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Historical accounts of U.S.-Dakota War change through years

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William Lass
Historian William Lass' review of 13 histories of the U. S. - Dakota War charts how public perception of the Dakota changed from savages to an oppressed minority struggling to survive.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Historians agree that the U. S. - Dakota War of 1862 was one of Minnesota's most momentous events.

The war's history has been documented and shared by people who have a range of perspective and accounts of it have changed over time.

Historian William Lass has reviewed 13 histories of the war, and he recommends reading, "The Dakota War of 1862," for several reasons.

"Well, first of all, it's short."

The book, with illustrations, comes to 102 pages.

Besides its brevity, Lass adds that the 1961 book, first titled, "The Sioux Uprising of 1862," by newspaperman Kenneth Carley is still the most balanced and factual account. Carley later became editor of the Minnesota Historical Society's quarterly magazine, Minnesota History.

As the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War approached, William Lass, professor emeritus of history at Minnesota State University Mankato, assigned himself the task of reviewing 13 accounts of the conflict.

Lass was a farm boy, born and raised in South Dakota by descendants of German settlers similar to the immigrants arriving in Minnesota in the 1850s and '60s. He taught history for more than 40 years and at 83, he continues to research and write about the U.S. - Dakota conflict.

The books Lass reviewed were written by Americans of European descent — 12 men and one woman. The first three histories were published right after the war when emotions ran high.

The writers then and even more recently wrote what Lass calls popular history, inventing or embellishing quotes and descriptions.

"In this way you write something that's lively reading. It's fast moving. It keeps you on the edge of the page," Lass said. "But it can also be a misrepresentation."

Lass says early histories of the war reflected the prevailing views of the time: that white people had a God-given right to the land, and that native people were pagan savages.

One of the first and most unusual accounts of the conflict was written by a Minnesota icon, Harriet Bishop, a St. Paul resident who started the city's first school. Her account would not meet today's scholarly standards.

"Her only explanation of what caused the war and how the war was conducted was divine intervention," Lass said. "Her only explanation for the Indians going to war was they had fallen in league with the devil."

Another early history mentioned the deceitful nature of the treaties the U.S. government signed with the 6,300 Dakota who resided in what would become Minnesota.

But overall, the first accounts of the war focused on the brutality and the atrocities committed by the several hundred Dakota who took up arms.

Lass said those first histories of the war were riddled with inaccuracies, reported falsehoods as facts and embellished eyewitness testimony of settlers.

It would be 45 years before an account of the war attempted to explain the Dakota side of the story.

That history was "The Indians' Revenge, or Days of Horror, Some Appalling Events in the History of the Sioux" written by Alexander Berghold, a Catholic priest in New Ulm, and published in 1891.

Berghold noted the swindles, starvation and ill treatment of the Dakota which laid the groundwork for a new assertion." Lass said.

"What the Indians did was justified," Lass said, speaking of a viewpoint that would have been widely unpopular just after the war.

But by the time Berghold's account was published, people and times had changed, Lass said. Many of the white settlers who were alive in 1862 had passed away. The state's population had exploded and many new residents had no knowledge of the war.

The first history to include an interview with a Dakota fighter was written by newspaper reporter Return Holcombe in 1908.

"So, this is an insider look from the other side," Lass said. "Consequently you have a new strain of evidence."

He uses the word 'evidence' intentionally.

By 1900, history writing had undergone a revolution. Among the changes, authors had to use facts that could be verified by others, Lass said, and writers needed to be much more vigilant about the use of adjectives.

"Consider what you can do with such a word as courageous or unscrupulous. You're painting a word picture that you are planting in someone's mind," he said.

Lass' review and a listing of the 13 histories he surveyed is in the current issue of the Minnesota Historical Society's Minnesota History quarterly magazine.