Archive for the ‘People’ Category

This year is the 150th anniversary of a seminal event in Minnesota history, the U.S.-Dakota War. Like many Minnesotans, I knew very little about the war itself or the events leading up to it. I could say that was because I grew up in Wisconsin, not in Minnesota, but I don’t know how much I would have learned about it even if I had. After all, I remember learning about Wisconsin Indians only very briefly in fourth grade. I think we might also have spent a week on American Indians in my U.S. history class in high school. (I believe I wrote a short paper on the Nez Perce.) This inadequate treatment relegated Indian people to the past, denying their resilience and vitality in the present day.

The Minnesota River Valley was the site of most of the battles during the 1862 war. Boasting fertile land, European American settlers were eager to turn it into farmland.

In the last few months I have read numerous articles and books about the events leading up to the 1862 war as well as first-person accounts and reactions of European Americans, mixed bloods, and Dakota people.

The Minnesota River near the historic river crossing known as Traverse des Sioux. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (1851) in which the Dakota ceded 24 million acres of land was signed near here.

This quote appears on an exhibit panel in the Treaty Site History Center at Traverse des Sioux in St. Peter.

I have visited several of the important sites associated with the war: Traverse des Sioux, where one of the 1851 treaties with the Dakota was signed; New Ulm, which was attacked twice by Dakota warriors and whose residents fled to Mankato; Fort Ridgely, also attacked twice; and of course Fort Snelling State Park, where approximately 1600 Dakota noncombatants (older men, women, children) were kept in an internment camp (some refer to it as a concentration camp) over the winter of 1862-1863.

Whatever you call it, up to 300 Dakota died there that winter and the survivors were put on steamboats in May of 1863 and shipped down the Mississippi River and up the Missouri River to Crow Creek Reservation in present-day South Dakota. There many more died of malnutrition and exposure over the next few years before the survivors were moved on once again, this time to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.

This memorial in Fort Snelling State Park remembers and honors the Dakota who were imprisoned and who died here during that winter.

I did not go into Mankato, where the largest mass execution in American history took place on December 26, 1862, when 38 Dakota were hanged (at least one of whom was confused with another man with a similar name and hanged by mistake).

I have struggled to find the words to describe those events. Unrelentingly sad. Deplorable. There was plenty of greed, bigotry, and corruption. The government’s failure to uphold the terms of not one, but several treaties, is only the beginning. But there were some on both sides of the conflict who behaved with honor, courage, and principle.

Quote on a panel in the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter. President Lincoln had sent George Day to investigate the Indian Department in Minnesota

Sarah Wakefield was held captive for the six weeks of the war, but was protected by a Dakota man named Chaska (the one hanged by mistake at Mankato). In return for trying to defend him before during the military trials and pointing out the legitimate grievances of the Dakota, she was vilified by most Minnesotans, who accused her of falling in love with Chaska, even sleeping with him.

Bust of Bishop Whipple in the Rice County Historical Society, Faribault, MN.

Then there was Bishop Henry Whipple, who went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Lincoln in person and argue for clemency for the more than 300 Dakota sentenced to hang by the military court. Bishop Whipple also gave protection to some of the small number of Dakota who remained in the state, living under his and Alexander Faribault’s protection in the city of Faribault.

The more you explore the sources, the more complicated everything becomes – not an unusual situation in history. And yet certain facts remain: the U.S. government did not live up to its treaty obligations; a minority of the Dakota went to war; about 600 white settlers were killed, most within the first few days; the U.S. government conducted the largest mass execution in our history in Mankato; and the Dakota nation was punished by being expelled from the state.

In New Ulm there is a monument to the European Americans who died during the war. This inscription lists those who died during the battles of New Ulm.

The Dakota are still a part of Minnesota today (many began returning not long after the war in spite of the government bounty on them). But that does not mean that we should not acknowledge the great wrongs that were done. We make a terrible mistake when we dismiss historical events as irrelevant in the present, as over and done with. We need to recognize that the repercussions of events such as the U.S-Dakota War are still felt today. We should try to heal the wounds. And we should learn from events like this that the seeds of terrible conflict are often sown decades before violence takes over. I wonder how different our behavior as a country would change if we could learn from these painful events in our past. As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.


