Review – MHS Dakota War Exhibit

 “The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”
Minnesota Historical Society – St. Paul
Reviewed on July 3, 2012 

Items of Interest

 The Minnesota Historical Society asked Dakota and White advisors to help design this exhibit. I was one of these advisors.

 I can honestly say that this is the best Dakota War exhibit that I have seen. I think the graphics are superb. I especially like the map showing where settlers were killed by Indians. The exhibit is generally accurate, balanced and respectful. However, there are some problems.

 There is no charge to view this exhibit on Tuesday evenings. Check the MHS website to be sure.

 General Comments

  •  “The Dakota” are not defined. General statements about “The Dakota” did not apply to all Dakota.
  • Unbalanced – There is no discussion on how the Dakota Indians obtained their land – They took it by force from other tribes.
  • Unbalanced – The brutality of traditional Dakota warfare is not discussed.
  • Unbalanced – The post-war focus is almost entirely on the Dakota Indians.
  • Disrespectful – The U.S. is criticized many times. Didn’t the U.S. do anything right?
  • Incorrect – There are inconsistencies in statements about the same subject. 

Most Objectionable Statements

 What Caused the War

 —Incorrect – This is most important. All of the primary causes are not discussed.

 “…The U.S. Government had promised that the Dakota could live off the proceeds from selling their land…It was not working out…Hunger was widespread. Since crops had been poor in 1861, the Dakota had little food stored for the “starving winter” of 1861-62. Their reservation supported no game and increasing settlement off the reservation meant growing competition with Euro-Americans hunting for meat.”
—Incorrect – Who and how many were starving?
—Incorrect – The Agent did issue food during the winter, spring and summer.
—Incorrect – The growing competition for game was off the reservations. Settlers could not go on to the reservations to hunt while the Indians did hunt off the reservations.
—Incorrect – There were 2 reservations.
—The winter of 1861-62 was severe; the hunters had difficulty bringing in game. This was another cause for lack of food.

“A delayed treaty payment made traders nervous, and many of them cut off credit to Dakota hunters. Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith refused to distribute food to the Dakota. Though Dakota farmers shared food with their relatives throughout the summer of 1862, it wasn’t enough.”
—Incorrect – Traders cut off credit also because they learned Indians planned to drive up their debts and then refuse to pay.
—Incorrect – Galbraith did issue food that summer to the Upper Indians.

“Four hungry Dakota hunters killed five white settlers at Acton Township, Meeker County, on August 17, 1862. Some Dakota seized that moment to declare war on the whites who would not keep their promises…”
—Incorrect – It cannot be proven with primary sources that they were hungry.
—Incorrect – Should be “in Acton Township”
—Incorrect – They declared war on all whites.

Hard Choices

  “The benefits of the Treaty of 1858 applied only to farmers.”
—Incorrect – There were 2 treaties in 1858.
—Incorrect – The money from the treaties paid off most if not all debts to the traders. The Sisseton and Wahpeton had money left over. If this money went into their farming fund, it was available to all who chose to become farmers.

“As individuals chose one path over another, rifts and tensions mounted.”
—Incorrect – Dakota who opposed farming and Christianity caused the rifts and tensions.

“And I think that the conclusion is that we don’t have any other choice and we have to do this…even though you can see the outcomes, you’re going to do it anyway.”
—Incorrect – Those who made the decision for war did not know the outcomes. They would not listen to Little Crow and other leaders. They did have other choices. Murdering more than 650 whites was not their only choice.

Henry Sibley

 “During the war, Sibley was vilified in the press for his slowness in advancing to Fort Ridgely and in liberating the settler captives.”
—Disrespectful – An angry Sibley is quoted. Explain why his advance was slow.
—Incorrect – There were captives who were not settlers.

Assimilation Policies

 “Tribal unity disintegrated as the power of the US government increased.”
—What does this mean?

 Anatomy of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux

 “Annuity – A fixed sum of money to be paid yearly to the tribe that was deducted from money held in trust.”
—Incorrect – Annuities included other items such as food and supplies.
—Incorrect – Annuities could be paid more than once a year.
—Incorrect – This annuity money was interest on their principal. They would receive interest payments only and not the principal. This was not deducted from money held in trust.

