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Author details ‘welcome’ tragedy

Staff photo by Gage Cureton Minnesota historian and author Colin Mustful speaks during his presentation “A Welcome Tragedy: Factors that Led to the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862” at the New Ulm Public Library Wednesday. Mustful argues that the U.S.-Dakota War and its aftermath were the results of the Bureau of Indian Affair’s system that fostered neglect, nourished corruption and ignored all signs that war was imminent.

NEW ULM — As part of a week of events and keynote speakers commemorating the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, author and historian Colin Mustful presented “A Welcome Tragedy: Factors that Led to the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862” at New Ulm Public Library Wednesday.

Mustful argues that the conflict was the result of the Bureau of Indian Affair’s system that fostered neglect, nourished corruption and ignored all signs that war was imminent.

“Key factors were just the conditions on the reservations,” Mustful said. “The treaty system, corruption and the starving condition of the Dakota people.”

Mustful said he started research on the U.S.-Dakota conflict while he was in graduate school at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where he learned of the Dec. 26, 1862, mass execution of 38 Dakota men that took place in the center of town.

“That led me to question why and how did this happen,” Mustful said.

Research eventually brought Mustful to a letter written eight months before the conflict by George E.H. Day, a special agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to then-president Abraham Lincoln that detailed the state of affairs between Native Americans and white settlers.

Mustful said Day had been assigned specifically to investigate the charges against a carpenter who had cut timber that belonged to the Rabbit Lake band Ojibwe, and Day discovered that the carpenter had obtained his contacts through bribery only four days into his assignment.

Before writing the letter to Lincoln, Day had also written numerous letters to William Dole, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, who had ignored many of Day’s early reports of corruption and foul play.

“I was able to look at those letters and find out what he was discovering at this time,” Mustful said.

It wasn’t until over one month later that Dole had finally responded to Day’s correspondence, and Day had written many other letters detailing the corruption of the system that handled indigenous peoples’ affairs.

“In his reply he admonished Day for going beyond his authority and called his acquisitions imaginary,” Mustful said. “So he was scolding Day for investigating cases of fraud beyond that of the lumber case for the Rabbit Lake band of Ojibwe.”

Mustful said because Day wasn’t receiving a positive response from Dole, he had decided to write directly to the president.

“So obviously something is wrong,” Mustful said. “He’s uncovered multiple cases of fraud and corruption and he’s pleading with the government to make changes quickly before something bad would happen.”

He said Day wasn’t the only individual to warn of an impending conflict if the system were not fixed.

Henry Hastings Sibley, a well-known early Minnesotan, prominent fur trader and later a governor, had issued a warning to Congress in August 1850 shortly before the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was signed in 1851. Sibley warned that the Native Americans were being exploited by the treaty with land ownership being transferred to the United States.

“The Dakota exchanged their lands for annuity cash payments, but those treaty agreements were never upheld and were also exploited by traders and by contractors in order to get their hands on that money,” Mustful said.

Mustful said Sibley would later use those same methods to take advantage of the Dakota and other indigenous peoples.

Mustful also cited compliants and observances by Indian Affairs agents that reported illegal sales of liquor on reservations, exploitation by traders, fraudulent systems of annuity and cash payment and an overwhelming presence of U.S. soldiers at nearby posts and forts.

“So there’s no shortage of warnings about how poorly the Indian system worked and that it would eventually lead to an Indian outbreak or war with the Dakota people,” he said.

Gage Cureton can be emailed at gcureton@nujournal.com.

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