By Jennifer Kotila
“This is the most tragic event in our state’s history, but it’s still not given the recognition it should nationally,” said State Representative and author Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) about the US-Dakota War of 1862.
Urdahl presented his third historical novel about the US-Dakota War at the McLeod County Historical Museum Jan. 15.
He noted that the pain which stems from that conflict 150 years ago, is still deeply felt in Minnesota today.
While the nation begins commemorating the sesquicentennial (150-year anniversary) of the Civil War, it should not be forgotten that the US-Dakota War is also part of that history, Urdahl said.
Urdahl is the co-chair of the Minnesota Civil War Task Force for planning events commemorating the Civil War in Minnesota.
Two of the battles in the US-Dakota War are listed as Civil War battles Fort Ridgely and Wood Lake.
Although there are events planned to remember this tragic time in Minnesota history, it is difficult to do because of the hard feelings still present, Urdahl noted.
Those planning events have reached out to the leaders of the Dakota nation, but none of them have offered assistance so far, Urdahl said.
To assist his audience in understanding the raw feelings still felt to this day by the Dakota people, Urdahl recalled a speech he had given in the Minnesota State Capitol rotunda celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.
Each time Urdahl referred to Lincoln, people of the Dakota nation who were present called out “executioner” and “murderer.”
When Urdahl approached the Dakotas after his speech, he asked why they had such hatred for Lincoln, who had reprieved 265 of the 303 Dakota who were sentenced to hang in Mankato Dec. 26, 1862.
Although 265 had been pardoned, 38 were still hung, the Dakota told Urdahl, he said.
The Dakotas also noted that Lincoln signed the Indian Removal Act of 1863, which removed all Dakota people from within the boundaries of any state.
Urdahl tried to explain that Lincoln was doing it for their own good, thinking they would be killed if left in Minnesota.However, the wounds the Dakota feel are still deep, he said.
It is Urdahl’s hope that “through knowledge comes understanding,” he told the audience at the museum.
“There are those who do not want to know what happened don’t want understanding,” Urdahl said. “They would rather leave the problem to simmer.”
Urdahl said he has taken steps as a Minnesota legislator to heal the wounds of the past.
For instance, he authored a resolution passed by the Minnesota legislature requesting that the federal government repeal the Indian Removal Act of 1863, which is still on the books, but not enforced.
Another effort by Urdahl is requesting the US President to pardon Chaska, who was one of the 38 Dakota hung in Mankato.
Chaska’s hanging was a case of mistaken identity, and another Dakota bearing a similar name was supposed to be hung.
The man who was hung had actually kept Sarah Wakefield and her children from being harmed once taken as prisoners by the Dakota, Urdahl explained.
Although there is not presently a historical marker at the site where the US-Dakota War began in Acton Township, there are plans to place a marker sometime this year, Urdahl said.
There will also be some type of ceremony remembering the first five victims of the war, who are buried at Ness Church.
Urdahl noted that his great-great-grandfather had been a part of the burial party, and also supervised the building of the Forest City Stockade.
Urdahl’s historical fiction novels
Urdahl’s books follow fictional characters through the US-Dakota War, recounting with historical detail why the war started, the battles that were fought, the actions of historical figures, and what was done to white settlers and the Dakotas.
Urdahl gave a brief overview of the first two novels in the series “Uprising” and “Retribution.”
“Uprising” takes the reader from the Civil War battle at Shiloh, to Minnesota following the first attack by the Dakota on settlers at Acton.
The novel follows the main character through the six weeks of fighting between US soldiers and the Dakota.
The second novel, “Retribution” tells the history of the immediate aftermath of the six-week conflict.
The reader follows the main character of this second novel through the trials at Mankato, the march by more than 1,700 Dakota people to the concentration camp at Fort Snelling, and the harsh conditions faced over the winter before they were sent by boat to the Crow Creek reservation in the Dakota Territory.
Urdahl explained that his third novel, “Pursuit,” is part two of what happened to the Dakotas following their removal from Minnesota.
“Pursuit” follows what is “probably the most impressive military movement in Minnesota history,” Urdahl said.
The US decided that it was not enough to remove the Dakota from Minnesota and hang 38. It pursued those who had fled to the Dakota territory before being captured, Urdahl explained.
In the summer of 1863, two armies were sent to the Dakota Territory to capture fleeing Minnesota Dakotas and destroy them, one led by Alfred Sully and the other led by Henry Sibley.
The armies were supposed to meet up in the Dakota Territory, with Sibley’s army marching west through Minnesota, and Sully’s army traveling north up the Missouri River.
However, Sully’s army was delayed due to low water levels, and Sibley’s army arrived first, Urdahl said.
On the way to the Missouri River, Sibley’s army battled the Dakota at Big Mound, Dead Buffalo Lake, and Stony Lake, forcing them farther west.
When he arrived at the river, Sully’s army was not there. Considering his job finished, Sibley went home, Urdahl said.
When Sully arrived, and learned what happened with Sibley, he did not consider the mission complete and continued with his army.
Sully came across a Yanktonai and Hunkpatina Dakota village at White Stone Hill, where the people were preparing buffalo meat for the winter.
The Yanktonai and Hunkpatina were native to the Dakota Territory, and had not fled from Minnesota, but that did not matter to Sully, Urdahl said.
During the ensuing battle, several hundred Dakota, and 20 to 30 soldiers were killed.
There were also 500,000 pounds of buffalo meat and other supplies taken by Sully’s army, according to Urdahl.
All of the supplies were thrown on top of the stone hill, with the Dakota’s bodies placed on top, and burned.
“There was a river of tallow (from the buffalo and human fat) running down the side of the hill,” Urdahl said.
What Sully did at Whitestone Hill has been called worse than what the Dakotas did in 1862, Urdahl noted.
While “Pursuit” ends following the battle at Whitestone Hill, the wars with Native Americans continued until Wounded Knee in 1890.
However, some Dakota say the conflict continues to this day, Urdahl noted.