A few weeks ago, I drove with my three children south and west of the Twin Cities, past fields of corn and soybeans in search of history along the banks of the Minnesota River.
It was 150 years ago this summer when Dakota living in Minnesota attacked farms and government outposts in a desperate bid to regain their former land. Hundreds of settlers were killed before Dakota warriors were captured or killed by U.S. soldiers. It was one of the bloodiest Indian wars on the frontier and set in motion events that culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
I wanted my children to understand something of this upheaval that shaped our state. And I figured there was no better way to learn about it than to visit the landscape where it unfolded. We planned three stops in a day trip that would give us a brief overview of the beginning of what's now known as the U.S.-Dakota War.
LOWER SIOUX AGENCY HISTORIC SITE
Our first stop was on the south bank of the Minnesota River at the Lower Sioux Agency Historic Site, where the fighting started. It had been established as an administrative site to oversee distribution of money and food to the Dakota.
Today, the Lower Sioux Indian Community manages the small museum and the interpretive trails on behalf of the Minnesota Historical Society.
At the visitor center, my 6-year-old daughter dashed to an almost-life-size replica of a bark house. Most people think bark houses were winter dwellings because
"In the winter, they'd use the teepees, which were really warm and really easy to move around. They would follow the deer and the buffalo," he said.
This traditional nomadic lifestyle ended after the Dakota signed a treaty in 1851, giving up virtually all of southwestern Minnesota and opening the door to tens of thousands of white settlers.
The Dakota moved to a ribbon of reservation straddling the Minnesota River. They found there was no longer enough land to support hunting. Instead, the Dakota received annual treaty payments of money and food from the U.S. government and a lot of pressure to start farming like Europeans, described in a part of the exhibit titled "Bible and the Plow."
Reading this background, I found it easy to imagine the resentment and despair brewing by the summer of 1862, when four rash young Dakota men stumbled into a farmstead 40 miles to the north at Acton and killed a white family. They fled back to their village near the Lower Sioux Agency, where a council decided to declare war.
I read more panels, about corrupt Indian agents and the division between traditional and "cut hair" Dakota. But by now, my children had grown tired of reading and had wandered away.
Morse's wife took them outside and showed them how to play hoop and stick games, popular with both Dakota and pioneer children. When I joined them a few minutes later, my sons, ages 10 and 12, were flinging and catching wood hopes with ease.
"We caught 10 in a row," the 10-year-old yelled exuberantly.
We ate our picnic lunch in the shade of oak trees, listening to the late-summer buzz of insects and watching the breeze blow corn tassels in the field across the road. Then we started walking along a gravel path to see where the fighting began.
Early on the morning of Aug. 18, 1862, Dakota warriors attacked the trading posts at Lower Sioux. The stores are gone, but a two-story stone warehouse still stands.
If a building can help trigger a war, this one surely did. That summer, it held food the Indian agent refused to distribute to the hungry Dakota. Payments were also late that year, and there was a drought. The angry Dakota set the building on fire.
We stepped briefly inside the
"We get people with tears," he said. "A lot of people really do have really deep feelings associated with the warehouse."
I debated whether to describe the Dakota attack in detail to my children, who were now chasing each other down the path and laughing. I decided to let them play in the here-and-now, rather than imagine the terror of the past.
We descended the steep, wooded bluff, following the same path that panicked survivors ran down on their way to the Minnesota River. About 20 people were killed at Lower Sioux or while fleeing. Several were captured and about 50 escaped.
As my kids tried to skip stones on the banks of the lazy brown river, I imagined the ferryman who carried across load after load of terrified passengers before he was killed.
From the north bank of the river, survivors would have walked east or ridden in wagons to the nearest refuge at Fort Ridgely. We got back in our van and drove the 13 miles, spotting along the way a sign rising in a cornfield that said "Chief Wabasha Village Site." For the record, Wabasha was one of many Dakota who was against starting the war.
We passed cattle, metal silos, red barns and neat gardens of petunias and tomatoes that disappeared in the cloud of dust we kicked up on the gravel road.
I was expecting a wall or at least a stockade at Fort Ridgely, located within Fort Ridgely State Park.
We piled out of the van and read bits of history off the signs that dotted a large mowed field. Lines of rock in the grass marked the foundation of the original buildings. A tall stone monument to the fort's defenders stood nearby, erected in 1896 and recently repaired for the sesquicentennial.
The original stone commissary had been rebuilt and now holds a museum. While exhibits at Lower Sioux focus on the Dakota experience, Fort Ridgely focuses on life at the military fort.
Mannequins dressed in uniforms looked oddly familiar, and then I realized they looked like all the images I'd seen of Civil War soldiers.
"We'd train men how to use cannons and then send them to the Civil War," said guide Anna Endorf, who had a way of including herself among the fort's 19th-century inhabitants with her use of "we," as in: "We never thought we'd be attacked" and "It was a really good thing we had the barracks. We were a place of safety."
