In May, American Studies Grant 2022 winner Maria Åhman traveled to Minnesota to conduct research with primary sources and archives. The topic of her master’s thesis is “Abraham Lincoln and The Indian System: Indian Policy of the Lincoln Administration during the Civil War, in the Context of the Dakota War of 1862.”
I spent 10 full days in and around St Paul, Minnesota, exploring the historical legacy of the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. In order to understand the historical, social and cultural significance of the war from different perspectives, I also wanted to learn more about the history of the Dakotas – people who have inhabited vast areas outside of what is now Minnesota as far as Canada for thousands of years. During my trip, I noticed that in many places dealing with the subject, they emphasized, quite rightly, that we are in the lands of indigenous peoples, and it would be important for everyone passing through there to remember that. My journey began with the Minnesota Historical Society’s exhibition ‘Our Home: Native Minnesota’, which told about the long history of Minnesota’s native peoples and their close relationship with the region. In Shakopee, I visited the Hocokata Ti cultural center of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community, whose exhibit ‘Dwellers of the Spirit Lake’ told their own story of their history, culture, traditions and way of life.
I visited many places that have played a central role in the war itself, but also places that have been significant in terms of Dakota culture. The Lower Sioux Agency, 111 miles west of St Paul, where the war broke out in August 1862, was a stopping point. There is a museum with outdoor facilities managed by the Minnesota Historical Society but maintained by the local Dakota community. Unfortunately, the museum itself was closed during my visit, but I was able to walk around the area alone and really feel the history that this place contains. Looking at the storehouse in particular, I could almost even hear the conversations that were going on in the days before the war when the Dakota were starving even though the storehouse was full of food supplies.
Another very touching experience was in Mankato’s Reconciliation Park, which is located in almost the same place where on December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota were hanged after the end of the war as convicted by a court-martial. Established in 1997, the purpose of the park is to promote reconciliation and forgiveness, which is reflected in the words engraved on one of the granite benches: “Forgive Everyone Everything”. While walking around Fort Ridgely, I tried to imagine what the open prairie landscape looked like 161 years ago. Today, forestry and agriculture have taken over the landscape, and open prairie is only a fraction of the entire state – less than one percent of the nearly 7,300 square kilometers remains.
Along with the fieldwork, I spent 5 days in the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society going through dozens of rolls of microfilm and boxes of original letters, which contained, among other things, the correspondence of the Office of Indian Affairs regarding Minnesota and Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsay, Henry Hastings Sibley and the Superintendent of the Northern Territory of Indian Affairs Correspondence of Clark W. Thompson (Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Northern Superintendency.) It’s a different thing to read research literature dealing with original material than to get on the spot yourself and deal with the letters that tell about events long ago. That is why I am very grateful for the trip, which was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Embassy.
Photos: © Maria Åhman