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It’s wonderful when the penny drops and your brain makes connections between several pieces of random information you’ve had bouncing around in your head. It happened to me this week as I took a long walk down Summit Avenue in St. Paul. My attention was caught first by the large garden in front of a church, House of Hope Presbyterian. It looked like a vegetable garden, but I wasn’t sure. Then I noticed the sign explaining their community garden project, which is new this year. (The produce is donated to the food shelf at Neighborhood House in St. Paul. What a wonderful addition to this neighborhood! Read more about the garden here.)

Then my eyes zeroed in on the historical marker close by and, as an inveterate reader of historical markers, I continued my reading.

Historical marker about Edward Duffield Neill in front of House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Summit Avenue, St. Paul. If I hadn't read this marker, who knows when I would have figured out who Neill was.

In the first line I saw a familiar name: Edward Duffield Neill. I recognized the name from several years of looking people up in Neill’s History of the Upper Mississippi Valley, a gold mine for information about early settlers in the counties of the Upper Mississippi in Minnesota and therefore a boon to the many family history researchers I have assisted. But I had never bothered to find out anything about the man himself. I was just thankful someone had taken the time to put all that information together – it made my life much easier!

The historical marker gives the bare bones of Neill’s accomplishments, but now my curiosity was truly aroused and I went home and looked him up. (The internet is a wonderful tool, but I still ended up in the Minnesota Historical Society library.) It turns out he arrived in St. Paul in 1849 when the city could hardly even be called a town and soon established the First Presbyterian Church on land donated by Henry Rice. Six years later he established a second congregation, House of Hope, on land donated by Alexander Ramsey. It’s interesting to think about the fact that these early prominent residents had to have known each other, given the small size of the community. In any case, Neill served as a minister until 1860. The two congregations he founded merged in 1914 when the current sanctuary and Weyerhauser Wing were constructed on Summit. House of Hope Presbyterian appears to be a thriving congregation still.

House of Hope Presbyterian Church, Summit Avenue, Saint Paul. Photo taken with my camera - technology can be useful when you're caught without your good camera!

But the churches were just the beginning of Neill’s accomplishments. He served as State Superintendent of Education and chancellor of the University of Minnesota from 1858 to 1861, and then as chaplain of the First Minnesota from June 1861 until July 1862, when he was appointed Hospital Chaplain in the Union army. In January 1864, Neill was appointed by President Lincoln as his private secretary, and he stayed on after Lincoln’s assassination to serve President Andrew Johnson. In 1869, President Grant appointed him as the US Consul to Ireland, and he served there into 1870, at which time he resigned from government service.

From 1873 until 1884, Neill served as president of Macalester College, and from 1884 until his death in 1893 he was a professor of history, literature, and political economy at Macalester. In addition, he was secretary of the Minnesota Historical Society from 1851 to 1863 and wrote numerous books including several on early Minnesota history.

How he managed to collect all the details about so many early residents and businesses in various Minnesota counties that appear in his books, I do not know. Perhaps the answer lies in his voluminous papers at the Minnesota Historical Society. Neill can be seen here in an 1855 photo by Whitney, quite appropriately with papers (although they don’t appear to be very realistic!), and here at home with his family in about 1860 (photos in the Minnesota Historical Society collection). His biography leaves me humbled. Clearly he was a very big fish with an impact well beyond his small pond, the young but growing Twin Cities.

As I continued my round-about investigation at the MHS library, I discovered yet another early Twin Cities resident that Neill had known well besides Rice and Ramsey and frankly of more interest to me: Charlotte Clark Van Cleve (mentioned in my previous post on Minnehaha Falls). Yet another puzzle piece snapped into place: discovering more about Neill helped me to discover a bit more about Charlotte, one of my favorite figures in 19th-century Minnesota history.