The first ragged survivors showed up from Lower Sioux late on the morning of Aug. 18 with news of an uprising. The fort commander immediately sent some 50 soldiers to the agency, where half were ambushed and killed by Dakota hiding in the brush by the Minnesota River.
Meanwhile, panicked refugees were straggling into the fort as groups of Dakota attacked isolated homesteads up and down the river valley. More than 200 civilians, mostly women and children, crowded into the two-story stone barracks.
The fort commander dashed off a message to Gov. Alexander Ramsey, "The Indians are killing the settlers and plundering the country. Send reinforcements without delay."
On the afternoon of Aug. 20, several hundred Dakota warriors snuck up a nearby ravine and managed to get to a few outbuildings. A larger group of warriors gathered the next day and tried to set fire to roofs with arrows. When they tried to use the stables for cover, the defenders set it on fire with artillery shells. The fort would have been overrun if it hadn't been for the cannon, which frightened and scattered the Dakota.
My 10-year-old son was intrigued by a similar cannon in the exhibit and lifted a couple of shells to see how heavy they were. "Just don't put them in the cannon," Endorf warned. My son also was captivated by the displays of muskets and shotguns and dioramas showing the fort buildings and the fighting.
My daughter was more interested in dress up. She disappeared into a replica of an Army tent like the one former Gov. Henry Sibley would have erected when he showed up with 1,400 soldiers to lift the siege. She emerged wearing a pioneer dress and bonnet much too large for her.
After Sibley arrived, refugees were sent by wagon to St. Paul, but the fighting continued into late September until the Dakota were defeated at Wood Lake.
Many Dakota fled west or north to Canada to join other bands. Others were captured, and 38 men were ultimately hanged at Mankato. The Dakota people as a whole were expelled from Minnesota and assigned a reservation in South Dakota.
We learned only the broadest outlines of the U.S. Dakota War on our trip. Had we the time, we could have explored many other nearby sites with other stories and perspectives on the war.
-- A self-guided tour in the grassy fields at Birch Coulee tells how Dakota fighters surrounded a contingent of soldiers who had been sent to find and bury the bodies of dead settlers.
-- Brown County Historical Society in New Ulm is opening a new exhibit this month about how the town of German immigrants defended itself.
-- Events at Lake Shetek State Park this summer commemorate the 14 settlers who were killed there as well as the stories of several young Dakota men who risked their own safety to protect white settlers.
-- A museum in St. Peter is devoted to the treaty at Traverse des Sioux. (More sites are at mnhs.org.)
HARKIN GENERAL STORE
We had time for one more short historic stop on our drive back to the Twin Cities. Just before closing time at 5 p.m., we pulled off the county road a few miles east of Fort Ridgely at the Harkin General Store. It doesn't have any direct connection to 1862, but it serves as a coda and a reminder of the change that came to the Minnesota River Valley in less than a generation.
As we stood by our car, I pointed to trees down by the river and explained to my kids that in 1850, all this and the rolling prairies to the south would have been Dakota land. Twenty years later, in 1870, when Scottish immigrant Alexander Harkin opened his store, the area was a bustling frontier.
Settlers would have stopped by his store to collect mail; buy butter churns, calico, soap and tea; or just exchange news and play a game of checkers by the potbelly stove. The store looks like something out of "Little House on the Prairie," right down to its original wood shelves, display cases and much of the original inventory.
We stepped into the gift shop next door, and the kids bought old-fashioned sassafras hard candy. Then we got back on the road and headed back to modernity.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Lower Sioux Agency Historic Site
Where: 32469 Redwood County Highway 2, Morton
Information: 507-697-6321; mnhs.org
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, May through September
Cost: $6 adults; $5 seniors, students; $4 children 6-17; free 5 and younger
Target audience: Visitors wanting a Dakota perspective
Crowd pleaser: Walking to the Minnesota River
Avoid: Overload. It's impossible to read every text panel with kids along.
Tip: Picnic at tables by the parking lot.
What: Fort Ridgely Historic Site
Where: 72404 County Road 30, Fairfax
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday and on Monday holidays from Memorial Day through Labor Day; only Saturday and Sunday in September and on first two weekends of October
Cost: $5 adults; $3 children and seniors; free younger than 5
Target audience: Military history buffs
Crowd pleaser: Dioramas, cannon and military tent
Avoid: An empty wallet -- it's cash only.
Tip: Bike, hike or camp at Fort Ridgely State Park.
What: Harkin General Store
Where: 66250 County Road 21, New Ulm
Information: 507-354-8666 or mnhs.org
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in May through second weekend in October; also Tuesday through Fridays and Monday holidays Memorial Day through Labor Day
Cost: $5 adults; $3 seniors and children; free 5 and younger
Target audience: Visitors who want to see an old-fashioned "mall"
Crowd pleaser: Hard candy
Avoid: Wheelchairs. There are a lot of steps to the top.
Tip: There are music and programs every Sunday.