Tag Archives: Fort Abercrombie

Notes from the WSSA Conference in Denver

Tom Isern at right listens to his student of history, Aaron Gutman, deliver his paper on the microhistory of three Prussian soldiers mustered into the US Army in 1862 to help with the defenses at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory.

Tom Isern at right listens to his student of history, Aaron Gutman, deliver his paper on the microhistory of three Prussian soldiers mustered into the US Army in 1862 to help with the defenses at Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory.

It is now Saturday evening and I am finishing up another robust Western Social Science Association conference, this time in the Queen City of the Great Plains that is Denver, Colorado: a cosmopolitan cattle town and gold mining stop at the edge of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains (it was in this location that in the second half of the 19th century, south-north moving cowpunchers and cattle trails intersected with the east-west moving overland settlers, miners and pioneers). This morning Aaron Gutman (North Dakota State University) delivered his paper, “The Siege of Fort Abercrombie D.T. 1862 and its Global Connections,” emphasizing the ethnic make-up of three German-Prussians commanding the cannon battery for the US Army during the siege at the fort in late-August and through September of 1862. Gutman was apt to point out that the Prussian immigrants mustered into Civil War service were experienced with street fighting, having come from the renegade and liberal streets of the German revolutions of 1848. I also had a great time listening to Alex Steenstra (Northern Arizona University) and Christine Cheyne (Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand) talk about the Mighty River Power struggle between the Maori and the New Zealand Crown, and the fracking going on today in New Zealand.

Mexico City in downtown Denver, Colorado.

Mexico City in downtown Denver, Colorado.

Yet as historians, archaeologists, humanities folk and social scientists considered what happened and what is happening in great detail at these conferences, we also take account of our contemporary surroundings. This includes food, music and drink. So a quick run-down of some of the dining establishments visited during this professional conference include the spectacular Biker Jim’s hot dog joint (I had the delicious duck-cilantro dog), and the restaurant Mexico City, both in one of Denver’s historic districts. There was some Thai place that we visited too (the name escapes me, but I have found inspiration with the lemon grass coconut soup, and will be bringing the general recipe idea back to the northern Great Plains). Of music, I got to see the Tejon Street Corner Thieves belt out some street-level blue grass, and I purchased one of their DIY CDs for the street-level market price of $5.00. Of drink, there is an infinite amount of barley pop varieties to try, and I have taken to the stuff in the can — an archaeologist friend of mine in Missoula calls these “canned goods.” But I better wrap this up because the 55th Annual Western Social Science Association conference reception begins in less than 20 minutes.

Mankato, Minnesota: 150 Years Later

Today, December 26, 2012, marks the 150th year since the largest mass execution in United States history took place in Mankato, Minnesota. This execution has been remembered and suppressed for a variety of reasons, but it seemed reasonable to post and pass on at least two pieces of public history. The first is a story put together by This American Life, entitled, “Little War on the Prairie.” Here is a link to the transcript, and another link to the recorded radio program here. It aired on November 23, 2012, and I first heard it while driving back to Fargo from having Thanksgiving in Bismarck and Valley City.

Photo by David Joles of the Associated Press.

Photo by David Joles of the Associated Press.

What is often missing from stories such as these is a kind of non-discussion about what followed this hanging. For example, it wasn’t just as though the hanging happened, and Governor Ramsey clapped his hands together and said, “Well, that’s taken care of…” Instead, it marked the beginning of annual punitive campaigns that the United States Government launched against the Sioux — against every combatant and non-combatant, or every man, woman, elder and child — throughout Dakota Territory. When we look back on it, the 19th century kind of looks like a racist primer for the industrial genocide that characterized much of the 20th century, at least the first half. The world eventually had a post-WWII convention to consider all of this. It’s sobering to think about.