Regarding the Treaties of 1851:
“Upon ratification in 1858, Article 3 was stricken out by Congress, thereby eliminating a permanent residence for the Dakota.”
—Incorrect – The Treaties of 1851 were ratified in 1852.
—However, the 1851 Treaties stated that the Indians could not be relocated unless they approved their new location. 

“To the Dakota, however, these changes meant the shedding of traditional culture and lifestyle, thereby weakening the communal kinship-based organization of the bands.”
—There is more to culture and lifestyle than occupation and religion. The Christians and farmers still hunted, gathered and maintained their kinship ties.

“The treaty and all of the agreements contained within it were abrogated (terminated by the U.S. government shortly after the end of the US-Dakota War of 1862.
—Incorrect – There were 2 treaties.
—The treaties were abrogated because they went to war which violated terms of the treaties.
—Incorrect – In the 1900s, the U.S. paid the descendants of the Dakota Indians for annuities withheld and land taken.

Thomas Galbraith – Blindsided by War

 “Enclosed I forward you a letter of Major Galbraith a man of the largest capacity of any Agent I have found yet. He is an able man and agreed with me…that the whole [Indian] system should be revised and changed.”         -George E. M. Day, December 28, 1861
—I reference this letter below.

“News of the US – Dakota War overtook Galbraith and his recruits at St. Peter on August 19.”
—Incorrect – Galbraith learned of the trouble on August 18th.

“After the war Galbraith was exonerated in two congressional investigations into allegations that his conduct of the Sioux Agency brought on the US – Dakota War. Historians generally have disagreed.”
—Why have historians disagreed? Praised by Day, exonerated by two investigations but historians disagree. Who is correct?

Little Crow’s Reasons for War

 “The century-old system of kinship reciprocity guiding earlier traders like Henry Sibley had crumbled by 1862.”
—What does this mean?

“The traders Little Crow named were facing the non-renewal of their federal trade licenses and imminent eviction from the reservation.”
—What does this mean?

“In 1862, after taking in the proceeds of an unusually good spring hunt, the traders cut off credits.”
—Incorrect – If there had been a good hunt, the Indians would not be starving.
—Disrespectful – This makes the traders sound devious.
—Incorrect – All traders did not cut off credits.
—Incorrect – Credits were stopped because Indians said they would not pay their debts.

Letter to Sibley after Battle of Birch Coulee: “Little Crow’s letter condenses decades of frustration over misuse of government funds, late annuity payments, and poor relations between government officials and Dakota leaders into a few terse sentences.”
—Incorrect – To say what Little Crow was feeling is not possible.
—Incorrect – How many payments were late?

“”Little Crow reasoned that if Dakota children were starving, it was the Agent’s fault. If Galbraith had the means to alleviate their suffering and chose not to, he neglected his duty both as a federal officer and as a human being.”
—Incorrect – To say what Little Crow was thinking is not possible.
—Galbraith did issue food to most of the Dakota.
—There are complicated issues that are not getting enough explanation.

Imminent Danger

 Petition to Alexander Ramsey, August 14, 1862
“That said Indians considering said payment justly due to them and relying on the same for their subsistence, have become by such delay exceedingly exasperated, have committed several outrages and threaten to overwhelm these frontier settlements with Indian Warfare.”
—Is this fact or rumor? Where were these outrages and threats of war?

“That the rumor has spread…the United States Government has paid the money in gold for said Indians long ago, but that said money has been corruptly misapplied in speculations…by the Hon. Clark Thompson, Superintendent of the Indian Affairs in the State of Minnesota, and that this is the reason of the delay of the payment.”
—Disrespectful – Is this fact or rumor? Was Thompson speculating with Indian money?

Warning Signs

 Special U.S. Commissioner George I. H. Day visited Minnesota in August 1861, and two months later wrote that he had uncovered “voluminous and outrageous frauds upon the Indians in Minnesota.” In January 1862, he wrote “The Indians are decreasing in numbers…The whole system is defective and must be revised or, your red children… will continue to be wronged and outraged and the just vengeance of heaven continue to be poured out and visited upon this nation for its abuses and cruelty to the Indian.”
—Was Day correct? Was anyone given the opportunity to respond to his findings?
—Refer to Day’s December 1861 comments on Thomas Galbraith. Can we trust Day’s judgment in August 1861 when he apparently did not judge Galbraith correctly in December?
—Elsewhere in this exhibit, Thomas Williamson states that the Indians were increasing in numbers. Who was correct?


