In an excellent article last week in the Star Tribune, Nick Coleman discusses how the state sesquicentennial must encompass commemorations of the Dakota War.
This brutal war lasted five months in 1862 and was part of the conquest of the Minnesota River Valley. The war ended with the largest mass lynching in US history, when 38 Dakota men were hanged as war criminals, on December 26, 1862. (A few placesto start.) We in the history of medicine are implicated too: many of the bodies from the war’s massacres and from the mass execution were dug up for anatomical study, some by William Mayo.
And as we prepare for next year’s 150th anniversary of statehood, we should remember history is a living and often painful thing.
Minnesota was baptized in blood, and reminders are scattered across a vast landscape: A monument in a cornfield that marks the spot of a small settlement whose settlers — all of them — were surprised and killed on the first day of the war. A marker in a woods where more than 1,000 Indian women and children were imprisoned in a pen. A barren place on the Missouri River where hundreds died of starvation and disease after being “deported” by a new state that exiled the people whose language gave the state its name.
At the time of our Centennial in 1958, the story was reduced to Manifest Destiny skits about brave pioneers and wild Indians. Fifty years on, how do we talk like grown-ups about the war that made Minnesota at the same time we are celebrating the Eelpout Festival?
Anniversaries are the bread and butter of local history–a good publicity hook, a useful theme for an exhibit, and an easy fit for a kind of historical practice based on timelines. We’re coming up to 150 years since the Dakota War. I remember Tim Glines suggesting last spring that as well as the state sesquicentennial, the next thing local historians and the public would have to think about, tackle, engage with would be the war. As Coleman suggests, we can’t wait.