The No-Win War


It began with the worst slaughter in frontier history. It ended with a hanging: 38 Dakota Indians sent to the gallows, in what remains the largest mass execution to ever take place in the United States. 150 years later, can the Minnesota Historical Society unknot the state’s most tangled chapter?

Ben Gessner eases the display-case door open, and the scent of ancient prairie wafts out. It smells smoky, like stale campfire. Inside, there’s a muslin dress, gauzy and aged, punctured in some places with tiny round holes. They look like bullet holes. ¶ “There are objects here that are just…sad,” says Gessner, a collections assistant at the Minnesota History Center. A sincere young man in a bow tie, he speaks in the hushed tones of a funeral director. ¶ The dress belonged to a Prussian-born girl, Mary Schwandt, whose family settled near the town of Beaver Falls in central Minnesota in early 1862. That was the year that a brutal, six-week war between Dakota Indians and U.S. government forces swept through the Minnesota River Valley. Schwandt, 14 years old at the time, was taken captive by Dakota during the fighting. It’s one of many stories haunting the objects in this room—a carpet-squared work space, where museum staff has been agonizing over the exhibition potential of some 40 archival items. Each comes from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections. And each, in some way, pertains to 1862.

One of the documents is a hand-written execution order listing 39 Native American names. The signature, in cramped, calligraphic script, reads Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States. Nearby is a narrow walking stick. I’m told it is made from the wood of a hangman’s gallows.

“And I’m sure you’ve heard about the noose,” Gessner adds, reluctantly.

I have. It’s the rope used to hang a Dakota man named Chaska, one of 38 Indians executed in Mankato at the end of the war. Chaska was wrongly convicted. His death sentence had been commuted by President Lincoln, but he hanged anyway. And then a white man named J. K. Arnold stole the noose and proudly offered it to the Minnesota Historical Society as a “trophy.” Arnold’s letter of donation is here in the room, preserved neatly in a flat file, its elegant cursive belying its ghastly content.

We won’t be viewing the noose. Not today. Perhaps not ever.

It’s one of many highly sensitive objects in the MHS’s possession. Gessner is part of a team trying to determine which of these objects will make it into an exhibition, slated to open June 30, commemorating the 150-year anniversary of the so-called U.S.-Dakota War. It is a task of nerve-wracking delicacy.

For months, the society has been inviting Native American groups to view the objects, asking for advice on what to display. At times, they’ve even turned off the fire alarms and allowed tribal members to burn sage outside the basement archives, in a cleansing smoke ceremony known as “smudging.” The responses thus far, Brian Szott, head of collections, told me, have been “highly emotional.”

Several items have been officially nixed: a doll plucked from a battle site, a rawhide shirt with long tassels of human hair adorning the sleeves. (MHS officials later decided that the walking stick, too, would not be exhibited.)

And then there’s the noose.  In the months leading up to the MHS’s grand commemoration efforts—which go beyond a single exhibit to include initiatives ranging from oral-history projects and art openings to revised educational materials and cell-phone tours along the Minnesota River—it has come to encapsulate the thorny position the organization finds itself in. With all of its trauma-charged, debate-inducing objects, not to mention its founding by some of the very men who prosecuted the war, the society has more than enough rope, so to speak, to potentially hang itself.

“Some of the opinions are: ‘You shouldn’t show anything. You shouldn’t even have any of these objects,’” says Gessner. “But generally, a museum shouldn’t be in the business of censoring things because they’re sad.”

Here’s what we know happened:

In the 1850s, the U.S. government attempted to strike a deal with Dakota living in the Minnesota River valley, hoping to clear the way for further westward expansion. Two major treaties followed. The agreements went something like this: the Indians would cede their land—some 24 million acres, over half the Minnesota Territory—and move onto two reservations (which would later be halved in size) on either side of the Minnesota River. In exchange, the government promised to pay them $3 million over a 50-year period, in annuities of goods and money.

But in August of 1862, as widespread hunger ravaged the Dakota reservation, a key payment was late. The Indians were desperate, starving. But local traders refused to sell provisions on credit. Tensions grew thick, and a meeting was called to resolve the impasse. It didn’t go well. Andrew Myrick, representing the traders, famously declared, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”

The first attack occurred on August 17, near present-day Litchfield. Four Dakota rushed a white household, killing three men, a woman, and a 15-year-old girl. When the Dakota chief Little Crow heard the news, later that night, he feared vengeance from the whites. Despite personal ambivalence and deep misgivings in the Dakota community, he declared war. Coordinated attacks began the next day. But of the 7,000-member Dakota community, only a fraction chose to participate.

The fighting was brutal. Women and children were slaughtered. Whole families were wiped out. The exact death toll is unknown and hotly contested, but conservative estimates put it at 600 settlers. Dakota casualties are estimated at 50 to 60 (although hundreds of survivors, expelled from the state, would later die from disease and starvation related to their exile).

