Review – MHS BC Signs

Minnesota Historical Society
Birch Coulee Battlefield Trail Signs
Reviewed April 23, 2013

Items of Interest

In 1898, 4 monuments were placed around the battlefield by the Minnesota Valley Historical Society. These were difficult to read so MHS added signs with the text near each monument.

The Birch Coulee Monument is located about 3 miles to the southeast on the bluff on the east side of Morton.

The battlefield tour is self-guided and is open from May to October, from dawn to dusk. This site is administered by the Lower Sioux Agency Historic Site under MHS. 

General Comments

  • MHS admits that the memories of the battle aren’t reliable. The interpretation is given primarily from one Dakota and one white soldier view. Combining common views from multiple perspectives may have produced a better product.
  • One modern day painting, which has little to do with this battlefield, takes up sizeable space on two panels, while the most important map of the battlefield is shrunk down so badly that a magnifying glass is needed to read it.
  • There needs to be more about the actual battle. Too much space is taken by artwork and other less important topics. This was a battlefield, not an art museum. There should be more primary sources included.
  • Disrespectful – Joseph R. Brown the expedition leader is not mentioned or pictured.

Most Objectionable Statements 

The Battle of Birch Coulee 

Welcome to the Birch Coulee Battlefield 

Minnesota’s Civil War

In treaties signed between 1805 and 1858, the Dakota nation ceded much of its land to the U.S. government. By 1862 the Dakota people, who had once lived throughout the Upper Midwest, were living on a narrow strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River.
—Incorrect – The Dakota are defined on another panel as the Mdewakanton, Wahpekute, Sisseton and Wahpeton bands. They are not and were not a nation.
—Incorrect – It cannot be proven that the Dakota have ever lived throughout the Upper Midwest.
—Incorrect – There were 2 reservations in 1862.
—Incorrect – At 10 miles wide and combined about 150 miles long, these reservations were not a narrow strip of land.

After their hunting and fishing lands became limited, Dakota families increasingly relied on the cash and goods promised by the treaties. Crop failures in 1861, followed by heavy snows, left them poor and hungry.
—Incorrect – They were not confined to the reservations.
—Incorrect – They received much more than cash and goods from the treaties.
—Incorrect – Not all Dakota were poor and hungry.

When some treaty provisions were not honored, frustrations that had been building for years peaked. War broke out at the Lower Sioux Agency. Battles took place across southwestern Minnesota – at Redwood Ferry, New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee, and at Wood Lake. When it was over, hundreds of people were dead.
—Incorrect – The causes of the Dakota War were many and they were complicated.
—Unbalanced – The majority of the Dakota opposed war with the whites.
—Incorrect – There were battles that are not listed.
—Unbalanced – Many more whites were killed than Dakota. More than 650 whites were killed. About 145 Dakota were killed.

[Painting] – Frances J. Yellow, Minnesota Nice Oyakepelo, “They Say Minnesota Nice,” 1995.

In this painting, Yellow depicts the clash of cultures that culminated in the U.S.-Dakota War. The scaffold at the upper right refers to the government’s trial and execution of 40 Dakota men after the war.
—What does this mean? Why is this abstract painting here?
—Incorrect – The cause of the war was not a clash of cultures.
—Incorrect – 38 Dakota men were hanged on this scaffold. If the artist is including 2 who were hanged at Fort Snelling, this needs to be explained.

[Map] – Birch Coulee Battlefield probably by Robert Boyd

Survivors of the Battle of Birch Coulee left accounts of their experiences. But when eyewitness reports disagree, which do you believe? Whose word is the last word? For the Battle of Birch Coulee, there are no clear answers to such questions.
—Incorrect – The more accounts that are examined, the closer one can come to the truth.
—Incorrect – This important map has been reduced and is difficult to read. 

The Story of the Land

Before the Battle
In 1858 a stretch of reservation land – including what became Birch Coulee Battlefield – was ceded to the U.S. and made available to settlers. Since no one had settled on the area near Birch Coulee by the time of the battle, it was still covered with prairie grass and dotted with wetlands.
—Incorrect – Half of 2 reservations were ceded in 1858.
—Incorrect – At 10 miles wide and combined about 150 miles long, this was not a “stretch” of land.
—Incorrect – While no one had settled on this battlefield, there were settlers in the area near Birch Coulee. 

