Remembering the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

Submitted photo by the Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, MN “Battlefield, New Ulm” by Mike Eischen depicts the battles in New Ulm during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

NEW ULM — One hundred fifty-six years ago, an armed conflict erupted between several bands of Dakota and settlers in Minnesota and Dakota Territory.

That conflict came to be known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

Stopping into the Brown County Historical Society (BCHS), one is able to explore its “Never Shall I Forget” exhibit on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which won the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Award of Merit in 2013 and has been a feature at the museum for the last six years. The AASLH award is the most prestigious recognition for achievement in the preservation and interpretation of state and local history.

The war first began on Aug. 17, 1862, along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota, which had been admissioned as a state just four years prior to the war.

After years of hunger, tension and broken promises, things had began to break down between the whites and the Dakota. According to Elroy. E Ubl’s “Historical Notes: A Glimpse at New Ulm’s Past (Volume I & II)”, the outbreak started from a trivial incident. On Aug. 17, 1862, four young Dakota men were pillaging a hen’s nest near the cabin of Robinson Jones at Acton in Meeker County.

Submitted photo by the Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, MN The Erd Building, where women and children took shelter in the basement during the Dakota War. This is now the location of Clifton Larson Allen, 108 North Minnesota St.

One of the Dakota men protested taking over the white man’s property, which resulted in the rest of the braves calling him a coward. Willing to prove his courage, the brave agreed to approach the cabin and kill its white owner. Seeing the approach of the Dakota men, the Jones’ fled to the cabin of their son-in-law, Howard Baker, but the Dakota men followed them, killing Baker, Jones and three others, two of them women.

The Dakota men then stole horses and fled to their village to beg for protection. After leaders of the soldiers’ lodge asked Chief Little Crow (Taoyateduta) to lead them in a war with the whites, he reluctantly agreed according to various sources on

The first battle in New Ulm during the war occurred on Aug. 19, 1862, while the second battle in New Ulm occurred four days later on Aug. 23, 1862.

Hearing of the attacks, the men of New Ulm hurried to build barricades in the center of town, which ended up helping preserve New Ulm. Despite the barricade strategy, New Ulm, which had 250 structures at that time, ended up having 190 of those structures destroyed in the attacks.

The Kiesling House is the only wood-frame structure remaining in New Ulm from that era today.

Submitted photo by the Brown County Historical Society, New Ulm, MN Dedication of the Defender's Monument in 1891. The original location of the monument was in the middle of the intersection of State Street and Center. It was moved to its present location at a later date as it had become a driving hazard for automobile traffic.

The war ended with most of the Dakota bands surrendering and by late December of 1862, U.S. soldiers had taken captive more than a thousand Dakota. After trials and sentencing by a military court, 38 Dakota men were hanged on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota in the largest one-day mass execution in American history.


BCHS executive director Kathleen Backer said that she is interested in giving the BCHS’s U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 exhibit a fresh outlook. Those plans include getting the voice of the Natives, which is currently missing from the exhibit.

Backer said that the BCHS is exploring that as something that can be added, although there is no official timeline on when the change will occur. However, the BCHS has talked about how to go about adding a fresh look and story to the exhibit the last couple of months.

“It’s very important,” Backer said. “I’m hoping that in my tenure, which is another couple of years, I hope, that we can accomplish that. I’d feel very good about my tenure here if that could be accomplished.”

In addition to adding the Native American voices, getting a traveling exhibit going is also something Backer wants to help get started, knowing that there are many visual learners that could benefit from a more hands-on approach.

“Also is there a way that we can package some of what’s up here in what we would call a traveling exhibit, so it can travel to other communities within Brown County and also to schools,” Backer said. “And if we did, what components would go with it as far as outreach education?”

Backer said that there were many things some people wouldn’t know about when discussing the Natives and their way of life. A few interesting pieces of information one might not know about the Natives was how important the buffalo was to them.

The buffalo offered much more than just food, shelter and clothes though. Every part of the buffalo was used to supply the needs of the Natives. Horns and hooves were made into cups, the tail was used as a fly-swatter and the bladder was used as an earlier form of a water bottle or a pouch.