Forces led by Colonel Henry H. Sibley—Minnesota’s first state governor and a founding member of the Minnesota Historical Society—ultimately quelled the fighting. A military commission was formed. Nearly 400 Dakota were tried summarily for “murder and other outrages” against Americans.

There were no arraignments, no official charges, no legal counsel. In many cases, whole trials occurred in less than five minutes—so quickly that many Dakota did not even realize they had been before a commission. Ultimately, 303 were sentenced to death. President Lincoln, fearing a hideous episode, quickly ordered that the number be reduced to 39—probably an arbitrary figure.

The condemned were taken in chains to South Bend, near Mankato. Indian noncombatants—around 1,600 women, children, and the elderly—were marched on foot and horseback to an internment camp at Fort Snelling, in the Twin Cities. Along the route, they were attacked by mobs of angry settlers.

At 10 a.m., on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, 38 Dakota were hanged (one of the 39 was reprieved). It remains the largest mass execution in U. S. history.

Upstairs in the Minnesota History Center, headquarters of the MHS, Dan Spock leans back in an office chair and smiles benignly. Spock, the museum’s director, is the man in charge of the forthcoming 1862 exhibit—and the $240,000 in state funds used to finance it. Sporting a checked shirt and a tie knotted at the collar, he has the professorial, history-expert look nailed, right down to the glasses. Except he isn’t a history expert. In fact, he says, there may be no such thing anymore.

“It’s always been a bit of an illusion to pretend to be an authority,” he says. “The idea of having an ‘official narrative’ is kind of an anachronism.”

Spock admits that not only is the MHS not necessarily an expert on the events of 1862, but, given the organization’s roots, it can’t even pretend to be an unbiased arbiter. The president of the society in 1862 was Governor Alexander Ramsey—a man who called for the extermination and expulsion of Dakota from the state, and after the war authorized a serious of vicious “punitive expeditions” against escaping bands of Indians. It’s one of many uncomfortable facts that have rendered awkward the MHS’s claim—front and center on its website’s “About” page—of being the “chief caretaker of Minnesota’s story.”

There’s the Dakota internment at Fort Snelling, where nearly 300 prisoners would ultimately die after the war—and the society’s 30-some-year failure to acknowledge it at the site. (MHS is planning new, 1862-related signage for the fort this year.) There’s the bungled attempt at a 125-year commemoration—1987’s so-called “Year of Reconciliation”—during which it was revealed that Dakota human remains had somehow made their way into the society’s collections. Spock even acknowledges that, with the appointment of Steve Elliott as the new executive director and CEO of the MHS, there is an opportunity to “reset the dialogue” surrounding 1862—a reference to the retirement of former director Nina Archabal, who led the society for 24 years. “This is all part of the baggage we have,” he says. “We’re not going to defend the approaches we took in the past.”

So what’s the new approach?

“We’re trying to dial back the authoritative voice,” Spock says. He talks about history in the social-media age. About crowd-sourcing and Wikipedia. In fact, he cites WikiLeaks, with its messy dump of primary sources, as a key inspiration for the upcoming exhibit. “We’re seeing a pluralization of information on a scale we’ve never seen before.” The point is to back away from the idea of a single truth. It’s history-as-Rorschach-test: we all look at the same inkblot, but we all see different things. And it’s an immensely useful workaround for a consensus that has completely broken down. For years, observers couldn’t even agree on what to call the 1862 war—depending on the political correctness of the era, the incident has been known variously as the “Sioux Uprising,” the “Minnesota Massacre,” and the “Dakota Conflict”—let alone how to interpret it.

Today’s responses run the political gamut.

A Dakota activist named Angela Cavender Wilson, who goes by the Native American name of Waziyata Win, has loudly called for Fort Snelling to be bulldozed. Roseville author Curtis Dahlin views the Dakota combatants as “killers of defenseless people” and draws comparisons to 9/11. Stanley R. Crooks, chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, wants sensitive items in the MHS collections turned over to descendants or tribal authorities. And then there’s Sheldon Wolfchild, a Dakota filmmaker, who argues that Native Americans need not rely on historical societies to tell their story. It’s why he’s releasing STARDREAMERS this summer, a documentary he’s spent 15 years developing, about the Dakota’s history in Minnesota.

In a fit of inclusiveness, the MHS has sought out everyone’s perspective. Its long standing Indian Advisory Committee—formed in 1989—now has a handful of sister panels: a consulting group made up of white settler descendants, a council of independent historians. Museum workers have trekked to the far reaches of the plains to collect oral histories from both Dakota and white diasporas.

In other words, the society has become an aggregator. It’s a magnanimous, big-tent approach. And it’s resulted in a fly’s-eye view of 1862, fragmented and chaotic, a kaleidoscope of interpretations.