It seems that they knew each other well, which now makes sense since both were active Presbyterians and both were interested in recording the history of early Minnesota. In Neill’s 1881 book The History of Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis, he devoted considerable space to recounting Charlotte’s life and accomplishments in warm and appreciative language. Neill’s description of Charlotte tells us something about both the author and the subject.

For example, on woman suffrage:

… Mrs. Van Cleve has ever been the champion of her sex. Too true a wife and mother ever to lose sight of woman’s best and dearest rights she has still been a warm advocate of her right to equality before the law, including the ballot.

And on social injustice:

But of all the forms of the injustice of society to women, none has so touched her heart and roused her indignation as the remorseless punishment visited upon the fallen woman.

Charlotte  was instrumental in founding Bethany Home, a home for “fallen women,” as Neill put it, where an unmarried pregnant woman could find a place to stay, have her baby, and learn how to get on her feet and make a living, either keeping her baby or giving the baby up for adoption. More on Charlotte in subsequent posts as I uncover more about her life.

If we allow ourselves the time, one brief memorial encountered as we go about our daily lives can lead us to discover a variety of interesting tidbits that start make connections between previously random pieces of information we’ve had floating around upstairs. Here I was able to make more sense out of a name I knew only vaguely, and in taking the time to find out more about him, I was able to circle back around and learn more about another fascinating early resident of the Twin Cities. No doubt I will become better acquainted with both of them as I continue my rambles, which I suspect will be taking me quite frequently to the Minnesota Historical Society library as the temperature drops!

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Minnehaha Falls – yet another of those iconic sites in the Twin Cities. And easily accessible by bike, thanks to some forward-thinking park planners in the late-nineteenth century. Perhaps not impressive as the more famous waterfalls like Niagara or Yellowstone, but a genuinely tranquil spot for us city-dwellers, especially if you take the time to descend into the glen and stroll along the path by Minnehaha Creek.

The Falls are ever-changing. Last October, the first time I visited the Falls, they were running quite impressively, the water roiling in the pool below before flowing down the creek.

The Falls in October 2010.

Last week when I visited, things looked a lot different.

By October 2011, the Falls was just a pale memory of its spring incarnation.

The flow of the creek is now totally dependent on snow and rainfall again – and it’s been dry for a while now – but for many years a system of pumps kept the water rushing over the Falls (including water drawn from the Mississippi). Back in August of 1964 drastic steps had to be taken to ensure a good flow during a severe drought: in honor of a visit by President Lyndon Johnson, fire hydrants upstream from the Falls were opened, thus ensuring that the President could view a cascade rather than a feeble trickle.

The photo on this interpretive panel at the park shows President Johnson and Hubert Humphrey enjoying Minnehaha Falls in 1964.

The image of the falls has been recorded innumerable times from early on in Minnesota history, e.g. this lithograph by Henry Lewis from 1854 and this Benjamin Franklin Upton photograph including Dakota men looking down on the falls (Minnesota Historical Society collection).

But these images don’t capture the Fall’s environs or what it was like to visit or play at the falls in the days before Minnesota was even a territory. Charlotte Clark Van Cleve spent a few of her childhood years in the early 1820s at Fort Snelling and as an adult, she waxed nostalgic about visiting the falls as a child:

But the most charming of all our recreations was a ride to “Little Falls” [apparently as compared to St. Anthony Falls, the “Big Falls”] now “Minnehaha.” The picture in my mind of this gem of beauty, makes the sheet of water wider and more circular than it is now, I know it was fresher and newer, and there was no saloon there then, no fence, no tables and benches, cut up and disfigured with names and nonsense, no noisy railroad, no hotel, it was just our dear pure “Little Falls” with its graceful ferns, its bright flowers, its bird music and its lovely water-fall. And while we children rambled on the banks, and gathered pretty fragrant things fresh from their Maker’s hand, listening the while to sweet sounds in the air, and to the joyous liquid music of the laughing water, there may have been some love-making going on in the cozy nooks and corners on the hill side or under the green trees, for in later years, I have now and then come upon groups of two, scattered here and there in those same places, who looked like lovers, which recalled to my mind vividly what I had seen there long ago.

