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Archaeological work at Wood Lake Monument locates site of rifle pit, old agency road

This photo provided by archaeologist Michelle Terrell shows where Terrell and co-workers excavated a rifle pit near the obelisk at the Wood Lake Monument site in eastern Yellow Medicine County. It is described as a defensive trench used by soldiers to protect the camp of Colonel Henry Sibley during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
This photo provided by Dr. Michelle Terrell was taken during the excavation of a rifle pit near the Wood Lake Monument. The dark band that runs across the center of the image is a section of the trench. The entire trench was about 97 feet long. (Submitted photo) 2 / 2

WOOD LAKE — As the final battle of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 raged about them, soldiers with Minnesota’s 3rd Regiment just returned from fighting the Confederates stood ready in a trench to protect the camp Colonel Henry Sibley had made on the open prairie.

Recently, a portion of that defensive trench re-appeared on the prairie.

Dr. Michelle Terrell, an archaeologist with Two Pines Resource Group of Shafer, Minnesota, and co-workers excavated a portion of the 30-meter-long rifle pit at the site of the Wood Lake Monument in eastern Yellow Medicine County.

In 1910, an obelisk was erected on this one-acre site to mark the Battle of Wood Lake. The site was Sibley’s campsite, and not where the actual fighting took place, according to Terrell.

Still, the campsite can help tell a great deal about that history, according to Terrell. Her recent work showed that the site had not been significantly disturbed since 1862. That’s despite the fact that the area had once been a homestead and work had occurred to erect the obelisk.

The obelisk and a fence surrounding the one-acre site are to be repaired this year, and that triggered the visit by Terrell. Her work focused mainly on identifying how much of the archaeological record remains there. It helps determine areas that should be protected in case archaeological work can occur in the future.

Prior to her arrival, a crew with high-tech sensors had probed the area. They identified anomalies such as disturbed soil that could have been the result of activities in 1862.

Terrell and her crew came to “ground truth” the anomalies. It proved productive. Along with the trench, they were able to locate the old agency road. Little Crow and his warriors had intended to ambush the soldiers when they left camp and would have been strung out single-file on the dirt path.

The archaeological work helps create a more accurate map of the lay of the land there in 1862.

The archaeologist will also be working later this summer at a site near the Lower Sioux Agency Historical Site. Initial archaeological excavations found features that could provide a great deal more information about what happened at the site, she said.

The archaeologist has a strong interest in the history of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. She conducted the previous research that confirmed the actual location of the Wood Lake battlefield. Her work made possible its designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association has since worked with local landowners and has an agreement setting aside a 54-acre portion of the battlefield. Signs at the site tell some of its story, and the battlefield site serves to remember those on both sides who fought and died there.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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