Settlers’ suffering seems to be forgotten in US-Dakota War commemorations
To the editor:
I am writing in regard to concerns I have about the recent proclamations by the governor and articles in several newspapers involving the commemoration of the 1862 US-Dakota War. The descendants of the Dakota have been allowed to express themselves on behalf of their ancestors without being held accountable for their actions. Today, all Minnesotans of European descent are unfairly being held accountable for the results of governmental policies of 150 years ago. Those of us who descended from settler victims of the Dakota would like to be given equal time to comment on this tragedy.
It begs the questions to define what war means. “War” implies an armed conflict between TWO parties. So why is only one view being presented? There were indeed instances of poor crops, depleted food stores, and governmental oversight, but these do not explain the willful murder of people who were engaged in peaceful pursuits. For most of the conflict, soldiers and settlers alike were on the defensive against a very aggressive foe. It was not until late in September of 1862 that the US Army finally defeated the Dakota at the Battle of Wood Lake.
From Aug. 16 to Sept. 23, 1862, the well-armed and organized Dakota killed and kidnapped settlers at will throughout both Minnesota and Iowa. In any other narrative, this behavior would have been termed “terrorism” or even “genocide,” as it was Taoyateduta’s intent to wipe out all the European-American settlements and regain the land for the Dakota. Dakota casualties were minimal, possibly 50 or 60, but at least 600 settlers, mostly unarmed men, women and children were brutally murdered in their homes and fields. There were dozens of eyewitnesses to these atrocities, and the hundreds of graves dotting the landscape of Minnesota and Iowa still testify to these murders.
In 1862, my great-grandfather Rudolph Ochs was 3 years old and living with his family on a farm in Milford Township near New Ulm. On Aug. 18, 1862, the Dakota brought war to an unarmed civilian population. Rudolph’s uncle, Benedict Drexler, was shot down and beheaded while working in his field, leaving his wife and daughters destitute. Rudolph’s nine year old sister, my great- great aunt, Cecelia, witnessed the murder of a bedridden neighbor woman and was nearly burned to death herself when the house was set on fire. The remaining members of the Drexler and Ochs families were able to escape to New Ulm, or otherwise I would not be writing this letter. That is my personal stake in this story.
Yes, it was unfortunate that the combination of weather, delayed payments and other governmental oversight, and, it must be said, the Indian distaste for American-style farming, led to hunger and discontent during that summer of 1862. Yes, it was tragic that this “war” became a touchstone for later conflicts that resulted in complete Indian disenfranchisement and the horrors of the reservation system. But all of this was in the future. My family and those of the other settlers were not “land thieves” – they had a legal right to be living in Minnesota according to the laws of the land of the time. They did not willfully engage in the destruction of the Indian culture, they did not seek out to kill Indians. They were peaceful, law-abiding citizens of the State of Minnesota.
After the attacks, the Ochs family came back to Brown County but did not rebuild their burned-out farm. Cecelia recorded her experience for posterity in a leaflet distributed during the 50th anniversary commemoration of the tragedy, in 1912. Her brother A.C. Ochs read his poem honoring the survivors at the Junior Pioneer banquet that year. Cecelia’s great grandson would be one of the people who spoke at the rededication of the Milford monument this past summer.
Do we expect the proper course of action for a group with grievances against the government to be murder, rape and kidnapping of their neighbors? Are we shocked that the penalty for capital offenses was death? Why is so much attention paid to the mass hanging and not the murders of 15 times the number of settlers that had no connection to the governmental mistakes? Is it because there were lithographs made of the hanging that were published around the country? There were no images made of the mutilated setters. But the people who saw these things did not forget. Their descendants have not forgotten. The rest of the state should not forget that there were TWO sides to this conflict and that the settlers who had nothing to do with delayed payments or crop failures did not die forgotten, swept under the rug of history.
It is time for healing. We are not crackpot radical types or historical revisionists. We are Minnesotans whose families have lived here for seven generations or more, parents, business leaders, farmers, taxpayers, descendants of those who created the state in which we live today. We are asking for a fair hearing in remembrance of the many that died needlessly. We cannot correct the wrongs done 150 years ago, but we can establish a balanced view of the conflict going forward, or the divisions will widen, the polarization worsening with the passing years. Is that the legacy we want to pass on during this time of commemoration?
Great-grandson of Rudolph Ochs, great-grandnephew of Cecelia Ochs, great-great-grandnephew of Benedict Drexler