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A journey of understanding: Sesquicentennial tour of U.S - Dakota Conflict of 1862

A memorial erected near the Wood Lake Battlefield is located where Col. Henry Sibley camped, actually near the shores of a Lone Tree Lake, drained now for agricultural purposes. Anne and Allard Stevens of Hanley Falls were among those visiting the site as part of a symposium marking the 144th anniversary of the battle in this undated photo.

MORTON, Minn. -- There is heightened interest as Minnesota marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. - Dakota Conflict of 1862.

Hundreds of monuments and markers are scattered throughout southwestern Minnesota and the Minnesota River Valley to remember the tragic conflict.

There are also historical sites that can help us understand why it happened, and how it still shapes our lives today.

Tom Ellig, Minnesota Historical Society, southern district, offers these starting points for those who want to begin a journey of understanding.

Starting points

Begin either at the Traverse des Sioux Treaty Site near St. Peter, the nearby Nicolet County Historical Society or the Lower Sioux Agency Historic site near Morton.

The Traverse des Sioux Treaty sites helps set the stage for the war by telling of the broken treaties and disastrous government Indian policies that had ultimately left the Dakota people in hunger and want.

The Dakota launched the first attack on a governmental post at the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton. Traders and government workers were killed there Aug. 18, 1862.

Lower Sioux Agency

Today, the Lower Sioux Historic Site is managed by the Lower Sioux Community, home to nearly 1,000 members of the Mdewakantan band of the Dakota. With a restored agency building and 1860s vintage garden under cultivation, there are ample opportunities to experience what life was like here before the attack or to learn about the events of that fateful day.

No less important, exhibits developed by the Lower Sioux Community offer a unique opportunity to learn about the Dakota culture and people.

Birch Coulee Battlefield

For those interested in the military story of the war, it is only a short drive from Morton to the Birch Coulee Battlefield historic site operated by the Minnesota Historical Society. It offers a self-guided walking tour that allows visitors to place themselves in the footprints of both a Dakota warrior and a U.S. soldier to see and experience the battle from their opposing perspectives.

A burial party of soldiers had camped on the open prairie Sept. 2, 1862, and could only take refuge behind their dead horses as they came under siege for 36 hours.

Fort Ridgely

Follow the Minnesota River Valley to Fort Ridgely State Park, and the fierce battles of Aug. 20 and 22 are remembered. Park Manager Mark Tjosaas said the historic site has already seen visitors this summer from as far as Virginia.

Many come expecting to find an open and flat prairie and are surprised to learn that much of the fighting actually occurred in the rugged and challenging terrain of the steeply-sloped Minnesota River Valley.

An archaeological team recently completed a nearly two-year study of the site, and confirmed the oral accounts of how ferocious and close-quartered were the battles that occurred here. Hundreds of refugees took shelter at what was really a collection of buildings. There were no walls or even a well on the grounds.

New Ulm and personal accounts of victims on both sides

Continue along the Minnesota River to New Ulm, and the Brown County Historical Society and Museum in New Ulm offers the history of the Aug. 19 and 23 attacks on that city and its civilian population.

Told here are the stories of those who experienced the misery of the war. Bob Burgess, director, said an exhibit opening Aug. 21 focuses on the personal accounts of those who experienced the violence and its consequences. White settlers -- some from Europe and as little as one month in the new country -- tell of their trauma and suffering. Dakota people, including warriors, those friendly to the whites and those who struggled to remain out of the conflict, tell of the suffering they endured and the horrible aftermath visited on them as well.

There are stories of hope and healing to be heard here, Burgess said, who warns too that there are also stories of ultimate grief.

Wood Lake Battlefield

The war's military end came at the Battle of Wood Lake, protected and newly designated as a national battlefield. Tom Hosier of Rochester helped organize the Wood Lake Battlefield Association that has succeeded in preserving a portion of the actual battlefield so that it can serve as a memorial to those who fought and died on both sides of the conflict here.

Chief Little Crow had plans to ambush Col. Henry Sibley when his 1,619 troops would have marched from this site in a 2-1/2-miles long procession. On the morning of Sept. 23, a group of soldiers defied orders and ventured with a wagon to steal potatoes from nearby gardens. They nearly rode over the concealed Dakota warriors and spoiled the ambush.

From the Wood Lake Battlefield, a quiet ride in the Minnesota River Valley leads to Camp Release and a poignant account of the war and what was to follow.

Camp Release and those who saved lives at great risk to themselves

Through the war, there were many Dakota who put their lives at great risk to save the lives of settlers. Many took extraordinary risks to protect whites being held captive. At Camp Release, the captives were turned over to Col. Sibley at war's end.

Minnesota History Center, St. Paul

There is much history that follows, including the banishment of the Dakota, and the largest mass execution in U.S history at Mankato.

The overall story of the war can be found best at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, and it and other sites can offer a long list of literature that examines the history.

Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux communities

For those who really want to understand the war's legacy, Ellig also recommends a visit to the Lower Sioux or Upper Sioux communities, where elders can relate the oral history kept.