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Descendants of U.S.-Dakota War survivors to tell their families' stories

WILLMAR -- As Cora Jones tells the story of her two sets of great-grandparents who survived the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, she pauses to acknowledge just how lucky she is to tell their stories today.

"My family is blessed to even be alive today," says Jones, who lives on the Santee Sioux reservation in northeast Nebraska. "When you look at everything that was put against us, in reality, we shouldn't even be here to talk about it."

Her great-grandfather Mazaadidi -- which means "Walks on Iron" -- was No. 39 on President Lincoln's list of Dakota Indians to be hanged on Dec. 26, 1862. Thirty-eight Dakota were executed that day, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The fact that Mazaadidi narrowly escaped hanging is what Jones calls "a true blessing."

Jones is one of six panelists who will speak at the Gathering of Descendants event 7 p.m. Monday at the Ridgewater College cafeteria in the Student Services Building, 2101 15th Ave. N.W. All of the panelists are direct descendants of individuals or families who experienced the U.S.-Dakota War.

In August and September 1862, hundreds of white settlers and Dakota died in a war between the United States and the Dakota people. Tensions had run high for several years between the Dakota and the U.S. government over treaty violations, but the war officially started when four Dakota killed five white settlers near Grove City on Aug. 17, 1862. Several months after the conflict ended, all Dakota people were expelled from Minnesota.

Others who will speak on the panel Monday include descendants of white settlers involved in the war. New Ulm resident Terry Sveine will speak about his great-great-grandfather, Peter Schmitz, who moved to Minnesota from Luxembourg in 1857.

Another one of Sveine's ancestors, his grandfather's sister Mary Schmitz Ryan, is wellknown in New Ulm lore for being assigned the job of lighting the fuse that would blow up the Frank Erd building -- and all of the women, children and older men inside -- if the Dakota were to attack.

"Women had heard so many stories of rape and enslavement, which would have been typical, and children feared for their safety," Sveine said. "Fearing what they feared, committing suicide seemed preferable to them. I think that speaks volumes to the terror that people felt there."

Another panelist, John LaBatte, will speak from the unique position of having both white and Dakota ancestors who were involved on both sides of the conflict. He says he strives to "speak out for everybody."

"White people who are descended from victims are speaking out. And Dakota people are speaking out. But they usually represent only one side," LaBatte said. "I'm trying to get people to realize that this war was really two-sided or even three-sided."

LaBatte says that when he travels the state to speak about the U.S.-Dakota War, he hears several recurring misconceptions about the war. He's heard it referred to as "Minnesota's Civil War" and says that some believe it was a war between the Dakota and the white settlers.

"The majority of Dakota leaders were not involved in the decision to go to war," LaBatte said. "The majority of Dakota people opposed war with whites, but many were forced to join anyway. Many remained neutral or opposed to the war."

Jeff Williamson of Rosemount, a descendant of the Williamson and Pond families who served in ministerial roles for various Dakota communities after the war, agrees that there is discrepancy still today regarding the Dakota people's role.

"I don't think people realize what the Dakota went through before the war and how difficult it was for them because of the treaties," he said. "They had been badly mistreated for a lot of years, up until the time of the war. In the end, it was really a tragedy for both sides."

That the U.S.-Dakota War was a tragic event in Minnesota's history -- and that healing must still continue for all sides involved -- is a topic likely to be touched on repeatedly at the upcoming "Gathering of Descendants" panel.

"None of us can forget the lessons of history, but we need to tell our own story, tell of our own survival, to grow and be healthy," Jones said. "We can't live with the legacy of historical grief. We've got to heal."

Reach Ashley White at or follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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