SLAYTON?- One-hundred-fifty years ago, only 54 white settlers lived in what is now Murray County, on the east shore of Lake Shetek in what they must have thought was paradise. Then war came.
On Wednesday afternoon, retired teacher Bill Bolin gave a presentation at the Murray County Fair on the subject that has fascinated him since he was a boy, the Dakota War of 1862. The presentation was the first of five to be given during the fair on various historical subjects relevant to the area.
Bolin is not a professional historian but has studied the subject in depth all his life.
Photo by Steve Browne
The first of five historical presentations at the Murray County Fair was given on Wednesday by retired teacher Bill Bolin on the subject of the Dakota War of 1862.
"I just grew up here," Bolin said. "My dad was a Ford dealer, and I was out in the country a lot, because farmers didn't come into town, the dealer called on them. Many of his friends were newspaper people who knew a lot about the subject."
Bolin went to Tracy to teach school as a young man, a job he'd have for the next 40 years. For 17 of those years he worked summers as a naturalist at Lake Shetek State Park, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The park contains the site of many of the events of the Dakota War.
"I met many descendants of people involved, including descendants of some of the Indians who rescued the Lake Shetek captives."
Lake Shetek captives refers to a group of women and children captured by Dakota Indians under Chief White Lodge early in the war and taken to South Dakota before being rescued by a band of friendly Dakota called the "Fool Soldiers" under Four Bear.
Bolin gave a talk on how he learned what area Indians call "The Story" from historical records by participants, and oral histories passed down among both white, Indian and mixed families. He then introduced a video about the war made and narrated by himself and the descendants of participants in the war, both white and Dakota.
"It happened in 1862 during the Civil War," Bolin said. "We learned about Picket's Charge at Gettysburg, but Little Crow was being shot picking berries up at Hutchinson at the same time. It was Minnesota's Civil War."
The story is far more complex than the simple notion of white settlers versus Indians, with one side committing atrocities, depending on where your sympathies lie. Only an estimated 35 percent of the Dakota people participated in the uprising. Some settlers had Indian wives, and some Indians helped rescue whites.
"We can't hide atrocities, but (we) can't hide what precipitated it," Bolin said. "Innocents on either side paid the price, and we're still dealing with it today. I've been with Dakota people whose relatives took one part, and when someone came in whose relatives took the other part, someone got up and left. Now more and more people are learning there were no winners, and there's blame enough to go around on both sides."
Different sources give different accounts of how the war started and wildly different estimates of how many people were killed. Bolin's account has it that the Dakota signed a treaty limiting them to hunt on a 10-mile strip along the Minnesota River in return for a promise of $21 per month for every head of a family and food aid. An unscrupulous Indian agent, Andrew Myrick, diverted the promised food.
When told Dakota children were starving, Myrick said, "Let them eat grass."
Myrick was later found killed, his mouth stuffed with grass. After the defeat of the Dakota, 303 were tried and sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed the trial records and commuted the sentence of all but those convicted of rape and murder of captives. Thirty-eight were hanged in Mankato, the largest mass execution in American history.
The terrible irony of the war in Murray County was that the brunt of death and suffering was born by the whites and Indians who had previously gotten along as neighbors. This created feelings of betrayal on the part of both. Feelings that Bolin said were still raw at the 125th anniversary of the war.
Now though, according to Bolin, after much research into what really happened, and ceremonies of reconciliation, the descendants of both sides are coming to terms with the aftermath of the war.
"Indians say, 'Ask us, just ask us. We want our perspective represented too,'" Bolin said.