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Chippewa County, Minn., takes a look back at Conflict

BIG BEND -- As a bloody conflict raged for six weeks, one group of Dakota risked their lives to protect more than 200 captive white settlers, mainly women and children.

At the end of hostilities, the protectors became the captives, eventually marched and confined to a high- walled enclosure at Fort Snelling. A measles epidemic took the lives of many, and all were eventually exiled from Minnesota. Congress banned the Dakota from ever returning to the state.

The Chippewa County Historical Society became one of the first in the region to begin the commemoration of the great tragedy known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 on its 150th anniversary. Researcher and author Corinne Monjeau-Marz began the dialogue recently during the Historical Society's annual meeting at Big Bend Lutheran Church. She told about the experience of the captives.

The county's role as the site of Camp Release, where nearly 250 captives were turned over to Col. Henry Sibley, will be the focus of the Historical Society's commemoration Sept. 23. The society is also about to open its own exhibit on the conflict at its museum in Montevideo, according to director June Lynne.

The white captives would almost certainly have been killed were it not for the protection provided by the Dakota, who did not participate in the conflict, according to Marz.

Some of the captives had initially been held by warriors and kept on the prairie. They were ransomed at great cost and risk, and brought to an island near what is now Montevideo, where the larger group was being protected. Among those who risked his life to protect captives was Chief Chaska. He was among the 38 Dakota eventually executed at Mankato, according to Marz.

There is no accurate count, but Marz said historians generally believe that 650 whites and mixed bloods were killed in the conflict, and 50 to 60 Dakota warriors.

In terms of the proportion to the population at the time, it is calculated that it would be the equivalent of a six-week conflict taking 12,000 lives today, she said.

Nearly 2,000 Dakota surrendered or were captured at the end of hostilities. Marz said 1,600 women, children and elderly were eventually marched for one week to Fort Snelling. They crossed the Minnesota River at Morton and later passed through the town of Henderson, where they were attacked by townsfolk and refugees.

Marz has authored a book, "The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-1864.'' The Dakota were later exiled to Crow Creek in South Dakota, where many died of disease and hunger.

"When you look back at all of the things that happened on both sides, there were so many things you wished that didn't happen,'' Marz said. "All we can do in the present is stand here and look back and you simply acknowledge everything that happened.

"We know all of these people were killed, all of those lives lost,'' she said. "And those are the realities of this great tragedy that just fell on Minnesota and all its people.''

A couple of years ago, Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, authored a resolution approved by the Legislature asking Congress to repeal the Indian Removal Act of 1863 that banned the Dakota from Minnesota.

Congress has not acted on the resolution. It has become involved in tribal politics and fear of legal entanglements, Urdahl said.

Tom Cherveny

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

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