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home : columns : ron kuecker
February 23, 2020

12/18/2019 2:40:00 PM
The troubling history of Christmas, 1862

Ron Kuecker
Outdoors Columnist

As deer hunting in the fall of 2019 winds down, with the closing of archery and muzzleloader seasons, it revives in me what Minnesota in 1862 was like.
Then, as now, the only big game remaining in the southern half of Minnesota was the whitetail deer. Bison, elk, bear had all been either overhunted or driven out by early European settlers. They were interested in an ever increasing agrarian lifestyle, moreso than a hunter/gather culture.
The Sioux, I'll use that term even knowing they were differing bands of Lakota, had been driven from northern Minnesota. They centered their settlements along the Minnesota River, even agreeing to treaty rights that established agencies near Granite Falls and Redwood Falls.
As their big game animals left the area they became more reliant on government supplies. Then came the Civil War and a greater need for those supplies to be used to support the Northern Army. Agencies shipment of those supplies dwindled and the Sioux were starving. Many agents and traders were caught in the middle of the situation.
Soon, young men of the tribes had to expand their hunting trips. One such group of five were caught stealing chickens and eggs from a farm. A fight took place, two whites were killed and thus commenced the brutal Dakota-Minnesota War of 1862.
One of the early battle sites was at our own Lake Shetek area. It is called the Sioux Massacre even though many escaped to the east, Fort Ridgely near Fairfax and the larger city of New Ulm.
The atrocities rendered by the Sioux at the Battle of Slaughter Slough enraged the state. It was furthered by the siege of New Ulm where it was nearly burned down, two times.
As in any war both sides contributed to the hideousness of battles. Finally, Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed Colonel Henry Hastings (H. H.) Sibley to gather an army to put down the "Sioux Uprising."
He proceeded to Mankato, then up the river to New Ulm, Redwood Falls and headed for Granite Falls. Finally, at the Battle of Wood Lake near the town of the same name, Sibley's army prevailed. On that date, September 19, 1862, the Sioux were either shot and killed to the point of surrender or fled to Dakota Territory.
The hanging
After the capture and imprisonment of the warriors, they were put through what most would now call sham trials. Some lasted only a few minutes and most could not determine what was happening because of language problems.
There were 303 warriors convicted of murder or violation of women. They were sentenced to be hanged. At that stage President Lincoln was asked to confirm their death penalties, a result of military trials.
He commuted all but 39 and at the last minute, one more was rendered innocent.
As the fall and early winter of 1862 commenced the hanging was scheduled to take place along the Minnesota River just west of downtown Mankato. The date, December 26, 1862, one day after Christmas. How inciteful can you get?
A platform, hanging scaffold, gallows, you choose your own words, was built. White hoods were put in place and a single rope held up the wood flooring. With one swing of a sharp axe by a survivor of the Lake Shetek battle the rope was cut.
Now Minnesota can be remembered as the site for the largest mass hanging, ever. December 26, 1862; 4,000 watched.
It's not taught in most of our school classrooms. And if it is, we are mostly too young, being in the sixth grade when state history is taught. This is not an easy thing to discuss, then or now. Obviously times were different then and really we bear no responsibility for what happened then.
Just an occasional reminder of our history and an honest recognition of both sides is what I care about.
Coon hunting, 130 years
On a much lighter note it's a good time to tell a recent story of Outdoor Happenings. (That was the original name of this column when I started in 1981).
Harold Hill and Jim Foreman remain coon hunters even beyond their mid-70s Jim got started in Ohio, just south of Lake Erie where he also became addicted to walleye fishing. Cattle buying occasionally got in the way.
Hill became addicted to following howling coon dogs in the dark of night over in Murray County near where I grew into adulthood.
They thought it would be fun to go out a few weeks ago along the river. The dogs treed a coon, naturally down the steep ridge to the bottom of the river valley. They shot the coon that had been treed by the dogs.
After allowing the dogs to have a little tussle with the dead coon to reward them for their good work, they proceeded up the ridge. Two old guys throwing the coon up the hill a few feet, then crawling up the steep bank only to toss it a few feet ahead, again.
They finally reached the top, then guess what? The dog grabbed it and pulled it all the way down, renewing the dislike it had for the coon.
You may have to be another old coon hunter to enjoy this scenario. I sure did.

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