In the 1860s, Total War campaigns against the Sioux were organized by General John Pope, and he in turn charged generals Henry Sibley and Alfred Sully with carrying them out. Today there are namesakes of “Sibley” and “Sully” scattered all throughout North Dakota. These names were ascribed to the landscape, and they resulted from that earlier US-Dakota War that roared up and down the Minnesota River Valley in August-September of 1862. Below is another piece of public history called “Dakota 38 [+2].” It is excellent, and the documentary was put together in 2008.

This year’s riders are just getting to Mankato, as they do every year. Here is another piece on this from the Mankato Free Press.

Cultural Landscapes on the Northern Great Plains: From 1862 to 2012

This evening while toying around with Google Earth’s image overlay feature, I thought it would be interesting to see what a 2012 map would look like in contrast to the map of the 1860s in Mark Diedrich’s, Mni Wakan Oyate (Spirit Lake Nation): A History of Sisituwan, Wahpeton, Pabaksa, and Other Dakota That Settled at Spirit Lake, North Dakota (Fort Totten, North Dakota: Cankdeska Cikana Community College Publishing, 2007). I was keeping in mind how we — the Royal We — are all born into particular sets of cultural values that we consciously or unconsciously bring to bear on everything we process, do, and see. So in 2012, it’s a given that we can hop Eisenhower’s Interstate 94, lean heavy on the gas peddle, and within 1 to a dozen hours find ourselves anywhere between Minneapolis, Minnesota, Billings, Montana, Omaha, Nebraska, or Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 1862, the reality would have required weeks worth of time to cover that amount of space. One hundred fifty years is quite the temporal gap. But Google Earth reconnects us with the spatial, or what we might consider as that sense of place.

Here, for example, is the Diedrich map imported into Google Earth with an approximate transparency of 20-40%. This is laid on top of a 2012 map (some specifics don’t quite line up, but considering that this took 3 minutes to put together, it’s not bad, and the general idea is conveyed).

1862 sans 2012 Geopolitic

Note the non-existence of the 2012 place names. We get the large type of Dakota in the east, Nakota in central Dakota Territory, and the Lakota primarily west of the Missouri River. Imbedded within that are several sub-national sets, including the Ihanktuwana, Sisituwan, Pabaksa, Assiniboin, Mandan (“Gros Ventre”), Arikara, and Blackfeet Lakota. It might be worthwhile to filter our 2012 mindsets through an 1862 landscape in the same way that we would consider today’s landscape in Central Asia, western Europe, or eastern Asia. To an outsider, “it all looks the same.” But try telling someone who hails from Hong Kong that Bangkok and Ulaanbaatar are just the same. Or try telling someone from Tashkent that they’ve experienced something similar because they once saw a picture of Moscow, they talked to a guy who visited Kabul, or they heard about the cultural mecca of St. Petersburg. Or try telling a Parisian that Germany is just like Italy. Or try… yes, the idea is conveyed. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the dynamics of Africa, Australia and so on.

In 1862, North Dakota was northern Dakota Territory to Abraham Lincoln, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, and any immigrant Euro-American back east (many of our great- or great-great grandparents included). The names of Bismarck, Williston, Dickinson, Jamestown, Fargo, Casselton, Valley City, Grand Forks, Watford City, New Town, Devils Lake, Minot, Ellendale and so on wouldn’t have been on anyone’s cultural radar. Between the 1860s and today, though, several generations have come and gone. And through this amount of time, our perception of the landscape has altered as well. This Google Earth gadget is amazing in that regard. Here is Diedrich’s map with Eisenhower’s Interstate System and the industrial Geopolitics imposed on the landscape:

1862 and 2012

Above, the 49th parallel is quite pronounced, as is our national (or international) system of highways and byways. Today’s 2012 I-94 blasts east-west through former Native America. You can travel from Minneapolis through the 1860s Dakota (Red River Valley now), Nakota, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara (upper Missouri River) and Lakota country (now the Bakken Oil Fields) to Billings in about 20 hours (I cannot recommend any more efficient time). In North Dakota, we can sail past these 1862 landscapes at no less than 75 miles an hour, thermostat pumped full tilt, iPods routed through the speakers. This is the push and the pull between culture and landscape throughout time. I think that’s all I have for now.

