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New books offer different look at U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

Books document lives of casualties, survivors

May 13, 2012
By Kremena Spengler - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - Two new books, "Eight Days in August" by Darla Cordes Gebhard and John Isch, and "The Dakota Trials" by John Isch, seek to shine new light on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

"Eight Days in August" documents the story of the people who died in Brown County between the outbreak of hostilities and November (in a few cases, of people who died shortly thereafter, of wounds sustained in the war). It tells who these people were, what they did before the war, how they died and where they were buried.

The book also describes the survivors, following their lives into the next generation; tracing the lives of spouses as they remarried, built new families and raised children, then outlining what happened to the children.

Article Photos

Staff photo by Kremena Spengler
Authors John Isch and Darla Gebhard hold proofs of two new books on the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, “The Dakota Trials” and “Eight Days in August.”

"Eight Days in August" grew out of notes drafted in preparation of the text for a cemetery tour in August, recount the authors. The tour is one of many activities planned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war.

In a departure from the conventional approach to the subject, the book focuses on people, rather than events or their causes. The war victims are seen as more than just a name on a list. In a sense, the book brings them back to life, driving home an understanding of both the tragedy of war and the resilience of human nature.

The text is augmented with some never-before published statistical charts, family trees, charts explaining blended families, cemetery graphs, etc.

The cover shows a painting related to the theme, "Burial Detail" by Michael Eischen, which has been purchased by the Brown County Historical Society Museum.

To gather the information, Gebhard and Isch scoured sources such as census, pension and probate records, wills, depredation claims, museum family files, newspaper articles, letters, diaries, narratives and other books.

Access to previously unavailable sources - including web resources that the authors used as a starting point - facilitated the writing of the book. The onset of computerized records has made it possible to uncover facts that would have been impossible to learn even in the recent past, say Gebhard and Isch.

The book traces 123 casualties and 75 families. It includes people that were previously unaccounted for. Past records tend to miss infants, for example.

Some of the survivors were difficult to trace. Many remarried and relocated. In the case of children, a woman's new husband would be listed as guardian, making it difficult to track a child's origins.

Case in point: the interesting story of a girl named William. Her mother wanted to keep alive the father's name. Through various government records, the girl "changed" her gender several times. This is not difficult to imagine: a clerk would not have known the girl's true gender, unless they met her face to face.

I asked the authors about other surprising things they uncovered.

While not surprised, Isch was impressed by the resilience of the women; in his words, "the toughness of the ladies." Where some men might have cracked under pressure, the war widows picked up the pieces of their broken families, started a new life, made a home for their children and raised blended and growing families.

The authors also point out a lesser known fact: the depopulation that occurred in the area as a result of the war, as evidenced by a comparison of census figures from 1860 and 1865.

The book is organized in a way that facilitates its use as a reference source by other scholars and professional or amateur genealogists. Following an introduction, the people are listed alphabetically by family name. Each entry is allocated three or four paragraphs. The entries are extensively footnoted, listing all the references, and indexed.

Because of the nature of the action (guerilla attacks, subsequent trials and relocation of the Dakota), settler stories outnumber the Dakota stories uncovered by the book. But the book includes people on both sides of the action. It lists three Dakota who died in Brown County in the specified timeframe. Information on the Dakota was more difficult to obtain and comes from oral histories, references in settler accounts and trial transcripts.

In a sense, Isch's other new book, "The Dakota Trials," fills in the gap left by "Eight Days in August." It's "the other face of the coin," documenting the story of the Dakota.

The hand-written trial transcripts have never been published in their entirety before; this book is the first effort to make them easily accessible to scholars and the public.

The book offers unadorned testimony about what happened to many of the 395 Dakota who were tried; telling who they were and what became of their families.

Some of the Dakota were sent to prisons in Iowa and Nebraska, some dispersed elsewhere; Isch traveled to many of these places to learn more.

He often tracked Dakota people through a "white" name, receiving some help with name transcriptions from a speaker of their language, a teacher in North Dakota.

The sources for "The Dakota Trials" include oral accounts, tribal and reservation records, information from burial sites in South Dakota and Nebraska, genealogy web sites and books by Dakota writers.

Isch does not take a position in the book on the fairness of the trials (although he noted during our conversation that "some pretty terrible things happened"). He lets readers read and draw their own conclusions.

The book addresses events that happened 150 years ago, yet the legal decisions it documents still carry weight today. The subject matter of "The Dakota Trials" has generated interest among legal scholars, in light of issues related to prisoners currently held at Guantanamo Bay.



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