Sins of the Fathers and Mothers

On war, settlement, and collective responsibility

Jamie Street/Unsplash
Jamie Street/Unsplash

“Oh let me, let me kill them,” one woman cried, a knife in one hand, a rasping file in the other, as she struggled with the soldier trying to restrain her. “They killed my husband. They burned my house and child. Oh, let me through.” It was November 1862, in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.–Dakota War, and a crowd of white settlers had surrounded the wagons full of Dakota prisoners passing through New Ulm, Minnesota. “Oh God let me at them,” cried another woman. “They have killed my husband and all my children.”

The witness to these anguished outbursts was Amos Glanville, a soldier in Company F of the 10th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry and one of those responsible for shepherding the wagons through town. I read his account last fall at an exhibition documenting the war at the Brown County Historical Society museum in New Ulm. Accompanying the text was a rough sketch of the incident, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1863. It showed white women, waists cinched and skirts billowing, crouching to scoop rocks from the dirt, flinging them at the prisoners. One Dakota man stands in the middle of the wagon. Is he pleading for mercy? Standing in defiance? Trying to explain? Three white men unfurl whips above the crowd—whether they are trying to drive off the white women or reach over them to strike the Dakota is not clear. A soldier in a Union Army uniform rushes at the women from the left, a long stick in his left hand, perhaps a gun in his right. Rocks fly in every direction. The horses, oblivious to their embattled cargo, pull stolidly on.

I was born not far from New Ulm. It had been decades since I had been back to visit the small farming community where my father once pastored a church. But the rolling hills dotted with silos and the occasional church steeple still felt familiar. The leaves had begun to turn, and the corn was almost ready to harvest. The road was littered with sugar beets that had fallen out of the trucks heading to weigh stations. I hadn’t returned to Minnesota for the nostalgia, however. I wanted to know how my family may have benefited from the outcome of the U.S.–Dakota War. Now I began to wonder: How had the visceral hatred so evident in that 1863 sketch shaped the state that my ancestors would call home?

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Lydia Moland teaches philosophy at Colby College. She is the author of Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life.


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