NEW ULM - Local historians are thrilled about a recent discovery that could lead to previously unknown yet extraordinarily valuable information about life in the area in the run-up to, and aftermath of, the US-Dakota War of 1862.
The excitement comes in the wake of a significant find in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.: a private researcher, funded by a small private grant, last year located about half of the property-loss (or "depredation") claims filed by area residents just after the war.
Anne Earl, a volunteer archivist at the Brown County Historical Society (BCHS) museum, with occasional comments from the museum's research librarian, Darla Gebhard, and director, Bob Burgess, explained the nature and implications of the discovery.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Brown County Historical Society Research Librarian Darla Gebhard looks through some of the claims that have already been recovered
The "depredation" claims, the historians explained, were filed with a specifically-appointed federal commission. The claims describe, in meticulous detail, the property losses sustained as result of the hostilities, for the purpose of receiving federal compensation. More than 3,000 claims were filed, but some were rejected. About 2,900 approved claims were stored in the National Archives.
The records, while known to have been placed in the National Archives, had been missing since the 1880s. The private researcher, who has not authorized the release of her name, found some hints in historic letters as to the documents' potential location, and following up on these clues, located about 22 boxes, or half, of the long-missing documentation.
The documents are a true treasure trove of anthropological, ethnographic, architectural and other information, the historians explained.
Even the small sampling that has been made available to the museum so far contains information that was either never known or was thought to have been lost forever. One such example is an architectural drawing by Julius Berndt of the first Turner Hall building, with a detailed description of the structure, including materials, floor plans, etc.. The Turner Hall file, among other things, details plans for a building addition, a fact never previously known.
The claims also include detailed descriptions of public and private dwellings, some of them belonging to key pioneers: such as a house in town that belonged to brewer August Schell; its very existence also until now unknown. The claims contain comprehensive descriptions of crops, farm animals, furnishings and personal property, painting a picture of area lifestyles of that era. To quote Gebhard, together, the documents build a "diorama" of New Ulm and its vicinity.
Some claims list losses such as: "6 aprons, 6 handkerchiefs, 6 pairs of underwear," noted Earl. These lists suggest that people at that time had only one set of personal belongings for each day of the week. When the action broke out, they were likely wearing "the seventh" set of items.
The records also reveal the then ongoing transition in Dakota economic activity and lifestyles - from a nomadic to a settled, farm-based, existence.
The National Archives also contain, and the historians are hopeful to locate, related documentation - including but not limited to pension records and auxiliary records referring to the numerous military outposts that dotted the area in the war's after math. The location of these outposts was thought to be lost from memory, but maps and plans are now being re-discovered.
Inspired by the earlier findings, the BCHS museum applied for, and last December was successful in obtaining, a Legacy grant to help locate the remaining records.
Legacy grants, awarded from a special fund approved by Minnesota tax payers, are geared toward art, historic preservation and other projects that might not otherwise get funded.
The Legacy grant will help the local museum fund a trip by Earl and a volunteer to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27-31. They will conduct research at the National Archives to find the remaining boxes and will begin the indexing of the documentation.
The historians are hoping that the indexing of the records will naturally lead to the next step: making it possible for the museum to apply for, and obtain, another, possibly larger, Legacy grant - to photograph, digitize and bring the relevant copies of records "home."
The work could lead to the creation of a comprehensive database and enhance the museum's holdings and exhibits to the benefit of researchers and the public.