MANKATO — To an already inflamed debate about the events and aftermath of the Dakota Conflict in 1862, well-known Mankato historian and Abraham Lincoln re-enactor Bryce Stenzel is offering a more objective and reasoned response.
On Saturday, Stenzel and his cast of community actors -- called Lincoln’s Traveling Troupe -- debut the play “... We Cannot Escape History ... .”
The play is based on a script that Stenzel compiled from a variety of sources, including Abraham Lincoln’s own writings and local accounts from a variety of perspectives.
“People who say history is boring and irrelevant need to spend a little time in Mankato,” said Stenzel, who is aware of the litany of conflict-related talks, presentations and discussions taking place throughout southern Minnesota in the war’s sesquicentennial year.
“To compound the wrong by arguing one side over the other is a mistake. Our history deserves the respect of truth of objectivity.”
To that end, Stenzel spent months researching and writing the script that dovetails the events unfolding between white settlers and mostly Dakota Indians on Minnesota’s prairie in 1862 with the political and moral obligations felt by President Abraham Lincoln.
Stenzel said the play, in part, is his response to the broader debate still ongoing in Mankato about the best way to remember the events that ultimately led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history when 38 Dakota men were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862.
“There will never be true reconciliation until the story is told objectively from multiple perspectives,” Stenzel said. “This play is my effort to do that.”
War comes to the prairie
The play opens with a delegation of warriors arriving at Little Crow’s home with the intent of convincing him to lead an all-out assault against the “wasicu,” the Dakota word for white settlers. Despite Little Crow’s prophecy that their cause will end in widespread death, he agrees.
From that point, Stenzel’s script introduces a number of characters whose accounts of the ensuing events have to come to shape our modern understanding.
Cecelia Ochs was a 9-year-old in Milford Township (near New Ulm) who walked three miles to care for a sick neighbor when Indians attacked the farm. The matriarch of the home was killed in the attack and Ochs hid in a cornfield to avoid the same.
Louise Mayo recalls how her husband -- the famous and diminutive frontier doctor whose sons would establish the well-known hospital by the same name -- joined the St. Peter Frontier Guards on their march to New Ulm.
Wilhelmina Urban (who is Stenzel’s great-great grandmother) recalls that she and her family had to hide in the tall grass to avoid detection by Indian warriors.
The Great Emancipator
As the play unfolds, the audience is introduced to a Lincoln who is weary and frustrated by constant political pressures as well as personally depressed from the recent death of his son from typhoid.
Even while Lincoln’s most pressing concern is the Union Army’s poor performance in the opening months of the Civil War, he receives a cable from Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey on Aug. 26, 1862, that sums up the conflict, in part, by saying: “No one not here can conceive of the panic in this State.”
He also receives a visit from Bishop Henry Whipple, who entreats Lincoln to take a reasoned view of the conflict. Whipple explains that the uprising of 1862 actually arose from decades of mistrust and betrayal between both sides. He says that federal agents have been less-than-honest in their contracts with Indians and that they attacked out of desperation, not savagery.
Caught between a moral obligation to justice -- it was Lincoln’s executive order that pardoned more than 260 Indians who were sentenced to death by the makeshift military trials held in Mankato -- and his absolute commitment to preserving Minnesota’s support for the war, Lincoln famously declares in a moment of decision that “I cannot hang men for votes.”
David Roemhildt, who has been playing Lincoln for years as part of Lincoln’s Traveling Troupe, said this play portrays Lincoln in a more vulnerable light than many have seen before -- trapped in a rather ironic position of hanging 38 Indians even as he drafts the proclamation that pave the way for the abolition of slavery.
“It’s him at his most defeated,” said the 17-year-old. “He’s got a lot coming at him.”
'Prepared to meet death'
The latter portion of the play centers on the trial and execution of the Dakota.
The audience is introduced to Sarah Wakefield, who was saved from certain death by an Indian named Chaska who protected her throughout the ordeal. Despite Wakefield’s pleas for his life (which resulted in slanderous insults directed at her), Chaska was put to death with the rest of the 38.
The audience also hears from Rdainyanka, who was among the hanged and told the assembled that he killed no one and committed no crime -- yet will die anyway: “Let them remember that the brave should be prepared to meet death; and I will do as becomes a Dakota.”
Sara Brave Heart, who has two children performing the play, moved to Mankato with her husband about a year ago. She is a descendant of white settlers involved in the conflict (a few of whom were killed by Indians) and her husband is a descendant of the Dakota.
The conflict of 1862 is a topic of discussion in their home and one they approach both carefully and objectively. Brave Heart said Stenzel’s script does the same.
“Our family looks at (the events of 1862) from a lot of different positions,” she said, “and the play does, too. ... I have two kids in the play and it’s nice for them to be involved in something that remembers all of their ancestors.”