Updated exhibit tells broader story of U.S.-Dakota War

The complicated tragedy of the U.S.-Dakota War is one that still leaves a mark, even 160 years later.

This month the Brown County Historical Society, or BCHS, is updating its decade-old exhibit on the war to include more on the background of the war and its aftermath, painting a fuller picture.

“Never Shall I Forget: A New Look,” will open Aug. 26, at the end of the society’s annual U.S.-Dakota War Commemoration week.

“The old exhibit really focused on how the people of Brown County remembered the war, through the commemorations that they’d had over the last 150 years,” curator of the exhibit Ryan Harren said.

“We are looking more at the aftermath of the war and its effect on the Dakota and the people of Minnesota.”

Jerry Weldy understands this multifaceted conflict more personally than most, as his ancestors were directly involved and family continues to feel its impact. Weldy said he was born two miles away from the site of the battle of Fort Ridgely in Fairfax and remains connected to his family’s history and the war.

“My family members and I are enrolled as class members of the Sisseton Wahpeton tribe,” said Weldy, an exhibit consultant for BCHS. “My great-great-grandfather first came through this area in the early 1820s as an assistant to a fur trader and then became a fur trader in his own right … and then married two or three other Native Americans before he met my great-great-grandmother. So I had people on both sides of the battlefield in 1862.”

Newly included information in the exhibit update includes that of the military’s defenses after the war’s end to prevent a future uprising of the Dakota, erecting several outposts and fortifications in Brown County. Many Dakota left the state after the war, but the military launched punitive expeditions from 1863 to 1865 to pursue and attack Native encampments in North Dakota.

The exhibit will end with an interactive display showing depredation claims filed after the war for property damaged by the Dakota. The year after the war, about 3,000 claims were filed for more than $2.4 million in damages, mostly by white settlers, according to the exhibit press release.

Weldy said for the exhibit update, they have improved the order of artifacts and historical panels and worked to prevent the presentation of this brutal and tragic history from offending people who feel strongly about the war’s impacts. Still, Weldy and BCHS research librarian Darla Gebhard challenge visitors to look for nuances in interpreting this history instead of simply siding with one group or the other.

“It was an awful thing, but the way it can be interpreted and the way you educate people on what happened in this area can be very fulfilling and important as time goes on, so school children and the people that live here understand what happened,” Gebhard said.

“It is so complicated,” she said, “something many, many scholars have studied to try and figure out what all went wrong that August to cause this to become such a tragedy for both the settlers, who lost their lives, and the Dakota, who were fighting for their culture and then were expelled from Minnesota and continued to suffer.”

In addition to telling new stories, the updated exhibit will feature different artifacts, artworks and simulations than in the past.

“You always want to give (the exhibit) a facelift every so often because it regenerates public interest,” Gebhard said. “Students that come in every year want to be seeing something different, so we are adding artifacts, removing artifacts. We have some exciting pieces coming in.”

Gebhard said one of the additions she is most excited about is a new simulated bark house next to the museum’s existing tipi that will allow visitors to compare the different types of homes the Dakota lived in. Other new items include a trade ax used by the Dakota during the battle at Fort Ridgely and a shotgun thought to be carried in the war by Dakota leader Little Crow.

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