"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Battle of Birch Coulee: MN tragedy in 1862

"Coulee" spelled as "Coulie"
I remember driving past Fort Ridgely State Park on my way to and from Mankato in the early 1990s. The MAHS softball team was in the state tournament at Mankato. I remember missing the state tournament being in St. Cloud, a more convenient place to visit. Going to Mankato wasn't a "straight shot." A big headache was no availability of an Interstate Highway. You had to keep a map handy.
I remember thinking it would be neat to stop and spend some time at Fort Ridgely State Park. It's located on the Minnesota River south of Fairfax. It preserves Fort Ridgely, site of the Battle of Fort Ridgely during the Dakota War of 1862. It is the one Minnesota state park with a nine-hole golf course, which overlooks the Minnesota River and goes along Fort Ridgely Creek.
Why did we need this fort in southern Minnesota? The largest Indian war in U.S. history took place around there.
History is a quite malleable thing in our minds. For over 100 years, Minnesotans - to the extent they were even aware of the war - saw it as a good vs. evil thing. The meme was "settlers defeating treacherous bloodthirsty savages." It was called the Sioux massacre.
Such a meme hardly seems palatable or practical. The Dakotah Indians had a civilization on this continent first. The situation was not like what we saw with Nazis in Europe. The conflict was profoundly sad. It was another exhibit from history of how the inexorable movement of a stronger civilization leaves tragedy in its wake.
The Battle of Birch Coulee was on September 2, 1862. Yes, it was a summer when the U.S. Civil War in the east was at its apex. The development of the North American continent was going to be accompanied by incredible bloodshed. How weak and cowering us human beings are in the face of our maker. The Birch Coulee battle came after the battles of Ford Ridgely and New Ulm.
We can learn much about the Battle of Birch Coulee from a book written by the late Bernard Ederer of Morris. He was a dentist. He often went by "B.F. Ederer" or "Bernard Francis Ederer." He had four total books published. He was an adventurer as well as author. He probed the expansive undeveloped tracts in Alaska. He served a term in the Minnesota legislature while in Morris in the 1940s. He was in the U.S. Naval Reserve for World War II. I got to meet him in the 1980s.
Ederer wrote a fine historical novel based on the Battle of Birch Coulee. Let's attach an important asterisk here. Ederer used the spelling "Birch Coulie" for reasons he thought were viable at the time. He explains this in his preface. He quotes another writer, Chas. Flandreau, in addressing the spelling question.
Had Dr. Ederer known the Internet was coming along, I think he would have gone with "Coulee" with the two e's. Not only has this spelling taken over as the standard, this is the spelling people use when researching using search engines.
Ederer titled his book "Birch Coulie" with the "i.e." approach. I hope people are still able to locate this fine book. Our librarian Melissa Yauk located it in the back room of the library recently.
I wrote another post on this subject recently for my companion website, "Morris of Course." You may read it by clicking on the link:
We are no longer encouraged to think of the Dakotah War as a good vs. evil thing. Today we promote harmony of the races/ethnicities in our rainbow culture. It was like pulling teeth, but we finally accomplished the eradication of the "Fighting Sioux" nickname at UND. Not only was the name unacceptable on its face, it used a tribe name - "Sioux" - today considered unacceptable. "Dakotah" is the proper term. Where did "Sioux" come from? "Sioux" comes from the language of these Indians' traditional enemies, the Ojibway. It translates to "snake or serpent-like." It is intended as a pejorative along the lines of "schmuck" or "raghead" - intentionally disrespectful.
When the early French traders arrived, they latched on to the name "Sioux." The name stuck and is used to this day, as the uncomplimentary nature of the term has been lost to our culture over the years.
We must read "Doc" Ederer's "Birch Coulie" in the context of when he wrote it: the mid-20th Century. Notions of political correctness hadn't yet built up. Ederer was obviously a gentle, scholarly and sensitive person. He does, however, have a rough edge or two in the terminology applied, as you'll find "Sioux" used in a standard way along with "squaw" and perhaps some other impolitic language. I urge you to just overlook this and apply context.
I was well aware of Ederer and his writing when I was a child. Our family acquired "Birch Coulie" from a local library. Because Ederer left Morris for California, our awareness of him faded, unfortunately. One of his children recently passed away and the obituary was published locally.
The "good vs. evil" meme about the Dakotah War was discarded at the time of the 150th anniversary of the conflict in 2012. We realized that in the final analysis, there was enough blame and blood to go around for everyone.
Many Minnesotans today may not have even heard of the Dakotah War of 1862. The main battleground was the entire Minnesota River Valley in southern and central Minnesota. The uprising spread into the Dakotah Territories and sent panic into Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. In Minnesota, Indians did mass attacks on a fort and an entire town, both twice. Contrary to what folklore and Hollywood tell us, this was almost unheard of in any of the Indian campaigns.
When the fighting ended, 500 settlers and 100 soldiers were dead. Over 200 people were killed the first morning, as many as Custer lost at the Little Bighorn. To this day, that number of civilians killed on American soil as a result of hostile action is exceeded only by the attacks on 9/11.
It is perhaps understandable that we don't want to dwell a whole lot on such a horrific episode of our Minnesota history. Certainly we must never forget. I consider B.F. Ederer's "Birch Coulie" essential reading for anyone wanting a better understanding of the conflict. He had a fine touch for descriptive or fiction-style writing as you can appreciate by reading this passage:
The boom of cannons was now heard. Again and again the deep-toned roar of the big guns could be heard, always moving closer. This was more than the Sioux could take. They turned and fled.
Not a man moved in the corral. The poignant memory of the preceding day was still fresh in their minds.
"Listen, everyone!" a soldier cried. "I hear men singing."
"Poor fellow is delirious," a nearby comrade growled.
But was he?
From the distance the breeze carried the chant of a marching song to the straining ears of the weary men.
"I know it now," the soldier cried again. "I was at Fort Snelling when they mustered the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Minnesota. It was their rally song."
Everyone listened. Faintly they heard:
"We are coming, Father Abraham,
   Three hundred thousand more,
From Mississippi's winding stream,
   And from New England's shore;
We leave our ploughs and workshops,
   Our lives and children dear. . ."
Then the chant faded away, returning again with a surge as the wind changed.
"By God! There is the song of the Sixth Minnesota, 'The Battle Cry of Freedom.' We're saved!" yelled a soldier, struggling to his knees.
"Stay down!" bellowed Captain Anderson.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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