The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 continues to be one of the most controversial and emotional events in Minnesota history.
In 1862, after years of enduring the U.S. government’s broken promises and late payments, the frustrated Dakota people attacked white settlements in southwestern Minnesota. The war that followed lasted six weeks. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in American history.
That was 150 years ago. There’s no question that the war has shaped the history and current state of Minnesota. How will we explore this incredibly important event?
The exhibit about the U.S.-Dakota War at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul is an intelligent and careful portrait of the war.
Primary documents like papers, treaties, clothing, pictures and weapons are laid out with explanations of what happened.
The assumption is that visitors don’t have a lot of prior knowledge, which is helpful — words are defined and concepts are simplified. So don’t worry if you’re not an expert, but do be aware that a walk through the sobering exhibit entails a lot of reading and thinking. There are a couple interactive parts of the exhibit, including a computer with extras like reading suggestions and a timeline.
The history center introduces its exhibit with a reminder that we ought to be careful about who we listen to when it comes to controversial historical events. We’re asked to pay attention to what stories might be left out, what stories are told and who’s telling them.
At the end of the exhibit, there’s a board on which visitors can write one word about how the exhibit makes them feel. When we went, sticky notes were covered in words like “sadness,” “grief” and “humility.”
John Steven Beckmann and his nephew, John F. Beckmann, have collaborated on a new work of fiction that imagines what life was like for the 38 men who were hanged in December of 1862. The uncle, a lawyer, wrote, and the nephew illustrated the stories.
Both Beckmanns have undergraduate degrees from the University of Minnesota. John S. Beckmann has his law degree from the University and John F. Beckmann is working on his doctorate in entomology.
The Beckmanns don’t claim to have created a scholarly or academic work, so it’s important to approach it knowing it’s a work of the imagination. John S. Beckmann put himself into the heads of the 38 executed men and wrote a page for each, describing how they felt and what they did (and didn’t do.) He also wrote a 39th passage for a prisoner who was pardoned.
You may not learn much from picking up a copy of “38,” but you will be forced to imagine what life was like for the individual Dakota people who were hanged after the war.
The illustrations rescue the book from being stale or repetitive — John F. Beckmann is a talented artist, inspired and influenced by the dark and intricate works of Albrecht Durer and Otto Dix.
“38” was published by John F. Beckmann’s Stampede Press.
Reading books and going to museums are fine ways to learn about an event, but there’s something to be said for visiting the historical locales themselves.
The Minnesota Historical Society is a trustworthy source for discovering the best path. Its tour of the Minnesota River Valley, which you can take by way of mobile tour, will have you stopping by all the important spots related to the U.S.-Dakota War. The tour starts in St. Peter, about an hour and a half from the Twin Cities, and follows along the Mississippi River to Montevideo.
Call 888-601-3010 at any point in your journey to hear more about where you are. Along the way, you’ll learn site-specific information about the war, and you’ll also gain a broader understanding of what was perhaps the most important event in Minnesota history.
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