By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer
As late spring settled over the Minnesota River Valley 150 years ago, settlers had no clue as to the frustrations and malnutrition building on the Dakota Indian reservations near Morton and to the west.
Last week, during a tour of the Lower Sioux Agency and battle sites including Birch Coulee and Fort Ridgely, it was easy to understand why the Dakota loved the valley.
The long prairie grasses and wildflowers swayed in warm breezes, massive cottonwoods, oaks and maples provided a cool canopy along the river bluffs.
The iridescent blue of an indigo bunting could be seen flitting from tree to tree among a backdrop of spring sounds from birds, frogs and insects.
About 20 journalists from around the state toured the sites with members of the Minnesota Historical Society in preparation for stories that will be done to mark the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War that began in August and led to the execution of 38 Dakota in Mankato at the end of 1862.
At the Lower Sioux Agency Historic Site, the sole remaining original building is an imposing stone warehouse. It was there that federal Indian agents secured food items to be distributed to the Dakota.
The MHS historians said that at this time of the year, 150 years ago, the Dakota — coming off their second harsh winter — would have been waiting for annual shipments of gold and supplies, payments for ceding much of their lands and moving to reservations.
Local traders began to stop offering credit to the Indians for supplies because traders feared the gold shipments may not come as the Civil War had tightened gold supplies.
The Dakota considered the traders as kin because many of them had married Dakota women. The refusal to offer credit was seen as a devastating breech of kinship, setting up a deep divide between the Dakota and white European settlers.
In the meantime, the Dakota, particularly children, were suffering malnutrition.
Ben Leonard, head of the Nicollet County Historical Society, said it wasn’t that there was no food — just not enough of the right kinds. The Indians had always found a balanced mix of meats and plants for nourishment.
“But after moving to the reservations, their food was mostly corn and flour and starch from things like potatoes. The children, in particular, suffered from the looks of starvation.”
As settlers up and down the river valley went about their lives that spring, the Dakota increasingly felt abandonment and betrayal. In fewer than three months — on Aug. 17 — the quiet despair on the reservations would erupt across southern Minnesota.
Gems of detail
The beauty of history — even history you know a fair amount about — is learning all the new stories and tiny, interesting details you never heard of.
On a bus tour filled with historians, there were plenty of both.
Among the stops, the one I found most interesting was the Birch Coulee battlefield site, just a few miles north of Morton.
A few weeks into the war, a burial detail of 160 men had been sent out of Fort Ridgely to bury settlers from across the region who had been killed in previous weeks.
The battle began Sept. 2 and the U.S. military suffered its greatest losses of the war.
“It was all because they chose a really bad place to bivouac on the first night out,” said Tom Ellig of MHS.
The burial detail was complacent, believing virtually all of the Dakota had fled further upriver after their attacks on New Ulm a couple of weeks earlier. But there was indeed a large group of Dakota and they had watched the group all day long, including when the detail set up camp — on a small rise surrounded by open prairie.
Standing at the point of that encampment today, you can envision the problem. They would have been surrounded by prairie grasses reaching six feet high. Swells around the area allowed the Dakota to slowly sneak in undetected throughout the night, completely surrounding the camp.
As daylight broke, the burial detail was surprised with volleys of fire. Within hours 20 in the detail were dead and many more injured. Ninety of the horses also were killed and men in the detail used them as barricades to hide behind.
The fighting lasted all day and into the next before reinforcements from Fort Ridgely — they’d heard the fighting 12 miles away — arrived and the Dakota retreated.
History out the back door
The many historic sites related to the war are any easy drive from the Mankato area and worth a trip during this 150th anniversary.
A new Scenic Byway Minnesota River Valley Mobile Tour has been set up where travelers can get information on six stops: Traverse des Sioux, New Ulm, Lower Sioux Agency, Birch Coulee Battlefield, Upper Sioux Agency and Camp Release.
Call 888-601-3010 at any of the stops and get an overview of the site and a menu for learning more information.
History Center exhibit opens soon
On June 30, the Minnesota History Center will begin its U.S.-Dakota War exhibit.
The exhibit contains a wide variety of artifacts, displays, photographs and oral histories from a variety of viewpoints.
On the web: www.usdakotawar.org
Tim Krohn is a Free Press staff writer. He can be contacted at 344-6383 or email@example.com.