A young couple has found its way up under the overhang near the Falls themselves. October 2011.

That enchanting spot, so dainty in its loveliness, is hallowed by a thousand tender associations and it seems more than cruel to allow its desecration by unholy surroundings and various forms of vice. Standing beside it now, and remembering it in its purity, just as God made it, my eyes are full of unshed tears, and its mellifluous ceaseless song seems pleading to be saved from the vandalism which threatens to destroy all its sweet influences and make it common and unclean. But as I, alone, of all who saw it in those days long gone by, stand mourning by its side, there dawns in my heart the hope that the half formed purpose now talked of, for making it the centre of a park for the delight of the two cities between which it stands, may be perfected, thus saving it from destruction and making this bright jewel in its setting of green, the very queen of all the many attractions of this part of our State. Surely no spot in ours or any other State offers such beauty or so many inducements for such a purpose, and coming generations will forever bless the men who shall carry it out, thus preserving our lovely Minnehaha and the charming surroundings for their own delight and the enjoyment of those who shall come after them.

(From ‘Three Score Years and Ten’ Life-Long Memories of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and Other Parts of the West by Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve, 1888, available as an EBook #20232 through Gutenberg EBooks.)

Henry Snelling, son of Colonel Josiah Snelling, also recorded his memories of growing up at Fort Snelling in the 1820s. In his Memoirs of a Life from my notebook and journal, with additions and reflections, he gushed (sorry, couldn’t resist) about Minnehaha Falls, writing:

Two miles north of the fort is the celebrated cascade Minnehaha (Laughing water); and a most lovely and beautiful gift of God it was at that time, a very paradise of nature. How the hand of man has improved (?) it I know not, for I have never visited it since my boyhood days. Here I have wandered down and along the grassy and forest covered slopes of the cool and placid stream gathering the beautiful flowers that adorned the velvet robe of loveliest green that covered our mother earth or sat beneath the musical sounds of the Laughing water as it fell into the crystal-like basin at my feet …

The bike path along Minnehaha Parkway allows bikers to enjoy the creek at several places along the way to Minnehaha Park from Lake Harriet.

How often I have gone to that beautiful creation of God to take the beautiful fish of the stream, that sporting in the sunlight near the surface flashed their golden and silver rays into my eyes as they chased each other in gleeful pastime, or gently approached the shore into the cooling shadow of the trees, and I could not do it. No sooner seated within the magic circle of those laughing water and I was lulled into forgetfulness of all else save present happenings; so serene and blissful that to bring death into the scene seemed sacrilege. Birds were all around me caroling their sweetest notes, the waters danced before me, the wind murmured among the leaves above me with aeolian sweetness, and the flowers around me sent a delicious fragrance to my nostrils. How could death enter this value of exquisite delight, surely here, if no where else, God is manifest in His works.

(Unfortunately, Henry suffered from the common misconception that Minnehaha meant ‘laughing water,’ when in fact it means ‘waterfall’ or ‘rapid water’ in Dakota.)

However charming the Falls may be for us today, how much more magical they must have been in those days, before the picnic tables and benches, before the necessity of restoring the native prairie along the hillside. But the area still inspires visitors. Following down the creek from the Falls I encountered a family that was clearly as entranced by the place as Henry and Charlotte were in their time.

A group of kids with adults enjoyed a beautiful fall afternoon building these whimsical, and possibly Arctic-inspired, statues in the creek below the Falls.

But rather than fishing, these children were leaving their own whimsical mark on the creek with their stone sculptures – reminiscent of Arctic inuksuk – guarding a section of the creek.

The children - and perhaps others before them - left behind several of these stone statues in Minnehaha Creek below the Falls.

