Settlers misled by inaccurate platting of land

NEW ULM – Two U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 history buffs discussed and debated Milford Township history, property surveying and boundary lines of pioneers day that sometimes led them to more questions than answers, before a roomful of listeners Thursday at the New Ulm Public Library.

Rich Runck, a descendant of a founder of New Ulm, and John LaBatte,whose ancestors fought on both sides of the war, provided their opinions and some seldom-told details of events that led to the conflict and afterward.

Perhaps Runck of Milford Township, said it best.

“I’m dumbfounded by the (1850s) maps,” Runck said. “This is a swamp. The more we get into it, the deeper it gets.”

LaBatte said when settlers arrived in south central Minnesota in the mid 1850s, they checked with government land offices, often in Winona or Red Wing, bought land, and began clearing it.

“There were land surveying issues in Milford Township and the Lower Sioux Reservation boundary. Many officials got involved. Even U.S.-Dakota treaties disagreed on some details,” LaBatte said. “Issues included the inability to find a competent surveyor. Another surveyor said the (compass) needle varied at different times of the day.”

Confusion over surveying and reservation boundary issues were likely among many factors that led to war.

A story in a July 1859 edition of the New Ulm Pioneer (newspaper) said the U.S. government sold land on the reservation to settlers by mistake. Some surveying errors extended from the Minnesota River south all the way to Madelia, LaBatte said.

“Settlers were misled by land offices who had poor (land) surveying and incomplete plotting,” LaBatte said. “I don’t blame the U.S. government or settlers. We have to look further into it before placing blame.”

According to 1863 newspaper accounts, issues of the day included Indians hunting on non-reservation land, near settlers, north of the Minnesota River and whites illegally selling whiskey to Indians, an issue that the military and law enforcement tried to suppress.

LaBatte said he found research sources often contradicted each other. He said there are many unopened files at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) and National Archives in Washington, D.C.

“There is enough information in the National Archives for someone to study for years,” Runck said. “Somebody could use it to earn a doctoral degree.”

LaBatte said one of his favorite websites is “Family and Friends of Dakota Uprising Victims” on Facebook (

The website states it was created to publish stories written by descendants of settler victims. It has a slideshow of monuments, family stories and photographs, essays, maps, links, book lists and more..

The website stated that news articles and letters to the editor focus almost entirely on the Dakotas’ impact on the war, perhaps for political correctness, ignoring the impact of settlers and others who were innocent victims.

In a letter dated Jan. 27, 2013 to MHS Director Steve Elliot, LaBatte said the MHS Mobile Tour and U.S.-Dakota War website are unbalanced, about 75 percent of them focusing on the Dakota Indians.

“This history should be accurate, balanced and respectful to all groups who are involved. At present this is not the case,” LaBatte wrote.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at

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