Minnesota history exhibit features dark episode

38 Dakota hanged in Mankato

Museums often tell war stories, but an exhibit the Minnesota History Center just opened is more emotional than others.

“This is our war,” History Center Director Dan Spock said while touring the exhibit on the St. Paul museum’s third floor.

The exhibit about the six-week U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 illustrates a particularly dark episode of Minnesota history, one that many Minnesotans still feel about strongly.

“I have to think there is a prevalent sense of unease over this subject,” Spock said.

However, a man who has written four books about the Dakota Indian-federal government fight said the truth is important to tell.

“This is a period of history that the wounds are still open,” Dean Urdahl of Grove City said. “I do believe that through knowledge comes understanding and through understanding can come healing.”

The state legislator added: “There are still resentful memories and hard feelings on both sides of the conflict from 1862, in some people, in some places.”

In a history of the war, the society says it “had a profound impact in shaping Minnesota as we know it today.”

The exhibit, to be open for a year, is to mark the 150th anniversary of the wa. The Historical Society and other groups plan several war commemorations through the rest of the year around Minnesota.

One panel of the exhibit explains how the war began: “On Sunday, August 17, 1862, four hungry young Dakota men … killed five white men and women in Acton Township, Meeker County.”

Urdahl’s great-great-grandfather helped bury those first victims of a war that started because federal agents and traders refused to release food to Dakota people facing starvation.

Many Dakota people did not get involved in the war and others joined the federal efforts.

Up to 600 white civilians and soldiers died in the war, with unknown numbers of Dakota dying.

Most of the war was in the southern half of Minnesota, where federal officials forced Dakota people to live in a small area along the Minnesota River. But Spock said other battles continued in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana through 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota.

After the Minnesota part of the war ended, more than 300 Dakota men were ordered hanged. But Spock said President Abraham Lincoln could not authorize that large a number of executions, so he lowered the number to 38.

Spock said they were to be hanged on Christmas Day, but there was not enough rope, so the execution was delayed until Dec. 26.

That incident remains strong on some Minnesotans’ minds.

Urdahl recalled a state Capitol speech he delivered as co-chairman of a commission noting Lincoln’s 200th birthday: “Up above me were Dakota people. Every time I said ‘Lincoln,’ they shouted ‘murderer’ or ‘executioner.’”

In preparing the exhibit, the Historical Society worked with Dakota and those whose ancestors were early European settlers involved in the war.

Urdahl said some Dakota felt there should be no activities related to the war, while others want “a more open approach. There is no unanimity.”

There also are disputes among whites. Some insisted that the state do nothing that looks like an apology, while others seek reconciliation.

Urdahl said he and Gov. Mark Dayton plan to discuss the war’s anniversary later this month.

The exhibit explains how federal policy of taking land from American Indians was “a sense of entitlement” felt by many Americans, Spock said. Many European immigrants received land they were told was open and available, not knowing of Dakota claims on the land.

Stories included in the exhibit often are emotionally tough to read, but Spock said the Historical Society had no choice. “We are really doing some truth telling (of) one of the first major events in our state’s history.”

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More information: www.usdakotawar.org

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The Minnesota History Center is at 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. in St. Paul, just across Interstate 94 south of the state Capitol. Adult admission is $11, although admission is free 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. each Tuesday. The center is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Spock in exhibit

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