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Fall is here and once again the Twin Cities are being blessed with absolutely perfect weather for biking and exploring. I don’t believe there is a better time of year to be in Minnesota, now that the humid days of summer are past and the leaves are glowing with color – from bright yellows to oranges to deep reds to burnished browns. The trees change from one day to the next, first just the edges of the leaves near the crown licked by flame, then more and more as if the fire is slowly spreading downwards until the tree is finally ablaze. It lasts such a short time, but it makes up for winter. If we are lucky, the fall will stretch on…and on…and on! 

The east side of the Mississippi River from the Lake Street Bridge, late September 2011.

There is so much to see on days like this, things that are easy to miss if you are driving along at sixty miles an hour, but reach out and grab you when you’re on a bicycle. Take the Mississippi River, for example. The closest many people get to the river is to drive over it on one of the many bridges in the metro area, bridges from which it is almost impossible to see the water or the river banks. But the river is a treasure and was critical to the early residents of what became Minnesota. It is easy for us to become disconnected from our natural surroundings, even when we still rely on them to supply our needs, but two hundred and more years ago, the river was central to life in this area.

Looking down at the Mississippi River just below Fort Snelling from the overlook on the east side of the river, late September 2011.

For a superb view of the mighty Mississippi, visit the overlook over the old bridge abutment on the east side of the river just south of Highway 5 on the East River Road bike path.

The overlook on the East River Road bike trail just south of Highway 5 (West 7th Street).

Not only do you have a good view of the rivers and the fort, some very informative panels on area geology and history, and some surprisingly comfortable fake boulders to rest on, there is no question about where you are!

Part of one of the attractive and informative metal panels at the overlook. This bit shows the location of Dakota communities and other important places along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.

Yes, indeed. In case there is any doubt, you know where you are! Actually, this shows your position in relation to the rivers, which are shown in tan paving stones along the overlook.

And directly across the river from you sits Historic Fort Snelling on the west bank of the Mississippi. Built out of the very limestone bluff it sat on, the fort controlled the major communication routes of the time – the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers below.

View of Historic Fort Snelling from the east side of the Mississippi River. The fort is almost invisible with all the trees in the foreground.

But a modern photo can’t really convey the imposing presence of this limestone edifice in 1820s Minnesota. Today’s lush tree cover and the predominance of highways and bridges in the area disguise the fort’s dominance in what was then an oak savanna landscape with tall prairie grass and occasional trees, as seen in this Seth Eastman painting at the Minnesota Historical Society, The Prairie Back of Fort Snelling (1846-1848). Built between 1820 and 1825 under the command of Colonel Josiah Snelling, the fort was originally known as Fort St. Anthony. It was renamed Fort Snelling in honor of the colonel in 1825 on the recommendation of General Winfield Scott. (For a more complete survey of its rich history, visit the official website.

It’s hard to imagine how the fort would have appeared to both the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples and the European Americans who arrived here in what must have seemed to them an isolated and lonely place. The Round Tower was the first building completed and is now the oldest standing building in Minnesota, one of four original buildings still standing at the fort.

Restored prairie on the west side of the Round Tower give a better impression of what the 1820s landscape would have been like.

Finished in 1820, it must have been a very impressive sight as visitors approached from the prairie to the west of the fort. The fort has been modified constantly since its original construction, a fact the complicates our attempts to imagine life there in the 1820s. In 1860 the Round Tower retained some prominence in the landscape, at least in this carte-de-visite at the Minnesota Historical Society, but by 1900 the poor tower seems to have been reduced to a curiosity visited by sightseers.

And by 1938, the tower seems almost insignificant, lost in the hustle and bustle of the street running right past it (possibly West 7th Street), standing alone with no evidence of the original stone wall that surrounded the fort in this photo from the Minnesota Historical Society.

Today a visit to the fort can take you back to a rougher but seemingly less complicated time – the 1820s.  Although you have to be ready for the noise of the muskets and cannon firing, and I’m not sure that doing laundry in the 1820s was exactly uncomplicated!  In spite of this time travel quality to your visit, the fort is still located near numerous transportation routes – Highway 5, Highway 55, and of course the airport. The latter is particularly hard to ignore even within the walls of the fort as planes roar incongruously overhead with great frequency!

