I mean to tell you something more personal about it.

On last Sunday – an absolutely spectacular Minnesota day, when the temperatures hung in the 70s and the utterly blue sky was spattered here and there with white, fluffy clouds, I took  a drive out to the little community where the U.S. – Dakota War began. Acton is a non-descript community, hardly even noted on the map. It is a bit south of the town of Grove City, where we take our lamb (Sheepy Hollow) to be butchered and packaged for sale to our customers. So, I knew precisely the way to the village and I took the hour and a half drive out there, to see the precise spot where the war began.

Along Highway 4, as I approached Acton, I saw a small sign, pointing to the west, that said simply: Acton Monument. I thought I’d probably found the spot for which I was looking. I turned the car down a gravel road and then saw another sign directing me into a farmyard – into the driveway of a private home. It seemed odd, but that is what happened.

There, in some farmer’s yard, stood a monument and a marker sign that indicated that this was the exact spot where the war broke out. (A photograph of it is above.) Here’s what the state historical marker sign said (as I began reading it, I looked at the calendar on my iPhone, to see that it was today – August 19, 2012 – almost exactly 150 years after this incident):

“THE ACTON INCIDENT… On a bright Sunday afternoon, August 17, 1862, four young Sioux hunters, on a spur-of-the –moment dare, decided to prove their bravery by shooting Robinson Jones, the postmaster and storekeeper at Acton in western Meeker County. Stopping at his cabin, they requested liquor and were refused. Then Jones, followed by the seemingly friendly Indians, went to the neighboring Howard Baker cabin, which stood on this site.
Here the whites and the Indians engaged in a target-shooting contest. Suddenly, the Indians turned on the settlers and without warning shot Baker; Viranus Webster, another settler; and Mr. and Mrs. Jones. Then the Indians rode off, shooting Jones’ adopted daughter, Clara D. Wilson, as they passed the Jones cabin.
The Indians fled south to their village forty miles away on the Minnesota River. There they reported what they had done, and the Sioux chiefs decided to wage an all-out war against the white man. Thus the unplanned shooting of five settlers here at Acton triggered the bloody Sioux Uprising of 1862.
The bodies of the settlers were buried in a single grave in the Ness Lutheran Cemetery, near present-day Litchfield. In 1878 the state of Minnesota erected a granite monument there. This site, where the Baker cabin stood, was similarly marked in 1909.

The following five paragraphs is really all I want to say about this outing I took on that beautiful day. The rest is peripheral.

When I arrived at the monument and climbed from my car to inspect the site and take a photograph or two, another car pulled in behind mine. From that car came a group (4 or 5) of Native Americans, who had also come to see the monument. My spirit was extremely disquieted by this encounter. I wondered what they were thinking – what was in their hearts – as they read the same words as I. I certainly could not read it from their perspective and they probably could not understand mine. A deep sense of guilt and sorrow poured over me. I was well-read in the history of this event and I knew of the disgraceful ways the Native American, and particularly the Dakotah, had been treated.

History tells it a bit more delicately, but the Dakotah of that time were being treated abominably. They had been cheated out of their land in return for treaties that were constantly broken and then revised. They were not being paid what they had been promised. Without the promised funds, they were starving to death because their land and their hunting game had been chased away by farm developments. The white man had low regard for the Dakotah people and had little or no mercy for their plight. A hungry, starving man can be pushed only so far, and the white settlers and the government agency pushed the proud Indians farther than imaginable – to the very end of their patience and understanding. On an August day that may have been as beautiful as was this one, the anger and hatred of the Native Americans of Minnesota exploded.

Hundreds of white settlers were killed in the days following that incident at Acton – as were many, many of the Native Americans. In the end, a group of Dakotah leaders were hung on scaffolding at Mankato, Minnesota, on the orders of President Abraham Lincoln. Some innocents died there as well.

The magnificent lens of history lets us look back on the events of those days of war. Through that lens we can more carefully see the desperate situation of the proud Dakotahs. How far, up against a wall, can you push a man? How long can you allow him to go hungry, unable to feed his family? How much can you steal from him before he explodes?

I looked at the Native Americans who had come to Acton to visit the monument, just as I had. Were they still angry? Did they still feel cheated? I wanted to sit down on the grass, in the shadow of the monument, to talk about these things; but I did not. I simply offered to take the camera from one of them and shoot a photograph of them standing together on this historical spot. They happily accepted my offer.

I wanted to apologize, but I did not.

That was a logical ending place for this blog; however, I wanted to append this comment about Mary Lethert Wingerd’s wonderful book, North Country: The Making of Minnesota.**

Wingerd has written what must be the very best history of early Minnesota. I’m sure it isn’t included in the list of books the Historical Society recommends in this article I am referencing here only because it is much more comprehensive about these early years than the other books; and her account of the history of the war is but a part of the total. Yet, to really understand the roots of the war that took place here 150 years ago, one must deal with the entire prologue of events that Wingerd so carefully documents in her book. I’ve written before on this blog about the book and I’ll stand by my earlier statement that this is the best book ever written about the early history and development of Minnesota – and about the meeting of the arriving white man and the natives who already lived here.

In Wingerd’s book, the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 is actually the climax of her story and marked the end of the rich culture of early Minnesota (the story of the fur traders who came into the land and coexisted with the natives who were already there – the Dakotah and the Ojibwe). Her prologue in the book ends this way (and this is worthy of your time)…

“The U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath mark the forceful closure of this era of cultural mingling, a sharp divide between the familiar Minnesota story of settlement and the neglected history of the multicultural borderland that preceded it. The final chapters of this transformation are unsettling, even tragic, and painful to acknowledge. But it is tragic as well to have forgotten such a vibrant part of our past and the lessons of coexistence it reveals. The social relations that thrived and then were eventually wiped out not only suggest roads not taken but also may help us reflect on new, more inclusive ways to think about America and the world, as well as Minnesota, in the future.”

Little Crow was the chief and leader of the Dakotah and,
with great understanding of the consequences, led his
men into battle against the white settlers and then the
U.S. military.

This is a remarkable photograph of the wife and children
of Little Crow while they were incarcerated at Fort
Snelling (at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi
Rivers). It was taken in 1864 by Benjamin Franklin Upton.
More than 1300 Dakatoh were imprisoned there. Later in
1964 they were all deported to a reservation in South
Dakota (Crow Creek) where they were kept as if
prisoners. The spot was a wasteland of dry prairie that
would provide no comfort to those who were deposited

Cut Nose was one of the 38 Dakotah men executed by hanging
in Mankato on 26 Dec 1862. He had been befriended by my wife's
paternal great-grandfather, Warren Wakefield, when Warren was but
a boy, and by Warren's father, Bradford Wakefield, and had been
in their Orono settlement house at least once. I tell the story of
Cut Nose and Warren in my book, The Wakefield Pioneers.


*Heard, Isaac V.D.: History of the Sioux War (and Massacres of 1862 and 1863) [Harper & Brothers, New York, 1863, withdrawn from the Weyerhaeuser Library at MacAlester College, St. Paul, MN]
**Wingerd, Mary Lethert: North Country (The Making of Minnesota) [University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010]

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