 “Four hungry young Dakota men of the Rice Creek Mdewakanton band killed five white men and women in Acton Township, Meeker County.”
—None of the Acton primary sources say these Dakota asked the settlers for food.
—Incorrect – Rice Creek was a village. Elsewhere in the exhibit, Mdewakanton is called a band.
—Incorrect – They killed 2 men, 2 women and a 15-year old girl.
—There are 3 sentences in the exhibit related to this incident. Each is different:
    One says, “Four hungry Dakota hunters…at Acton Township…”
    One says, “Four young Dakota men…near Acton Township…”
—Incorrect – “at Acton Township” and “near Acton Township are incorrect.

Divided in War

  “Of the estimated 6,500 Dakota people living on Minnesota reservation land in 1862, historians think no more than 1,000 actually fought, including some who were coerced into the battles.”
—Incorrect – Samuel Brown, in Through Dakota Eyes, wrote that 738 Indians were counted on their way to the Battle of Wood Lake. According to Henry Sibley, 1/3 or about 246 did not want to be there. This leaves about 492. This estimate of 1,000 is too high.

 The Decision to Declare War

 “Realizing that their actions would not go unpunished, the soldiers’ lodge members responsible for the killings at Acton, along with their chief…sought out Chief Sakpe…who suggested they convene that evening in Little Crow’s village.”
—Incorrect – I do not think that it can be proven they were members of the soldiers’ lodge.
—Incorrect – I believe they met at Little Crow’s village in the early morning of the 18th.

The Power of Newspapers

 —These newspaper accounts need to be interpreted. Are they true or false?

 “The Late Indian Disturbance at the Upper Sioux Agency – It would appear that the United States Interpreter at Fort Ridgely is, in part, responsible for the acts of aggression committed by the Indians – he having suggested to them the criminal act of taking forcible possession of the goods and provisions stored in the Government warehouse…The Interpreter has been disposed of by Captain Marsh…and conveyed him to Fort Ridgely, where he is now imprisoned.”
—This interpreter was Peter Quinn, one of my grandfathers. See Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, 1889, vol. 1, page 818i. Charles Flandrau wrote a letter exonerating Peter Quinn.

Birch Coulee

 “Battle of Birch Coulee” by Dorothea Paul
—Do visitors know that these paintings may be inaccurate? The Indians never rode on horseback past the camp during the attack. Neither wagons nor tents were set on fire.

Six Weeks of War

—Incorrect – Red Iron’s village was either level with or slightly above Camp Release.
—What does “Redwood” denote?
—Incorrect – Redwood Ferry should be closer to Lower Agency.
—Incorrect – There are two “Aug 19-25” notes near New Ulm

How Many Dakota Died? – “Historians have names for 32 of the estimated 75-100 Dakota soldiers who died during the war…”
—Lt. Gere wrote that no less than 100 Indians were killed in the attacks on Fort Ridgely.
—The Indians did not like to talk about their losses. While many were killed in battles, there must have been more who died after the battles from wounds received.

Dakota Diaspora after 1862

 “By the mid-1700s, the four tribes of the Eastern Dakota people…”
—Incorrect – This should be “four bands” as stated elsewhere in the exhibit.

“A vast influx of white settlers in the 1850s and a series of land-cession treaties concentrated almost all Dakota in a 10-mile strip south and west of the Minnesota River by 1858.”
—Incorrect – This “strip” was 150 miles long as stated elsewhere in the exhibit.


 The map shows the group taken to Fort Snelling crossed the Minnesota River at Redwood Ferry.
—Incorrect – It cannot be proven where they crossed the river.
—No mention is made of the attack on the Dakota Indians by an angry mob in Henderson.

Crow Creek

 “Crowded onto the boats and weakened by imprisonment, many died on the voyage.”
—Incorrect – Very few died.


 “After the war, bounties were offered for Dakota scalps.”
—Unbalanced – During the war, the Lower Sioux soldiers’ lodge offered bounties for white scalps. See Through Dakota Eyes, page 222, “Samuel J. Brown’s Recollections”.

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