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The Chroniclers of the Dakota Conflict and Bias

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February 22, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

Initial accounts of the events of the Dakota Conflict were fraught with bias and interpretation. This is a perfect representation of the adage that “history is always written from the perspective (and with the bias) of the person writing it.

In the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers were full of what we would, today, call “fake news.” There was no Associated Press with membership requirements for unbiased reporting and source verification. Newspapers of the time were usually politically aligned and the florid reporting was normally highly sensationalized. An event like the Dakota Conflict lent itself to sensationalism; it literally beckoned reporters and publishers to garnish stories in order to sell papers.

This was also a time when society barely concerned itself with examining prejudice. American culture was ethno-centric. There was little to no effort to understand minority cultures let alone speak in their defense. Bias and prejudice permeated American culture. While this excuses that prejudice in no way, it is a statement of the time and even those who made efforts to be less biased used nouns and verbs that would be cringed at today. It doesn’t make it right but the historian has to recognize that it existed.

An excellent review of these early accounts can be found in William E. Lass’s article “Histories of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862” in the Summer 2012 edition of Minnesota History. See
http://collections.mnhs.org/mnhistorymagazine/articles/63/v63i02p044-057.pdf

The initial primary reports of the conflict were offered in that environment, from that cultural perspective. They were reported in newspapers and books that seized on inflammatory reporting to make money.

Any reading of Minnesota newspapers in 1862 makes us cringe today. Some accounts are so full of lies and exaggerations that one can hardly believe it. Some stories of atrocities were repeated again and again, with only names changed—one was a repeat of stories that ran after the 1857 events at Spirit Lake, Iowa. In almost every newspaper account, the Dakota were described with adjectives that presented a savage picture. Brutal actions were attributed to them, with Whites depicted as innocent victims. Terms were used that we today recognize as improper. In 1862, they fueled the already hostile opinions of the public.

Most news accounts were repeats of reports offered by survivors, with a healthy dose of journalistic license. Though they represented interviews, direct quotes were seldom used. Instead, reporters paraphrased, garnishing with wording that would engage the reader.

Publishers, too, were hungry to get in on the market and books were released within months of the war. For years thereafter, these were considered to be valid histories of events. It was not until years later that primary accounts of the Dakota were recorded and not until the later half of the twentieth century that historians would begin to evaluate histories for bias.

Among the first books released about the Dakota Conflict was History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1862 by Isaac V.D. Heard.

Heard was an attorney from St. Paul who volunteered with Henry Hastings Sibley’s forces. While serving, Heard interviewed White survivors and participated in battles. He later served as recorder for the War Commission during the Dakota trials.

A reading of Heard’s book, published in 1863, as a history necessitates some interpretation. Heard’s book is a report of primary accounts, offered to him during a type of near-hysteria in an environment full of emotional distortion. He did little investigation into material he gathered and the accounts he repeated. However, Heard was the only one of the early chroniclers to include alternative views on the roots of the war. He offered a critical overview of the treaties and the corruption among the White traders and cited these among the causes of the conflict.

Another of the early books on the Dakota Conflict was written by Charles S. Bryant and Abel B. Murch. A History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians, in Minnesota, Including the Personal Narratives of Many Who Escaped was released in 1864. Bryant, too, was an attorney and he was highly active in assisting survivors in filing damage claims while practicing in St. Peter, Minnesota. Many of his clients were women who had lost husbands and children as well as their property. Like the damage claims themselves, the accounts in the book are full of vivid details, often brutal in nature. His co-author, Murch, had lived at the Upper Sioux Agency and had served with the Renville Rangers.

Bryant and Murch’s book is similar to Heard’s in its format but openly blames the Dakota for the war and ignores its causes. They defend the White traders and disparage the Dakota. Throughout, the book is heavily biased in its language, views, and the accounts included—several of which were taken from newspapers. Of the three early books on the war, this one is by far the most biased.

Unfortunately, for years, these first accounts of the Dakota Conflict would shape history’s interpretation of events. Borne in a time of White hysteria, accepted prejudice, and within a research void, it would not be until later that historians would begin to really did into the conflict.

In the 1880s, society began to reexamine the roots of White-Native American conflicts. This was the time of Helen Hunt Jackson (A Century of Dishonor). In 1908, Return I. Holcombe published the first history that began to dig deeper. Great Sioux Outbreak of 1862 examined the war more objectively. His history would be the first to avoid inflammatory language, critically evaluate sources, and verify factual accuracy.

Still, bias remained. Even in 1959, C.M. Oehler (The Great Sioux Uprising) was still repeating sensationalized accounts of White survivors. Fortunately, Kenneth Carley released The Sioux Uprising of 1862 two years later—an objective, accurate history that went far in presenting a balanced understanding of events.

Today, a host of recent historians have tackled the Dakota Conflict. They’ve published oral histories, researched hidden details, and included perspectives that were neglected by the early chroniclers.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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