In the late summer of 1862, the land on which you're standing was a war zone. The causes of that war had been brewing for decades.Minnesota Historical Society
In treaties signed between 1805 and 1858, the Dakota nation ceded much of its land to the U.S. government. By 1862 the Dakota people, who had once lived throughout the Upper Midwest, were living on a narrow strip of reservation land along the Minnesota River.
As their hunting and fishing lands became limited, Dakota families increasingly relied on the cash and goods promised by the treaties. Crop failures in 1861, followed by heavy snows, left them poor and hungry. U.S. government agents were convinced that if Dakota people learned to farm like Euro-American settlers, their problems would be solved. When some treaty provisions were not honored, frustrations that had been building for years peaked.
War broke out at the Lower Sioux Agency. Battles took place across southwestern Minnesota—at Redwood Ferry, New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee, and at Wood Lake. When it was over, hundreds of people were dead.
What really happened at Birch Coulee?
Survivors of the Battle of Birch Coulee left accounts of their experiences. But when eyewitness reports disagree, which do you believe? Whose word is the last word?
For the Battle of Birch Coulee, there are no clear answers to such questions. Like most American Indians, the Dakota used spoken words, rather than written accounts, to record their history. Few stories about Birch Coulee survive.
Many Dakota men were put on trial after the war. Records of their testimony provided some details, but many of the men spoke through translators. When reading a Dakota soldier's words taken from government records—including those quoted here at Birch Coulee—it is vital to remember these limitations.
The memories of U.S. soldiers and civilians who fought here are not necessarily reliable either. Many were recorded during government investigations. Other accounts were written decades after the battle. Our view of the past, based on such records, is always open to interpretation.
Frances J. Yellow
Minnesota Nice Oyakepelo,
"They Say Minnesota Nice," 1995
Acrylic on paper
Courtesy The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Francis J. Yellow is a member of the Lakota Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. A visual artist and poet, he expresses his belief in the sacredness of humanity through his work.
In this painting, Yellow depicts the clash of cultures that culminated in the U.S.-Dakota War. The scaffold at the upper right refers to the government's trial and excecution of 40 Dakota men after the war.
Birch Coulee Battlefield