OPINION | Dakota War of 1862: Educators and local historians deserve credit for their hard work and fair-mindedness


In a recent piece on popular understandings of the conflict between settlers and Dakota peoples in 1862, Sheila Regan describes the general view portrayed by the Forest City Stockade Festival: “that the Dakota attacked the innocent settlers, that the pioneers bravely fought to defend themselves, that the Dakota got what they deserved.” She goes on to suggest that this is a common view of the events of 1862. I have been attending the festival since its beginning in 1976; my parents were founding members of the Stockade Committee. I think the view represented in Regan’s article is incomplete in a couple of important ways.

First of all, this festival is mostly a presentation of life in the late 19th Century; the gathering together of community activities in and around the stockade is a convenient way of summarizing life in Minnesota in the 1860s. The account of relations between natives and settlers is a small part of what the festival does. To the extent that the festival does address these matters, its account is more complex and more fair than Regan’s summary suggests.

The story presented is that the settlers bravely hid out to avoid getting killed; it is about building the stockade, not about any sort of military action. There is no military presence in the festival. And festival materials do not assert or imply that the Dakota got what they deserved. Here’s how the Forest City Stockade website puts it: “During this time, the Sioux had been firm friends for many years. However, unfair and dishonest treatment by government officials in the distribution of annuities and the breaking of treaty agreements had antagonized the Indians. They had made many futile attempts to collect the payments due them. Their leader, a general of great ability named Little Crow, called a secret meeting. Little Crow, speaking for hundreds of Indians said, ‘We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves.'”

Editor’s note

This opinion piece was submitted by Peter Shea after the publication of the first installment of our Dakota War series; the second installment and third (and final) installment have since been published. We invite you to share your views on this subject by leaving a comment on any of the articles, or by contacting editor@tcdailyplanet.net. Daily Planet editor Mary Turck is a longtime friend of Peter Shea’s, and she recused herself from any editorial decisions regarding this article.

– Jay Gabler, Associate Editor

The website is not, however, the festival’s most articulate voice on these events. For years now, history teacher Greg Matthews has conveyed careful, detailed, fair accounts of the events of 1862 in which nobody’s pain is disregarded or minimized. These stories are told several times each day of the festival.

Regan’s article compared the Stockade Festival to the Renaissance Festival. It seems important to fill out that picture, also. Admission to the Stockade Festival is $3; kids under 12 get in free. You can eat well for $5. This is a supremely good deal for families. This summer, it welcomed 3,400 people in two days.

This event is primarily educational. There is no commercial agenda. All items for sale at the festival are connected to demonstrations and educational exhibits. Staff members are volunteers, and all proceeds go to maintain and expand the site, which grows by one or two major exhibits each year. The festival has improved significantly, year by year, since its beginning in 1976. I wish the Renaissance Festival, as fine as it is, could aspire to this level of idealism and community service.

I find Regan’s response to the festival understandable; on some of my early visits, I had similar thoughts. The festival does not control the folks from the re-enacting community who camp next to the stockade for the duration; various views are implicit in their activities. Also, there is no native presence in the festival, and the displays, taken together, paint a picture of the strong, self-reliant, hard-working settlers. This presentation may obscure the fact that these settlers had dubious claims to the land they were settling.

I want to argue, however, that those who care about justice in history must come to a fair appreciation of the achievements of amateur history enthusiasts and local historians. It is important to realize that the day of the simplistic patriotic pageant is fortunately past, at some local history sites. People care about getting history right. They want to get better at presenting the stories of past generations to their children and grandchildren. The growth of the Forest City Stockade Festival from a single cabin to a reconstructed town is evidence of significant learning and of amazing dedication. Serious local historians and educators, like the members of the Forest City Stockade Committee, are the natural allies of all the people who want justice done to their part of the story. They know how to reach a substantial audience, at a level appropriate to kids and adults. They are willing to do what is needed to make their presentations accurate and engaging.

Without local commemorations and traditions, the basic facts about the past would become dead to most contemporary kids, whose time-sense is determined by the speed of technological development and by accelerating changes in economic and political reality. Local history groups do very important work, in an efficient way, over a long period. They need our critical attention and suggestions, and they deserve our gratitude.