Dark chapter of Minnesota history gets national treatment

Last weekend’s episode of “This American Life” was entirely dedicated to Minnesota history. Holy cow, just let those words sink in. Monday’s podcast release made for a big day around here.

The story, “Little War on the Prairie,” surrounds a Mankato native and public radio reporter John Biewen, now working at Duke University in North Carolina. He returns home to explore the story of the U.S./Dakota War of 1862. He wonders why, growing up in Mankato, he never knew anything about one of the bloodiest confrontations between the whites and Indians in U.S. history, especially since so many key events took place in his back yard.

The story is fascinating, tragic and revelatory. I highly recommend you listen to this podcast, in the embedded player below or here at the TAL website. You really should subscribe to This American Life’s podcast at iTunes, anyway. There’s no good excuse not to; it’s the finest program on the air.

The story reminds me of my experiences last spring writing a script for the Bemidji edition of the Great Northern Radio Show. I knew that the Ojibwe had reservations in northern Minnesota and I knew that they were here first. I had no idea the extent to which they were robbed of land. Among the greatest political leaders in Minnesota history were the Ojibwe chiefs Hole-in-the-Day and his son of the same name, who was assassinated on the Leech Lake reservation, not terribly far from where I live.

Chief Little Crow spoke against
the uprising, knew it would fail
but led the effort anyway when
his people demanded war after years
of injustices from the U.S. government.
He would be shot months after the war.

How could I age into my 30s, as a student of history mind you, before learning these stories? I wrote last May about Anton Treuer’s fantastic book “Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians (But Were Afraid to Ask)” and also recommend his “The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day.” Treuer’s writing on his Ojibwe people’s history holds parallels to some of the Dakota history shared in Biewen’s This American Life story.

Whether speaking of the Ojibwe or the Dakota peoples, major chapters of Minnesota history are missing or misrepresented in the history books. This needs to be acknowledged and changed.

And as I gear up for finally getting to see “Lincoln” this weekend, I have the new perspective that President Lincoln signed the death warrants for 38 Dakota warriors even though he likely understood that their trials were shams. He did so for political convenience, at the request of state leaders who had delivered Minnesota’s first electoral votes to the greatest, but greatly complicated, president of our nation.

Biewen’s conclusions about the way Minnesotans handle their history was also eye-opening. Listen yourself for his full description, but we Minnesotans have a strong passive-aggressive, avoidance-based method of approaching life, and history in particular. We forget our past, as instinct, to avoid the emotions of regret or the specter of change. This is certainly true of the Native experience in Minnesota, but true of so much else as well, including the rough and still barely-understood story of the Iron Range.

This Dakota internment camp at Fort Snelling barely shows conditions for the Dakota during and after the war. Most Dakota opposed the war, but all were punished and many hundreds were killed, either directly or as a result of camp conditions and the forced expulsion from Minnesota.

Images: (top to bottom) “Public Execution of 38 Sioux Indians at Mankato,” lithograph by W.H. Childs; “Little Crow,” photograph by Joel Emmons Whitney; “Internment Camp at Fort Snelling,” photographer unknown, all 1862, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.


  1. Actually the Sioux were there prior to the Ojibwe.

    But I’m glad the Ojibwe seized their lands. When the Sioux invited the Ojibwe to join the rape, torture and slaughter the Ojibwe told them to get stuffed. Personally I’m glad the Sioux failed to exterminate my family who were here at the time. Given the scope of what they did Lincoln was incredibly kind to them.

  2. PS I’m glad to see the Ojibwe taking full advantage of the opportunities they are. My great-grandfather used to hunt with them and do business with them and had nothing but good things to say about them.

  3. I’d give this a listen, David. That there were inhumane murders perpetrated by both sides is unquestioned. But most Dakota didn’t want the war, including the chief.

    The Dakota were here in northern Minnesota long before the Ojibwe, that’s true. The Ojibwe victories that sent the Dakota south and west were fueled by eastern expansion of settlers, though. Generally, the peoples that got guns first got the land of their neighbors when they got kicked west. Perhaps an over-generalization.

