Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Birch Coulie

I happily wandered through a small book today (113 pps + notes) that I must recommend to you if the subject matter is up your alley. It is John Christgau’s book, Birch Coulie (The Epic Battle of the Dakota War).*
by Charlie Leck

I keep turning to books about the Dakota tribes and the tragic war of 1862 in order to try to better understand the natives who lived and thrived in Minnesota before we white people drove them out. My fascination began with the stories I heard and read about my wife’s paternal family’s arrival in Minnesota in 1856, after a journey across the country from eastern Ohio in a oxen-drawn covered wagon. One of the children in that traveling party, Warren, was a constant writer and teller of stories. He carefully documented those early years. Some of it had to do with the relations with the Native Americans in this region – just west of Minneapolis.

Christgau’s recently published book is extremely well written and carefully sourced. It reads somewhat like a thriller or adventure story and the incident that he covers really does come alive. One is drawn into one the great battles between the Dakota warriors and the Minnesota regiment of the U.S. Army assigned to protect white settlers. Mind you, it’s not a pretty story. There are heroes on both sides and wonderful descriptions of brave men and loyal women. Unless, however, one is deaf and blind to history, this is a story of great injustice and a last desperate act by a subjugated and defrauded people to correct their condition.

Here’s an example of some of the adventure and excitement that Christgau pumps into the telling of the historic story…

“While his horse drank, he checked the animal for wounds and spotted a red crease along the flank. Trickles of blood were flowing from the wound site. It was clearly the track of a bullet. But before Sheehand could investigate further, a shot sounded again. This time he heard the bullet strike his mount with a sickening thud. Sheehand prepared to find cover around the swamp. But the horse lifted his head and stepped sideways nervously, seemingly eager to get moving again.
“Sheehand vaulted into the saddle and urged his wounded horse into a gallop. He was shortly moving once more at full speed. Just north of Fort Ridgely, a high ridge ran squarely across the Abercrombie Road. As soon as Sheehan accomplished the ridge, he could make out the buildings and smoke of Fort Ridgely. He spurred his mount on to an even faster gallop, and in one last sprint to the finish line, he flew past the pickets guarding the post against ambush.
“Colonel Sibley, with a handful of his officers met Sheehan on the parade ground of Fort Ridgely. Sheehan quickly dismounted, but before anybody could lead the gritty mount to the fort stables for water and grain, the animal dropped dead.
“Then Sheehan presented Sibley with McPhail’s message. ‘I have met the Indians,’ McPhail had written. ‘They are too much for us. Send reinforcements.’”

This is an important story within Minnesota’s rich history. The story seems to have no biases. The desperation of both the white man and the Native American is fairly and clearly told. The enormous broken promises made to the Dakota people, that our nation refused to address and correct, lie at the heart of the story and that makes this difficult for a white man to read, even 150 years after the actual incident. The bravery and courage of the native dwellers here has often been incorrectly interpreted by writers at savagery. Christgau clearly helps us understand it as desperation.

It has taken more than a century for the smoke to clear. Now people can look more clearly at the moment and see that it was we who forced the hand of the people who had owned this land before we took it – that they had run out of options and they needed somehow to feed and shelter their women and children. Of course, they were angry and their attacks were brutal. Nonetheless, read from the distance of a century and a half, one sees that these were stories of great bravery by a proud and distinguished people

It is good for us – as descendents of the white settlers who came here – to read these candid stories and reflect on how things might have been done differently, more patiently and more fairly.

Christgau has made it possible for us to engage the story as if we were there in the moment – the very tense and dangerous moment.

At a Labor Day celebration in 1930, Robert K. Boyd, who had been just a “lowly enlisted man who hardly knew how to fire a musket,” had been invited to return to Birch Coulie to speak about the encounter. He had spent most of it in the hospital tent, trying to recover from several serious wounds. His remarks were intriguing, enigmatic and, sometimes wise. Among his comments were the following…

“I came to tell you of events that took place here a long time ago… [It was a story] older than history and always the same, when a poor, ignorant, defrauded, and downtrodden people rise up in their wrath.’”

I do not recommend books lightly; for you who are interested in the subject, I do recommend this one without hesitation. And, my copy is available for lending.

*Christgau, John: Birch Coulie, The Epic Battle of the Dakota War [University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 2012]

[UPDATE] A number of Minnesota readers have asked that I explain where the Birch Coulee battle field is and how convenient it is to get there. It is very near Redwood Falls – east of there and just north of Morton, on County Road 2. It is probably 100 miles from downtown Minneapolis to the Birch Coulee Battlefield. It makes a wonderful and interesting trip in the summer or, especially, at the height of autumn. One can take in the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site as well as the battlefield. The Upper Sioux Agency is near Granite Falls, also not too far away. In a day this past autumn, I visited all three sites and also drove up to Acton, where the violence first broke out, to visit the monument there. If you don’t want to hurry out there and back, there are good motels in Redwood Falls and there is the Jackpot Junction Casino in Morton, right on the Sioux reservation land there. I couldn’t stay in the hotel at the casino because smoking is not restricted. There is also a remarkably good golf course (Dacotah Ridge) run by the casino. It was designed by Rees Jones.
A bit south of Morton, down along the Minnesota River, following County Road 21, is Fort Ridgely State Park. It was from here that relief troops rushed to Birch Coulee to save the surrounded soldiers. From there, it is also only a short hop down U.S Hwy 21, along the Minnesota River, to New Ulm, where the largest Dakotah attacks against civilians in their homes took place.

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  1. I'd like to recommend Candace Simar's Abercrombie Trail series. The setting is during the time of the Sioux uprising and settlement in Minnesota and Dakota territories. Excellent historical fiction by a MN autor.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mary. I'll be sure to check on Ms. Simar's book. Chas