Before the BattleMinnesota Historical Society
When glaciers receded from this region thousands of years ago, they left behind huge rivers and lakes in a broad valley.
Over time, the valley became filled with tallgrass prairies, small lakes, and the waterway known today as the Minnesota River. When Dakota people came to this region, they lived throughout the valley.
After the Dakota sold much of the area to the U.S. government in 1851, they lived on reservation land along the river. In 1858 a stretch of reservation land—including what became Birch Coulee Battlefield—was ceded to the U.S. and made available to settlers.
Since no one had settled on the area near Birch Coulee by the time of the battle, it was still covered with prairie grass and dotted with wetlands. These natural features—and the coulee itself—were an advantage to Dakota forces.
What's a coulee?
Coulee is a French word for a deep streambed with steep sides that is either dry or filled with water. At the time of the battle, the coulee provided a natural hiding spot for the Dakota fighters.
After the Battle
Soon after 1862, the Birch Coulee battle site became a farm field. In 1898 the Minnesota Valley Historical Society placed four commemorative plaques here, and in 1929 Birch Coulee State Park was established. Although a planned U.S. veterans' cemetery was never completed, one veteran and his wife are buried on the land.
After the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) acquired the land in 1976, two archaeological investigations were conducted. The site had been plowed by farmers and pillaged by souvenir hunters, so few battle objects remained. But archaeologists did learn how the land looked and what grew on it at the time of the battle.
By combining this information with written memories of battle survivors, MHS was able to restore some features of the battlefield as they looked in 1862. As you follow the walking trail, you'll see elements of the landscape that made a crucial difference to the men who fought here.
Birch Coulee Battlefield