Leaning Towards Great Plains and World History

The final chapter in Mischa Honeck’s 2011 work, We Are the Revolutionists: German-Speaking Immigrants and American Abolitionists after 1848 is titled, “A Revolution Half Accomplished: Building Nations, Forgetting Emancipation” (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2011). To capture the opening point of this chapter title, a Thomas Nast cartoon illustration is included from a November 20, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly, “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” The illustration shows a global thanksgiving table with a “Universal Suffrage” centerpiece. Surrounding the table are representative cartoons from a variety of ethnicities, including African-American, Chinese, Russian, Native America, and so on. This cartoon does not capture the realities of U.S. policy toward Native America at that time, but it does reflect Nast’s personal ideals. This tension between the ideal (or the way things ought to be) and reality (the way things are) is a crucial element to setting down a good piece of history, and in this vein Honeck delivers.

During the American Civil War, Anglo-America battled with one-another over abolition and that “peculiar institution.” This struggle between brothers and cousins is captured by the ever-growing and all-important industry that is Civil War historiography, nostalgic Ken Burns documentaries notwithstanding. If wanting to think about the Civil War in the context of the Atlantic World, or in the context of Global or World History, however, Honeck is where to find it. Numerous immigrants arrived to the United States in the years preceding the Civil War, and Honeck’s history focuses on the German element.

By the late 1840s, population dynamics contributed to the upheaval of existing institutions throughout Europe, and political factions in Germany eventually induced the revolutions of 1848 — the revolutionaries had these crazy ideas about democracy and voting on their brains. On the ground throughout the cities of

A German lithograph from 1849 depicting the Aristocratic crackdown on the democratic revolutionaries of 1848. Note the coast of western France, and the two boats loaded with Europeans preparing to cross the Atlantic.

Europe, street fighting was the norm. In order to escape this street fighting and the Aristocratic reaction to the democratic requests, individual Germans started chain migrations, or emigrations out of Germany and into the United States. By the 1850s numerous pockets of German-Americans had began settling the Great Plains, including liberal German thinkers and the North American Turnerbund throughout the continent (New Ulm, Minnesota is an example of a free-thinking Turner Society settlement). There is a paradox with the arrival of German-American idealists to settle in territories and states throughout the Great Plains, though, and Honeck only hints at it (in his defense, though, his study is mainly concerned with the eastern 3/8s of the United States and the Atlantic World). That paradox is this: while German-Americans carried with them democratic ideals, their physical settlement on the Great Plains invariably contributed to the protracted displacement of indigenous populations.

Nonetheless, many German-Americans became part of the Union Army fighting force during the Civil War. Honeck references the words of the radical Eduard Schläger who in 1871 noted how German-Americans had abandoned those — ahem — silly notions of egalitarianism and gained, “…a growing respect for ‘Anglo-American business methods,’ particularly the disagreeable ones, such as ‘the greed for the dollar.'” Schläger was particularly grumpy, in part because he felt philosophical foundations were being undermined once a little or a lot of money was put on the table. Honeck concludes with how German-America appropriated ideas of industrial capitalism, and this is a ground-level view of how Max Weber’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial capitalism eclipsed Adam Smith’s eighteenth-century notions of moral sentiments, empathy, sympathy, and compassion. We are well aware what happened throughout the Minnesota River Valley in August of 1862, from Fort Abercrombie, Dakota Territory to New Ulm, Minnesota and everywhere in between and on the periphery (including Mankato, Minnesota, the site of the largest mass execution in United States history). Native America would indeed feel the brunt and shock-wave of this industrial capitalism throughout the Great Plains, and there is definitely more work for historians and archaeologists to carry out. In this way much of the past has yet to be considered and written. Honeck’s concluding chapter is an excellent starting point to push scholarship in needed directions, at least as it concerns how Anglo- and German-American ideals gave way to the nation-making processes within the continental interior during and following the American Civil War.