The Native children even got toys from the buffalo in the form of little toy horses.

“The bones for the feet of the buffalo would have been considered the baby horses,” Backer said. “And the hooves would have been the momma and daddy horse. So again, that is the utility of the buffalo and the importance of the buffalo to the Native American culture and how they used whatever from nature to fortify and support their way of life.”

Although one can still learn history from hearing one side of a story, there is much more to learn when given the opportunity to hear an entirely different side of that same story.

Backer said that it’s very important to present people with both sides of a story so that they can draw their own conclusions and opinions. One example is the way the Natives were painted by many after the war.

“There has been a lot of dialogue about the brutal way in which the Natives attacked or conducted war against the Europeans,” Backer said. “In defense of the Natives, that’s the way they did against each other prior to European settlement. That was their style of warfare. And is that any different than the Jungle warfare in Vietnam? This was the warfare that they knew, and I suspect that’s how they fought against one another in Native against Native …

“So when I read recollections in the way in which the warfare of the Natives was summarized as being the savages and redskins … I would never use those words today, and I don’t know that others would as well.”

Staff photo by Travis Rosenau Two buffalo bladders at the BCHS. The Native Americans used the bladders as a form of water bottle and also as a small pouch (wallet).

Backer also touched on how the overall feeling of the war has changed so much over the years. What started as celebrations for white settlers and defense of their home against “the savages” had morphed into a more somber commemoration of two different groups caught in a war.

“Now we’re getting to a different place in history where we’re reflecting on it as a commemoration,” Backer said. “We’re looking at it as the clash of two cultures, and some of us historians will say to you that it was an unfortunate happening for both sides in that the Natives, as well as the European settlers, I would suggest were victims of something greater than they were, and that was the U.S. government. The locals didn’t withhold the shipment of gold, the locals didn’t make the Natives starve, and the U.S. government was engaged in what we call the Civil War.”


The BCHS, along with the Sleepy Eye Historical Society (SEHS) and the New Ulm Public Library (NUPL) are sponsoring several events to commemorate the 156th anniversary of the war the week of August 22-26.

First at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Robert W. Galler will present his research on the history of Crow Creek Tribal Schools at the NUPL. He’s a former teacher on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is a current professor of history at St. Cloud University.

Dan Munson will present “A Financial Outlook on the Dakota War” at the BCHS Annex at noon on Thursday. Munson is a University of Minnesota graduate and a student of Minnesota history and financial history. His writings have appeared in Barron’s and various history magazines. He is the author of a book about the Dakota War titled “Malice Towards None: Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, the Homestead Act, and the Massacre — and Inspiring Survival — of the Kochendorfers, a Minnesota History.”

Also on Thursday, the Lower Sioux Agency staff will have two presentations. “Tipi Life” will be presented at 3:30 p.m. at the Sleepy Eye Area Historical Society Depot Museum. Then at 6:30 p.m., the staff will present a program on Dakota Travois at 6:30 p.m. at the NUPL.

Friday, Mary Bakeman will present “After Wood Lake” at the BCHS Annex at noon. She is a lifelong Minnesota historian and in her retirement, continues to research the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, author family histories, create Minnesota finding aids and volunteer at the Minnesota State Archives.

All presentations are free and open to the public. Seating is first come, first served.

There will also be several walking tours on Saturday and Sunday free of charge. First will be Katie Kropper leading a walking tour of downtown New Ulm at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, followed by children’s crafts at BCHS. Children must be accompanied by an adult.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, there will be a tour led by local historian Terry Sveine of U.S.-Dakota War sites in downtown New Ulm.

Finally at 2 p.m. on Sunday, there will be a tour of the Pioneer Section of the New Ulm City Cemetery led by Darla Gebhard and Sue Ullery. Programs are subject to change. Call 507.233.2620 to confirm schedule.

For more information on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, please visit the BCHS’s “Never Shall I Forget” exhibit on the top floor at 2 N. Broadway St. in New Ulm. The BCHS is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Staff photo by Travis Rosenau Buffalo bones for the feet and the hooves (above) at the BCHS. Native children used them as little toy horses.