War at the Front Door

This past weekend, I attended the Minnesota Civil War Symposium at the Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul. For many Minnesotans, especially Southwestern Minnesotans like me, thoughts of the Civil War are directly linked to the Dakota War of 1862. The symposium followed along this connection as two of the six presentations related to the battles that made up this Minnesota war as well as the aftermath. However, I’ve recently seen this conflict, its meaning, and its impact in a new light. I’ve always thought that this was interesting and important history but now I think about it as my history. In the past year, I’ve come across the obituary of my second great-grandmother, Helena, who was six years old when the Dakota War occurred. Her obituary provides insight has to how she and her parents survived.

But first, a very brief history of what happened and why. The roots of this conflict were unfortunately too common as settlers pressed westward in the 19th century. Broken treaties, annuity payment corruption, lost land and resources, and increasing hunger led to a faction of the tribes deciding to go on the attack in order to drive out the white settlers. The assaults occurred largely over August and September 1862 and included two attacks on my hometown of New Ulm. In the end, there were deaths of over 600 white people, including 70 soldiers and 50 armed civilians, as well as 75-100 Dakota soldiers, according to the Minnesota Historical Society’s U.S. Dakota War website. Furthermore, the largest mass execution in U.S. History occurred when 38 Dakota were hung in Mankato immediately following the conflict in December 1862.

For the majority of my life, my connection to the conflict had to do with New Ulm. There are plaques in and around the town, commemorating what happened in certain locations. There are gravestones in the cemetery that are inscribed with “Killed by Indians”. The Dakota War has a permanent residence the Brown County Museum so that everyone who passes through has the opportunity to learn. But even though this happened in my hometown, coming across this excerpt in my second great-grandmother’s obituary has brought it even more home.

The settlers, my second and third great-grandmothers included, sought refuge as homes were burned and their fellow settlers were murdered. Today, where I live, it is hard to imagine the terror that must have been felt by my ancestors as the war rippled through the countryside and them not knowing if or when it would reach their doorstep. One of the lecturers in the Civil War symposium talked about the post traumatic stress disorder that many of the survivors developed.  While we, as observers of history, know where and when each attack occurred and when the unrest came to its conclusion, these early settlers had to live not only with what they had seen and experienced but also with the unknown.

I realize that this post does not even begin to cover all sides of the story and provides no great detail on all that occurred during the Dakota War of 1862. Though I am sure that I will again touch on this topic given my hometown and family connections.

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