Feelings last long over US-Dakota War of 1862

Settlers flee uprsing
Settlers flee from the uprising in 1862.
Photographer: Adrian J. Ebell, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Charles Clasen was one of hundreds of settlers killed in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Three years later, Wakanozhanzhan, a Dakota man also known as Medicine Bottle, was executed at Fort Snelling for his role in the war.

The conflict only lasted six weeks, but it had huge repercussions for descendants of people killed in the conflict and its aftermath.

The Minnesota Historical Society harnessed the strong passions of both Dakota and settler descendants to tell a fuller story of the war in an exhibit that opened last weekend at the Minnesota History Center.

Sheldon Wolfchild is the great-great-grandson of Medicine Bottle.

Wolfchild, who lives in the Lower Sioux Indian Community near Morton, is unhappy with how the story of the war has been told through the years. He said historians often put blame for the conflict solely on the Dakota. To counter those accounts, Wolfchild is working on a video documentary on the events that preceded the war.

Wolfchild said the conflict was a land grab by state leaders, who wanted the remaining Dakota lands.

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"Our language, our whole system of governance, all of that had to be destroyed, and that was the process of what the war did," Wolfchild said. "And so, we scattered in all directions."

Internment camp
Dakota people in internment camp below Fort Snelling after war.
Photographer: Benjamin Franklin Upton, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Wolfchild said both sides need to stop blaming one another, but that the whole story of what led to the war needs to be made more public. His documentary will play at the New Ulm Public Library in August. New Ulm was attacked multiple times during the war. It was also where a lynch mob killed another of Wolfchild's relatives who was being transported to the gallows in Mankato, where 38 Dakota men ultimately were executed.

"Especially for our children, they have to understand the truth of the history of Minnesota so that they can grow up better human beings, and make a statement that this process of history should never have happened, and should never happen to anybody in the future," Wolfchild said. "That's what this is all about."

The historical society held a series of roundtables with Dakota descendents as they put together the exhibit. That's part of the story that the exhibit tells. But it's not the only story. Historical society researchers also met with an advisory committee consisting of descendants of settlers.

Jan Klein is Charles Clasen's great-great-granddaughter. Clasen was killed by Dakota at the start of the conflict in 1862, along with his son Frederick.

"I didn't know much until I came to the [historical society] back in the early '80s and found his name written on a list of victims," Klein said. "It was like I was stabbed in the heart. It was, 'Wow, it's true. It wasn't just family stories, it actually happened.'"

She can trace the effects of the killings on her family all these years later. Her family left their home during the war and never returned.

Klein runs a website called Family and Friends of Dakota Uprising Victims. When she first started working with the historical society last November, Klein wasn't happy with the exhibit's content. She said it originally paid too much attention to the experiences of the Dakota.

Medicine bottle
A Dakota man also known as Medicine Bottle, was executed at Fort Snelling for his role in the war.
Photographer: Whitney's Gallery, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

But over the months, she has let go of some of her anger as the exhibit changed and she learned more about the events that preceded the conflict from both sides. She toured the exhibit the day before opening. She now said it's as balanced as possible.

"It's extremely difficult for them to tell the story without telling some of the things that the government did to make them revolt," Klein said. "We were as guilty as they were."

A Dakota elder called her last winter.

"We discussed what she's thinking she's doing is the same thing I'm doing: spreading the story amongst her people as I'm spreading the story among mine," she said. "She was so gracious, she even invited me to her powwow they're having in August."

Discussions like that are the goal of historical society Senior Exhibit Developer Kate Roberts.

"We've known all along that we won't cover everything to everyone's satisfaction," Roberts said. "But we hope there's enough there that people can really have good conversations and really go out of the exhibit wanting to dig into more detail on this."

Even reliable sources differ on the simple facts of the event. The number of settlers killed is disputed. The number of Dakota killed in battles, executions, bounties and at the internment camp at Fort Snelling is equally difficult to pin down.

"My approach has been to... move the conversation beyond the statistics, to really talk more about the people behind the statistics," Roberts said, "to really get visitors to understand that these are real people, they aren't numbers."