New London woman wants name change for Sibley State Park
This time of year, Sibley State Park is aglow with autumn color, with reeds of bluestem prairie grass stretching far overhead.
The popular west-central Minnesota park is named after Henry Hastings Sibley, the state’s first governor. But one local resident thinks it's time to change that.
"It's a special place here at Sibley,” said Kelsey Olson, who has deep roots in New London. Her grandfather was born on land that's now part of the park.
Olson used to work at the park as a naturalist. Part of her job was to lead programs about the park's history, including Sibley, one of Minnesota's early and most influential pioneer leaders.
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She read about Sibley's fraught history with Minnesota's Indigenous people, as a fur trader, a treaty negotiator and a military leader during the US-Dakota War of 1862.
"Sibley is a complicated person, and we're all complicated people,” Olson said. “But most of us don't have places named after us."
Sibley arrived in Minnesota as a young man in 1834, and entered the fur trade with the American Fur Company.
He loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors, and even wrote about his frontier experiences for East Coast newspapers under the pseudonym, "Hal, a Dacotah,” said Kevin Maijala, senior director for learning initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society.
"Those writings and that experience really belies a pretty deep relationship with Dakota people in the Minnesota River Valley,” Maijala said.
Sibley traded and hunted with them, and fathered a child with a Dakota woman, Maijala said.
As the fur trade declined, Sibley got into politics, and served as a territorial congressman and the state's first governor. He played a key role in the government’s treaty negotiations with Native American tribes to acquire land.
"Because he had these long-standing ties with the Dakota, he had a lot of influence in bringing Dakota leaders to the table to have these conversations with the treaty commissioners,” Maijala said.
Those treaties not only allowed the government to gain land for expansion, but traders like Sibley to profit personally.
"He was, if anything, a swindler,” said Nick Estes, an assistant professor for American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, and a member of the Kul Wicasa Oyate, or Lower Brule Sioux tribe of South Dakota. “He committed large amounts of fraud during his initial treaty dealings."
Estes said the Dakota received relatively small sums of money for giving up large amounts of land, and the treaty agreements provided Sibley and other traders with cash payments for debts they claimed they were owed.
"He, like many Indian traders, Indian agents and government officials, all worked together to essentially steal Dakota land and wealth,” Estes said.
With little remaining land and the government withholding rations, conditions for the Dakota deteriorated, leading to armed conflict in 1862.
As a colonel, Sibley was a key figure during the war and the subsequent trials of 392 Dakota men. That led to the hanging of 38 men in Mankato in December 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Kelsey Olson says Sibley also oversaw the forced removal of more than 1,600 Dakota people, including women and children, to Fort Snelling, helping clear the way for the expansion of white settlement.
"I acknowledge that what Sibley did served my family,” she said. “It allowed me to have the generational privilege that I have. But when you look at the harm that it did, that harm and that pain still ripples throughout Minnesota today."
Olson thinks it's time to change the name of Sibley State Park to something more welcoming to all Minnesotans. She started an online petition and hosted community informational meetings to share what she’s learned.
“How I feel about this land, and my experience here as it being a Minnesota public space, and Sibley's actions — the two don't match,” Olson said. “His actions do not warrant any place, especially public lands, to be named after him."
Reaction to Olson’s campaign has been mixed. Some area residents don't want to see the park's familiar name changed. Some argue that despite his flaws, Sibley is still an important historical figure.
"I'm not denying that there was atrocities that likely took place, as in many places in our history, if you go back to the settlement of the country,” said Roger Imdieke, a Kandiyohi County commissioner who owns a business near the park.
But Imdieke said he would prefer to see an effort to educate park visitors about that history.
"I think (by) tearing down some of the well-known names such as Sibley State Park, we lose the opportunity for a teachable moment,” he said.
There's also a competing petition in support of keeping the name of the park, which has garnered considerably more signatures than Olson’s.
This isn't the first time Sibley's controversial legacy has been under scrutiny. In 2021, Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights was renamed Two Rivers High School.
Changing the name of a state park would require action by the state Legislature. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is not pushing the name change, but Ann Pierce, parks and trails director, said the agency welcomes the conversation.
Olson doesn't know what the park should be called, but thinks that should be a wider conversation that includes nearby Dakota communities.
“I would hope to see a name that reflects these natural resources, that reflects the beauty of the park,” she said.
Regardless of the outcome, having conversations with community members about the origins of the park’s name has been beneficial, Olson said.
“If this provokes learning, and then provokes them to be educated, that’s good,” she said. “That’s a win, and that’s success.”
Want to know more about Henry Hastings Sibley and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862? Here are some suggestions:
“Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart” by Rhoda Gilman
MNopedia article on Henry H. Sibley
The U.S. Dakota War of 1862, Minnesota Historical Society, usdakotawar.org
MN History article: Last Days of the Upper Mississippi Fur Trade
“What Does Justice Look Like? The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland” by Waziyatawin
“Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota” by Gwen Westerman & Bruce White
“In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century” by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson
“Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864” by Paul N. Beck
“The Dakota War of 1862: Minnesota’s Other Civil War” by Kenneth Carley
“Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux” by Gary Clayton Anderson
“Lincoln and the Indians: Civil War Policy and Politics” by David A. Nichols
(Recommendations from Nick Estes, Kevin Maijala and Kelsey Olson)