But you can’t include everything. Even Wikipedia is ruled by edits. Just as Gessner and his gang are winnowing objects for a finite showroom, the MHS will have to shape an avalanche of perspectives into something a curious audience can access. There will be nooses in that collection, too—things flagged as too sensationalist, too instigating.

So as much as the society tries to back off from owning 1862—they’ve discussed opening the exhibit as a work-in-progress, and press materials explicitly warn that visitors will have “to draw their own conclusions about what happened and why”—decisions will have to be made. Won’t they?

“I’m not a big closure guy,” says Spock. “Contention is built into this.”


A patchy film of snow coats the New Ulm City Cemetery, and Darla Gebhard scolds me for not wearing boots. Moments ago, she offered to return home and grab bread bags for my shoes. I declined. But now I’m regretting it.

Gebhard, a research librarian at the Brown County Historical Society, marches through the old rear plot of the graveyard. A spry, articulate woman, she delivers a running lecture on the symbolism etched into the eroded, chalk-white stones. That carved image there? Of a hand pointing skyward?  “That means ‘Gone Home,’” she says. The stones bear mostly German names—Pfaender, Schell, Hauenstein. Most also include another inscription: “Killed by Indians.”

Brown County, home to New Ulm, was hit hardest during the U.S.–Dakota War. Gebhard estimates that 122 settlers are known to have died in the area, which includes Milford Township, site of the single largest loss of life during the conflict.

“Most didn’t even speak English,” Gebhard says. “They weren’t citizens yet. They couldn’t vote. The real tragedy of this war is that these people had nothing to do with Native American policy. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were killed. Indiscriminately killed. Men, women, and children.”

There are 53 known graves in the cemetery’s Pioneer Section. But about a third of them lack headstones. Instead, they’re marked with numbered “plugs”—generic round discs stamped into the ground. We have to wipe the snow away with our feet just to find them.

The act becomes abruptly symbolic. Gebhard’s concern, she says, is that the memory of these dead settlers will go as buried and unobserved as their graves. “I believe that the Dakota need a voice in what is being done exhibit-wise. For many years, they were not heard and their stories were not told.” But the heightened sensitivity to the Native American perspective, she worries, risks slanting the conversation too far in one direction. “Who will tell the story of Milford?” she asks.  “Where is the voice for the innocent?”

As president of the Junior Pioneers, a heritage society made up of direct descendants of New Ulm’s original settlers, Gebhard is spearheading a push to create temporary markers for the unnamed dead in the cemetery. She is also working on a book, along with John Isch, a professor emeritus at nearby Martin Luther College, that will compile the names and biographies of every man, woman, and child who died in Brown County—European or Native American. Of utmost importance is to track what happened to their families afterward.

When I tell her about the MHS’s plans, that they referenced Wikipedia in describing their strategy, Gebhard affects a theatrical gasp. The thought of letting the chaotic push-pull of myriad interests steer a commemoration seems risky to her. And she’s disappointed to hear that journalists have been denied access to the Chaska noose.

“We do not let people censor what we show here,” she says of the New Ulm history museum. “Because we are a historical society. In my mind, museums should make their collections accessible.”

You could pass by the site of the hanging without noticing. In fact, hundreds of cars probably do every day. Traffic zooms by on a busy four-lane road, and the commemorative statue—a Native American warrior kneeling atop a sandstone pedestal—gazes stoically at a highway overpass. The sculpture is called “Winter Warrior.” It was created by Tom Meagher Miller and installed here in Mankato, just outside the Blue Earth County Library, in 1987. It supposedly marks the spot where the 38 Dakota were executed in 1862. 

Except Sandee Geshick thinks they got the site wrong.

“This is not where the actual hangings took place,” she says. She gestures toward a generic brick building, a modern hotel, a block away. That, she says, is where the execution actually happened.

Still, the statue is something. “I am thankful that the city of Mankato at least recognizes what happened here,” she says. “It’s a step.”

Geshick, 60, is Dakota. She is serene and warm, with wisps of gray coloring her black hair. Her great-grandfather, Tunkanhnamani (“Walks Under a Sacred Stone”), was sentenced to die here but was ultimately pardoned. After the war, he was deported, along with many other Dakota prisoners, to an internment camp in Davenport, Iowa. At least 150 would die there, in a prison that locals referred to as a “pig pen.” He was released in April 1866, and after several more forced migrations, ultimately made it back to the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Redwood County. He was one of the first Dakota to return home from exile.

In middle school, when Geshick first learned about the war, she asked her dad about it. “And he said, Tehike do. ‘It was hard, ’ ” she remembers. “That’s all he said. In our culture, we don’t pry for answers. The knowledge will be given to us when we are ready.”