Traveling on two wheels is much more peaceful.

This plane seems to be flying directly over the commandant's house at Fort Snelling, the oldest house in Minnesota (1823).

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From the Lake Phalen trail, I soon found my way to the the Bruce Vento Regional Trail. The trail is dedicated in memory of Bruce F. Vento, a DFLer (Democratic Farmer-Labor Party politician) who represented Minnesota’s 4th district In Congress from 1977 until his death in 2000. Vento was known for his efforts to clean up the environment, so a bike trail is a fitting memorial.

The boulder marking the entry to Joe Bergeron Pass on the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

The first part of the trail that I discovered is now marked with a memorial to Maplewood police sergeant Joseph Bergeron, who was shot to death by a suspect on May 1, 2010. It’s a sad local reminder that tragedies large and small happen here as well as in places like Iraq or Haiti and that many (perhaps most) of them are caused by people, not Mother Nature. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc., 222 police officers in Minnesota history have died on duty. My brief exploration of the list showed that it goes back to the nineteenth century. An early entry was Police Officer Daniel O’Connell of St. Paul, shot while investigating a burglary on Dayton Avenue on June 17, 1882. He had served one month on the force. Bergeron had served for 26 years.

The inscription on the memorial for Sgt. Joe Bergeron.

The Bergeron memorial boulder was dedicated on November 4, 2010, and marks the entrance to Joe Bergeron Pass, a portion of the Bruce Vento trail near where the officer was killed. From here you can enjoy the peace of the trail and head towards Maplewood, where the trail stops just north of I-694. You can also head south towards downtown St. Paul, a ride that I enjoyed several times last fall.

It’s interesting to get a new perspective on distances when you’re riding your bike instead of driving a car or even riding a bus. You can see why areas farther from downtown would have had to wait for streetcars before they could really be developed as part of the growing city. Of course the bike trails are much easier to travel on than the old roads used to be.

Heading towards downtown, the trail takes you through the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary and Swede Hollow. It’s a beautiful, quiet spot – a real sanctuary near the bustle of East 7th Street. This ravine used to be the home of new immigrants – Swedes, then Italians, then Mexicans – attracted by the low $5 per month rental to be paid to the city. Here they were surrounded by others like themselves. Phalen Creek still ran above ground then and provided water for the inhabitants, but today just a pond is visible and the creek has been diverted underground. The Minnesota Historical Society has several photographs of the area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including this photo showing the houses (or shacks) in the Hollow in 1910. This photo clearly shows Phalen Creek in the 1910s before the creek was enclosed. It’s hard to recognize this as the same place I biked through last fall!

The pond in Swede Hollow.

By the 1950s, the population of Swede Hollow had fallen significantly and the city was no longer willing to have people living without electricity and running water. But once all the remaining structures in Swede Hollow were condemned in 1956, the inhabitants were moved out, and the remaining houses demolished and burned, as illustrated in this Minnesota Historical Society photo. The hollow then became a dumping ground for garbage and a refuge for the homeless. It was finally cleaned up in the 1970s and was designated as a nature center in 1976.

Today as you ride through the sanctuary you can almost forget that up above the ravine is a all the activity of a modern city. Instead, you see the remains of an earlier time in the abandoned Hamm Brewery buildings. Stop at East Side Regional Park and you can read panels recounting the settlement and industrial history of the East Side, including Swede Hollow.


The Bruce Vento trail and the old Hamm's Brewery buildings in Swede Hollow are just visible through the trees from Dayton's Bluff above the hollow.

Part of the old Hamm Brewery complex seen from the Bruce Vento trail.

From down in Swede Hollow, you have a lot of choices for where to head next. I chose Indian Mounds Regional Park, only 2.1 miles farther. But what a couple of miles they were! Stay tuned…

Where to go next? Just follow the sign.

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