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The Battle at Wood Lake: The Burden of Remembering the Past

James C. Schaap

There’s a sign, but not much more, and there's a tree down the path adorned with a red and white streamer from someone sworn to pray and remember. The tree you can’t miss. Take the path at the crest of the hill—worth a short hike if the weather smiles because the twisting creek down below is so charming it’s hard to imagine that once upon the time a fight down there meant men dying. The monument across the road bears the names of the fallen—the white men anyway—if you’re looking for specifics.

James C. Schaap
Prayer streamers on the land of the Battle at Wood Lake

A couple dozen men died, but the engagement wasn't much more than a skirmish, two hours of gun play—and the whole event wasn't anywhere near Wood Lake. It was fought at the edge of Lone Tree Lake, and Lone Tree Lake up and left long ago.

Still, what happened here in 1862, a few miles from the Minnesota River, the last battle of the bloody Dakota War, ended the uprising but not the conflict.

After a month of blood, white Minnesota wanted Indians gone. Chase them out or kill them all. Exterminate 'em, a little mid-19th century ethnic cleansing.

The Battle of Wood Lake was a ragged affair. Gen. Henry Hastings Sibley, commander of the government forces, was roundly criticized for his sluggish pursuit of the Dakota killers. Even his being there was a blunder he might have paid dearly for because the Dakota were not all that far away, just a bit north and east. He’d never checked.

His men were a motley bunch. On the morning of September 20, a pack of hungry ones simply decided to steal potatoes from the garden at the agency. They left camp on the sly, and when they returned their creaky wagon nearly ran over Dakota warriors lying in the grass poised for an attack that never came. Hard to say, 150 years later, who was most surprised. Thank the Lord for small potatoes.

The Battle of Wood Lake was a mess, first lead to last. When that potato wagon tromped through the warriors, a fiasco ensued that ended two hours later when the Dakota backed off. Fourteen Indian bodies were left in the grass. Some of them scalped.

The Battle of Wood Lake wasn't much of a battle, but it was the final engagement of the Dakota War of 1862. We stopped by on a weekend when the road to the site was almost blocked by SUVs who’d come out to a pumpkin patch. We sat up on the cutbank and tried to imagine what the battle might have looked like, but that took some diligence because an old Farmall was hauling a hay rack full of moms and dads and kids back from a pumpkins to the barn, where they’d gobble up some treats, maybe drink some apple cider, spend holiday bucks.

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James C. Schaap
Out on a hayrack ride on the historic battlefield at Wood Lake.

Across the highway there’s a huge stone obelisk behind a broad steel banner. “Sioux Indian War 1862," it says.

You can’t help thinking maybe the whole works ought to come down. Turn the place into a pumpkin patch park, hayrides for kids, pie and muffins, ice cream--you know. Someday soon, some parents is going to have to answer some kid who’ll look up at that sign or the monument, and ask what the heck happened at Wood Lake--and where is Wood Lake anyway? Maybe they'll have to ask whoever it is that hangs prayer streamers in the tree up the path. Ask him. Or her. They'll know. For sure, they'll know.

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