MANKATO — Time has distanced many New Ulm residents from the events of the U.S.-Dakota War, but it still runs through the veins of many, says Darla Gebhard, president of the Junior Pioneers.
Gebhard herself is a descendant of a settler involved in one of the first battles of the war, and 400 other descendants like her will be attending the Junior Pioneers Banquet Saturday in New Ulm to look back at the war and tell stories of their ancestors’ part in it.
“The descedants, their feelings would have changed over time,” said Gebhard, who is also a researcher, archivist and librarian for the Brown County Historical Society. “The generations that actually experienced the war would have felt a lot more strongly about it than the generation today.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of tragedy for their ancestors, she added.
“Certainly, they’re very aware that someone in their family was killed in war,” she said. “And (descendants of) settlers that lost their lives, they feel that very personally. It’s their great-grandfather; it’s their great-grandmother.”
Gebhard didn’t know until adulthood that her great-grandfather, Ferdinand Caping, and his family were warned by Dakota who came to their farm in Courtland Township that Dakota attacks were impending. As a citizen soldier, Caping road with Charles E. Flandrau for the second battle on Aug. 23 to defend New Ulm.
Caping was not injured, nor were any other members of his family.
The war deeply affected him, however. A family member quoted Caping as saying when he was an old man: “I still have nightmares from picking up the dead bodies on the field.”
Like other scholars and historians, Gebhard’s understanding of the war continues to grow as new artifacts come to light, such as letters released by the Minnesota Historical Society by key players. Now more than ever she has an understanding of the sense of misplaced anger and deep divides within the Dakota people that could have led to attacks on mostly innocent people.
The U.S. government was the cause of the Dakota nation’s dire situation, but the white settlers were the target of the attacks, she said.
“(Descendants) of the settlers would not feel that the loss of life that the settlers withstood was justified. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
But time has shown that very few Dakota actually took part in the war, she said. And still, nearly all were punished in the aftermath.
“There were women, children and whole tribes that didn’t participate at all,” Gebhard said. “But there were a large percentage that paid the price. There’s a lot of mixed feelings amongst the Dakota about their paying the price for what they didn’t participate in.”