Of course, today Geshick knows all about the war. She is one of the original participants in the Dakota Commemorative March, an every-other-year event in which tribe members retread the 150-mile journey, from the Lower Sioux Agency to Fort Snelling, that Dakota noncombatants were forced to make after the hanging. The walk takes five days. Geshick describes it as a meditative, prayerful event. “We do it to honor the women and children especially,” she says.

A traffic light halts the onslaught of cars, and we cross the street. Across from the library, a 10-foot-tall stone buffalo stands in a narrow strip of grass. A sign declares it “Reconciliation Park.” I ask Geshick what she, personally, would like to see come out of this 150-year anniversary. Her answer is automatic.

“Justice for the 38 that were killed,” she says. “I want an acknowledgement of the wrongs committed before, during, and after the war.” She wants an official apology from the governor, a formal integration of Dakota culture into public-school curriculum, and an official day of remembrance for those who died—Dakota and European. She would also like to see the Dakota Expulsion Act officially repealed. The federal law, which legally banished Dakota from the state, is still on the books.

“Who can tell us that we don’t belong here?” she says. “This is a brutal part of our history. It wasn’t talked about, and we had to endure a lot of hurt and racism and discrimination over this.”

She then tells me that she, too, was invited to the MHS to view artifacts. And what she saw was different from what I did.  She remembers a pair of pipes that belonged to Little Crow. She remembers seeing a ceremonial shirt, which also belonged to Little Crow. “There was a doll,” she says. “And a noose.”

What did she think?

“One of the ladies asked me that exact question,” Geshick says. “And I said, ‘Well, how would you like to see an ax that your mother was bludgeoned with?’ She didn’t have a response.”

Minnesota isn’t the only place in the world plagued by historic trauma. Germany has its Auschwitz. South Africa has its Apartheid Museum. The MHS has pulled significant inspiration from the “Healing Through Remembering” project, Northern Ireland’s amorphous, decade-long effort to address the “Troubles.”

But one of history’s most successful reinterpretations occurred right here in the United States. Over the last three or four decades, Colonial Williamsburg has evolved from a polite destination for antique and decorative-arts enthusiasts to a place of thoughtful engagement with slavery’s impact on young America. A key orchestrator of the transition was that site’s vice president of education, Steve Elliott. Today, he’s sitting in the executive director’s office at the MHS.

“I always told our staff at Williamsburg that our job is not to answer everyone’s questions,” Elliott says in a soft drawl.  “Our job is to send people away asking more questions. That’s how we know we’ve been successful.”

Elliott, in his barely-settled-into office, is well-mannered and bookish. He took over last spring, which means he’s had less than a year to fully immerse himself in 1862 planning. But he says he’s stepping into a process that is showing all signs of being on the right path. The main lessons from Williamsburg—from “Fess up to past failures,” to “Involve big-time the descendants of those whose story you’re telling,” and “Commit to telling the whole story, even the ugly”—are present here in St. Paul.

But 1862 isn’t Williamsburg. For one thing, Elliott admits that he “can’t recall a sticky situation, object-wise” in Virginia.

There are, of course, precedents for not displaying sensitive items. It usually has to do with a museum’s mission or management policies. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for example, commits “to telling the story from the victims’ perspective,” according to Steven Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibition. Staff members consult regularly with rabbis and survivors. Sensationalist items—human hair, desecrated Torah scrolls—are sometimes kept from display, but remain in collections for research and preservation purposes. In some cases, visitors are afforded the chance to view an object within privacy curtains, or steer clear of it altogether. The idea, Luckert says, is to keep an exhibition from devolving into “a catalog of gruesome objects.”

But the Holocaust museum benefits from a simpler morality. It isn’t hard to identify the underdogs in that conflict. Even at the National Museum of the American Indian, which traffics often in sensitive Indian-settler matters, officials adopt an explicit partiality. Their “charge and mission,” a spokesperson told me, “is to work from the Native American point of view.” The museum considers its objects as belonging to the tribes, and defers to their wishes accordingly.

The MHS isn’t as lucky. The society, in its “chief caretaker status,” is beholden to the entire state. They’re beholden to Sandee Geshick’s great-grandfather. They’re beholden to the folks buried in the New Ulm cemetery. But they’re also beholden to the vast majority of Minnesotans who never learned about 1862 in school. These people, above all, deserve a window into this history. And while they don’t need textbook tidiness, a little firm-handed curation would be a reasonable request. Even WikiLeaks, after all, had the New York Times to help make sense of all those documents. 

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the MHS shows the noose. But the society does need a plan to accommodate the uninitiated. It needs to rise above open-ended equivocation. To tread lightly is noble. To simply send people elsewhere is a cop-out.

The story of 1862 may very well prove impossible to tell. But that, of course, means that it must be told.

Gregory J. Scott is a staff writer for Minnesota Monthly.