BLOOMING PRAIRIE — Mention war and the year 1862, and nearly all Americans — and most Minnesotans — will think of the American Civil War, which devastated the nation from 1861-1865.
But there was another war in Minnesota in 1862: a war between settlers and the Dakota.
This conflict was “a watershed moment in the history of Minnesota,” but few know much about it, said author and historian Colin Mustful, who discussed his books and research Wednesday night at the Blooming Prairie Library. Though Mustful attended college in Mankato — the city where 38 Dakota men were hanged Dec. 26, 1862, at the end of the war in what remains the largest mass execution in American history — his knowledge was scant until he began delving deeper into the topic.
Though there are 26 different accounts of how it came to pass that a handful of white settlers were killed by four Dakota men on Aug. 17, 1862, that bloodshed proved the catalyst for the war, Mustful said. Fearing reprisal for the killings, a selection of Dakota persuaded their longtime chief, Little Crow, to strike first.
Little Crow, however, first told them they’d surely die in a war with settlers — and accomplish little to nothing while doing so — but they called him a coward, so he capitulated, Mustful said. Little Crow had actually worked amiably with whites, even taking multiple trips to Washington, D.C., and he was “very diplomatic,” favoring pragmatism and deal-making over war and likely extinction.
Indeed, there was friction between Dakota who favored agreeing to conditions set by white settlers and those who wanted to fight to the bitter end for their traditional ways, Mustful said. The Dakota were forced to assimilate, including farming, dressing like settlers and speaking English.
While the killings of Aug. 17 may have been the final spark for the war, violence was likely inevitable after decades in which the Dakota and other Native Americans were mistreated and swindled, he said. Minnesota had always been the home of the Dakota, and the confluence of rivers between Minneapolis and St. Paul was their “Bdote,” or creation spot, essentially their version of the Garden of Eden.
In 1805, Zebulon Pike, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, negotiated a treaty with the Dakota, but in what would become a depressing pattern, the Dakota had little to no understanding of the document’s contents due both to a language barrier as well as a cultural one, he said. For example, they didn’t understand the concept of land ownership, assuming one couldn’t own land the same way one could never own the air people breathe.
In later treaties, the Dakota surrendered more land in exchange for goods they’d grown accustomed to receiving in trade, as well as money, he said. In 1851, for example, the Dakota agreed to move to a reservation only 70 miles long and 20 miles wide.
The reservation was administered by the U.S. government, and “there was lots of money running through this system,” Mustful said. That made the arrangement ripe for graft, fraud, and skullduggery among the avaricious and amoral, and Dakota often received far less than their fair share of payments, got the money late, or were shut out completely.
In fact, special agent George E. Day investigated the failing system and discovered the Dakota were routinely and systematically robbed of their deserving funds. Day even wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln expressing those sentiments, adding that if the chicanery didn’t stop, war would be inevitable.
On Aug. 18, 1862, the Dakota did launch an assault, killing 200 settlers and capturing another 250. However, as reinforcements arrived for the whites — and because the Dakota themselves were divided over the war — the Dakota met swift defeat, with the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 26 proving the exclamation point, as Henry Sibley’s forces overwhelmed the opposition.
Trials were conducted by a military tribunal, but they were done so hastily and haphazardly — the defendants had no attorneys to represent them, and they didn’t understand the proceedings — that Lincoln invalidated a preponderance of the death sentences, he said. Though 303 of the nearly 400 Dakota who stood trial were sentenced to hang, Lincoln knocked that number down to 39 — ultimately, 38 were hanged, as the 39th later had his sentence commuted to 10 years in prison.
Still, 4,000 citizens showed up to watch the hangings, Mustful said. “It was quite an event.”
That hanging continues to haunt the state, as the Walker Arts Center came under fire last month after the Dakota community objected to the gallows-like design — modeled on seven U.S.-sanctioned executions, including the Mankato hanging — of a scaffold that was to be a major piece in the Minnesota Sculpture Garden. The piece was quickly dismantled after public outcry.
“I hadn’t realized” how many events precipitated the violent uprising of 1862, said Nancy Vaillancourt, Blooming Prairie’s librarian. It truly was a progression, not a random war.
Mustful’s research has informed his cross-genre novels, which are a mix between non-fiction and fiction. He’s working on a fourth, already having completed “Grace at Spirit Lake,” “Ceding Contempt,” and “Fate of the Dakota People.”
“I am a historian at heart, and history is very important to me,” he said. However, the vast preponderance of non-fiction accounts dealing with the conflicts between whites and Native Americans are “very dry,” so he inserts his fiction along with the non-fiction “to get the information out there for people.”
“I don’t have any solutions or answers, I just want to educate people,” he added. In addition, the fact he still gets surprised during his research is a main reason he persists with the endeavors.
This was Mustful’s first time at the Blooming Prairie Library, and his presentation held appeal for multiple reasons, Vaillancourt said. For one, this conflict was relatively local — New Ulm was attacked twice during the war, for example — and people in this area like to travel to sites marked by the uprising.
Furthermore, myths have been passed down among some families, so Mustful was able to separate fact from fiction about the Dakota War, she said. Finally, “I’m a history nut myself.”