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Agreement is reached to protect Wood Lake, Minn., battle site

Tom Hoosier speaks about the Battle of Wood Lake and the battlefield site that is now protected. Tribune file photo

WOOD LAKE -- One of the most important battlefield sites from the 1862 U.S.-Dakota Conflict is being protected as Minnesota prepares to observe the 150th anniversary of the war.

The Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association announced last week that it has signed a conservation easement with a family owning a significant portion of the area where the Battle of Wood Lake took place on Sept. 23, 1862. It allows the nonprofit organization to develop a 53-acre portion of the battlefield site as a memorial to the Dakota warriors and U.S. soldiers who clashed here, as well as to develop an interpretive trail to tell the history, according to Tom Hoosier of Rochester, president and founder of the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association.

The association worked for more than six years toward the goal of protecting the site, and was successful in having it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Why this site -- also a U.S. Civil War-era battlefield -- was not recognized many years ago for its importance to history remains a surprise to Hoosier.

"I have no idea why, but it's done, and that's the important part,'' he said.

The association is devoted to telling both sides of the history represented here. It has been working with the State Historic Preservation Office and the Civil War Trust to see that the site is protected and recognized for its significance.

Hoosier said a parking area, walking trail and story boards will likely be developed as part of the first effort to tell the story of what happened here. The site will be restored to native prairie. Tall prairie grasses covered the steep creek and hilly terrain where the battle occurred.

The Battle of Wood Lake was the final battle of the Conflict of 1862. Col. Henry Sibley and 1,619 troops were camped near the battlefield site. Little Crow and more than 700 warriors were planning to ambush the soldiers, but only after they had broken camp and would have been strung out in a column over two miles long.

The plans were foiled when some of Sibley's men disobeyed orders and set out to grub potatoes in nearby gardens. They nearly rode over some of the warriors concealed in the tall grasses, and the fighting began. The advantage belonged to Sibley. The soldiers were armed with muzzle-loaded Springfield rifles and cannons that fired 6- and 12-pound exploding balls and canisters. Little Crow's warriors carried double-barrel shotguns.

Muriel and John Coulter of Tracy own the property. Muriel Coulter's family homesteaded the land. She said her father, Halvor Odden, visited with some of the soldiers who had fought in the battle and had returned years later to see the site.

The Coulter property includes the portion of Wood Lake Creek where some of the heaviest fighting occurred. John Coulter said it is a very scenic area, and looks more like an area of the western U.S. than the southwestern prairie of Minnesota.

The Coulters said they feel that protecting the battlefield is the right thing to do. They noted that its history is very important, and that the agreement assures that the site will remain unchanged by farming or other activities.

Tom Cherveny

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

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