  4. The Ojibwe were first armed by the French around the time of the French and Indian War which they participated in. Give yourself a treat and check out Francis Parkman.

    This moral equivalency thing is dung, with all due respect. And Little Crow was sitting in church with people he murdered later that very day. I’m not at all averse to giving it a listen, I intend to but I’ve studied this for decades and have read enough primary source material to not be easily swayed.

  5. I don’t know that any kind of moral equivalence can be drawn between the case of, say, the 38 hanged men and the hundreds of innocent settlers slaughtered. But if you look at the rights and wrongs of the people as a whole, you can clearly see the Dakota were persecuted and faced far more death and hardship as a result, for no reason but that they were Dakota. The foolhearty call to war by some of their people was no help to them, but they still would have gotten screwed out of their land.

    I don’t doubt you know more of the specifics of the US/Dakota war than I do, having personal history and research on the matter. But like the author of the story, I have been flabbergasted as an adult at how much is sugar-coated in Minnesota history.

  6. It would be no surprise to me if the average Minnesotan had zero awareness of it before this year or even now. That’s why they are so susceptible to revisionism.

    The Ojibwe are still here and the Sioux aren’t. There is a reason and that reason is the choices their ancestors made. Did every Sioux want to go to war? No, but then neither did every German and who does Konigsberg belong to these days? And as for more primitive peoples losing lands to numerous, more advanced peoples how are the Picts doing these days? By historical terms the American government was relatively benign.

  7. Woof. Well, I guess that’s one way of looking at it. But the stuff printed in the old textbooks is bunk and needs to be revised. Some of it still can because there are records and people who have relatively recent memories of oral histories. I’m not into revisionist history as a general practice because it can be revised to suit any present need. But history favors the victors, always has. I think there is value in knowing more about what really happened and why. At least we can learn from it. Maybe in the future we won’t have to commit some “relatively benign” ethnic cleansing.

  8. Cut out the textbooks altogether and go back to primary sources. Make people read what was really done with women, children and infants. Then see if they feel like rationalizing. If you’re calling for a return to primary sources and a relegation of interpreters I’m there with you.

    And yes compared to the Sioux approach to ethnic cleansing, which is what they were doing, ours was relatively benign. They were moved to the Dakotas.

  9. I don’t think our position on the wrongness of what happened to those settlers is any different. I think the people who committed those crimes should rightly have faced the justice of the times. Their actions, however, weren’t much different than those of John Brown before the Civil War. He was crazy, but there was a historical context of why he did that cannot be dismissed despite his crimes.

  10. It is interesting to raise John Brown as I’ve had some good discussions on that topic.

    If the goal is to understand why people did what they did, murder in the case of John Brown, I think there can be real value in that. But understanding why John Brown dragged men from their homes and murdered them does not provide moral top cover if you like. It was still evil and John Brown will have answered for it.

    If people want to discuss part of why the Sioux were angry there is genuine value in that. They were being cheated and to a degree made dependent on a system which in turn was not adequately feeding them. There is real value in understanding that (and realizing how government traders were corrupt is a good instructive on government welfare systems). But it doesn’t justify what was done and was certainly no comfort to the infant snatched from his crib and nailed to the door jam of his cabin with a spike.

  11. I agree with that. But just as John Brown’s crimes did not reverse the moral “rightness” of ending slavery, the crimes of the Dakota war parties should not erase the Dakota people’s story or the history of what was done to them. That’s all I’m saying. Thanks for the comments! This has been enlightening.

  12. >>I agree with that. But just as John Brown’s crimes did not reverse the moral “rightness” of ending slavery, the crimes of the Dakota war parties should not erase the Dakota people’s story or the history of what was done to them.

    And I agree with that. It is nice to be able to agree.

    I guess your original post talked about this as a dark chapter and so often, as on Almanac this year, the vast and hideous crimes inflicted on farmers and their families are not discussed and the hanging of a relatively few men is dwelt on at length. They could have hung many more without touching an innocent head. And the primary victims of that uprising should not be forgotten or treated as ideologically expendable (Kathy Wurzer are you listening or are the horses in your stable making too much noise?).

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