Two Men, One War

The story of Birch Coulee is told vividly by the men who fought here.
Anderson, one of two U.S. commanders at Birch Coulee, led a mounted force called the Cullen Frontier Guards. Wamditanka was one of four Dakota leaders here.
—Incorrect and disrespectful- There were 3 U.S. commanders. Joseph R. Brown, the overall leader of the expedition, was here.
—Is this correct? – Big Eagle said 4 Dakota leaders were here but was he correct? 

A Beautiful Place to Encamp

An Error in Judgment
Grant chose a site on level ground, close to trees and water, less than a half-mile from the road to Fort Ridgely – in a low-lying area open to gunfire.
—Incorrect – The actual campsite was about 6 feet higher in 1862. Fill has been removed from the site prior to it becoming a State Site.
—Incorrect – According to Robert Boyd, the site was on a slight rise. 

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

“When the men in advance reached Little Crow’s village…they saw a column of mounted men and some wagons…going eastward.”
     – Wamditanka

The “men in advance” were Dakota scouts. According to Wamditanka, they were traveling in a group of several hundred toward New Ulm where an attack was planned. They had stopped at the village of the Mdewakanton chief Taoyateduta (Little Crow) to gather belongings left behind during the siege.
—Incorrect – There are at least 3 reasons the Indian group was moving upriver.
—Incorrect – Taoyateduta does not translate to Little Crow.

The “mounted men” were Anderson and his command. They were part of a burial detail – 150 volunteer soldiers and civilians sent from Fort Ridgely to bury victims of the war that had been raging across the region.
—Incorrect – The expedition leader, Joseph R. Brown was with Anderson’s group.
—Incorrect – This group was to also search for survivors and to locate the hostile Indians. 

Battle Tactics

The Prairie Factor

The Fight was on 

Dakota Positions

No soldier would have attempted to climb this hill during the battle. But by standing here today, you can get a sense of Dakota positions. Wamditanka and his band were behind this hill.
—Incorrect – Because fill has been removed from this site and because it was farmed, we cannot say the present battlefield looks the same as it did in 1862. 

Battle Scars

Tethered to wagons on the campsite’s east side, most of the U.S. horses were killed early.
Most of the burial detail’s food was gone by nightfall. The Minnesota River – their source of fresh water – was blocked by Dakota fire.
—Incorrect – The horses were tethered to stakes.
—Incorrect – All but one horse was killed early.
—Incorrect – The Minnesota River was not their only source of water. As stated on another panel, there was also water in Birch Coulee. There were also Dakota in the coulee. 

The Battle Ends

Early in the afternoon of September 3, the U.S. forces heard two cannon blasts coming from the east. Could help be near? When reinforcements failed to appear, they gave up hope.
Several hours later, troops from Fort Ridgely finally arrived. The Dakota forces spotted the troops, ceased fire, and vanished. After 36 hours, what Battle of Birch Coulee was over.
—Incorrect – The sequence of events given here does not agree with the sequence of events given in the next paragraph.
—Incorrect – Other sources say the siege lasted 30-31 hours.

“We Could Have Taken the Camp”
According to Wamditanka, the Dakota men had a plan to charge the campsite.
The Dakota leaders changed their plans when they spotted U.S. reinforcements. Mankato and about 50 Dakota men rushed toward the reinforcements, stopping them in their tracks for several hours. When additional U.S. troops moved in, however, the Dakota headed south across the Minnesota River to their old villages, and then upriver to Yellow Medicine. 

After the Battle

“Soon after the battle, I, with many others who had taken part in the war, surrendered to Gen. Sibley.”     – Wamditanka
—Incorrect – Wamditanka was talking about the Battle of Wood Lake not Birch Coulee. 

[The Painting “Minnesota Nice Oyakepelo” by Frances J. Yellow, is repeated on this panel. See my comments on this painting and text above.]

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