Last Saturday, Aug. 18, the Sleepy Eye and Brown County Historical Societies sponsored a Cemetery & Marker Dedication Auto Tour. On a perfect summer day, we remembered horrible events near Leavenworth, and at the Iberia and Sigel Cemeteries. It was150 years almost to the hour after the first attacks in Brown County in the U. S.-Dakota War of 1862.
The first stop was at a Historic Marker commemorating the "Dakota Reservation and the Leavenworth Road." It is on the township road just east of our farm on 280th Ave. From there, you can see the border of fields that are among the last remnants of the old reservation line. I was asked me to speak at that, and here is part of my reflection:
All the while I was growing up, my dad, Sylvester, referred to the south border of our fields as the "Indian line fence." Like kids do, I didn't think much about that; I just figured everybody had an "Indian line fence." When I got older, I noticed that a kitty wampus line fence wasn't the norm, and ours didn't exactly make our lives any easier.
A diagonal field boundary did not lend itself to "clean" farming. When you plant into your end rows, you create a thicket of plants. Then there's weeds. Nowadays, Roundup has made weeds scarce. But for years, we had to choose between cultivating out weeds and cultivating out crop. It's a painful thing to watch a corn plant get cultivated out, so we left the weeds. You knew the poor little corn plant was destined to fight for survival in a rough neighborhood of weeds.
When I was about 20, I was at the Lower Sioux Agency museum over by Morton. I remember seeing a map showing a reservation line that was created by the Travese des Sioux Treaty in 1851. A light bulb came on over my head. Ten miles south of the river, going southeast to northwest? It was our "Indian line fence."
I've thought about the creation of that reservation that went from here to the River. Sixteen decades later, it seems unimaginable now. But at least some people must have thought in 1851 that it was possible that the Dakota people could sustain lives inside a ribbon of land 10 miles on both sides of the Minnesota River. Of course, previous treaties had already been discarded, mangled really. But at that moment, this one looked doable.
Would the men who signed that agreement have pictured the Dakota people maintaining their hunting and gathering lives? Or did they envision them shifting toward white-man style farming? Either way, it was a bounteous piece of land that was set aside. Besides access to the Minnesota River, there were streams and sloughs with all matter of wildlife to fish and trap and hunt. There was also plenty of fertile upland to till or to graze.
It's a rather winsome thought to picture the two peoples living next to each other, separate but connected. Maybe that's a crazy thought, and maybe the signers of the Traverse des Sioux Treaty knew in their hearts this was temporary. That this wouldn't, couldn't last.
But on July 23, 1851 there was at least an idea on paper that this line could divide two peoples living peaceably. In his first inauguration address, Abraham Lincoln closed with an appeal for unity calling forth a time when "when again touched, as surely we will be, by the better angels of our nature." He was talking about north and south, and here we're talking about Indian and white. Maybe the better angels of our nature weren't enough here. Maybe it would have taken the best angels of our nature.
Of course, it didn't happen. And we are commemorating this week the 150th anniversary of the bad ending of that idea. But it's worthwhile to remind ourselves that there was another path.
And so this land was taken by the United States after the War of 1862. A lawyer from Mankato, John A. Willard, came to own it as an investment. And in 1896, my great grandparents George and Maria Krzmarzick bought it.
From thereon, this piece of erstwhile reservation property became tied to my family. Over the seasons and generations, milk, eggs, meat, corn, grain, and soybeans have been sent to feed the world out there. We've made something of a living from it, some years better than others. I'm not sure why the diagonal property line has been maintained here and hardly anywhere else. But I've made my peace with it, and Roundup's sure helped with the weeds.
I want to close with a couple thoughts about the larger commemoration this week. It's complicated certainly. I was struck by the words of Kate Roberts who was developer of the Minnesota Historical Society's exhibit on The U. S.-Dakota War of 1862. She said "This is by far the most contested history I've waded into. Every fact is in dispute, every fact."
I had ancestors who were farming near New Ulm at that time; my grandmother was a Hartneck. I think most of what any of us can do this week is listen to the stories. Listen with some quiet in our souls. We need, I'd suggest, to walk reverently into this commemoration. Reverently, trying to be still so we hear well. We should respect and honor the participants in this horrible drama by not making quick and easy judgments. Any quick and easy judgment is probably going to be wrong anyway.
Stepping into this commemoration is like stepping into a holy place. Be still, and know that blood and deep emotions were shed here. None of us has probably ever known the desperation of having a child who is starving to death. None of us has probably ever known the total fear that the settlers would have felt in those days. 150 years have passed, but the ghosts are all around us, and they deserve our respect.