Share This Article

In August 1862, Americans from New York City to Union-occupied New Orleans watched as Robert E. Lee’s Confederates moved against Union General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. Many were unaware of a boiling cauldron far to their north in Minnesota, where drought and poverty had plagued families all summer, especially in the Dakota nation. Treaties had promised yearly compensation in exchange for Dakota land, but Uncle Sam’s attention and treasury was focused elsewhere, and the payments were late. Angry over their loss of land and faced with starvation, Dakota leaders approved attacks on homesteads in the Minnesota River Valley.

From mid-August through September, warriors killed between 400 and 600 settlers, U.S. soldiers and some fellow Dakota. By fall, Union forces had suppressed the uprising. A total of 303 Dakota were sentenced to death, though President Abraham Lincoln commuted most of the convictions to prison terms. On December 26, the remaining 38 men were hanged in Mankato, Minn., the largest mass-execution in U.S. history.

Marking the anniversary of the U.S.– Dakota War, the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) has created a website about the conflict’s lasting impact on the Dakota community. MHS’s main goal, as its director and CEO explains, is to rectify years of interpretation that “has not adequately reflected on Dakota perspectives.” The MHS offers descriptions of the uprising, oral histories recording how the war is remembered in the Dakota community today, historical resources and access to MHS finding aids that describe their archival holdings.

At first glance the site suffers from an overcorrection, since it is almost totally Dakota-focused. Taken in conjunction with MHS archival collections, however— a sampling of which I hope archivists will make available online as well—this site offers visitors a wonderful opportunity to shift their attention, as Americans failed to do in 1862, to this overlooked part of the Civil War.


Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.