Minnesota Untold: ‘History Wars’

Fort Snelling is the state of Minnesota’s birthplace and its original sin.

Within the frame of its stone walls, you will find both pride and shame, triumph, and tragedy.  

For Syd Beane, the history is as nuanced as his family tree.  

"I'm a contradiction of history in one sense and a complexity of history wrapped up into one well-educated family that's going to continue to tell our stories," said Beane, an historian, activist, and documentary filmmaker.  

For the Dakota, those stories inevitably begin with Bdote, the Dakota name for the spot right below Ft. Snelling, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers.  

"And just like any other group, there are multiple creation stories because you have multiple dialects, you have multiple points of view," he explained.

Beane is a direct descendent of U.S. Army Capt. Seth Eastman, an artist who painted the early fort and scenes of Dakota life.

His bloodline includes French and British fur traders who intermarried with the Dakota. His ancestors were on both sides of the Dakota war of 1862, including those who survived the internment camp below Ft. Snelling, where more than a thousand women and children spent a brutal winter. Nearly half would die.  

"They define us as radical historians because we're bringing back our family stories that are their family stories, too.  But we were there first, you know, and so is it radical to go back and bring back the early stories? What is the Bible?" Beane explained.

The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

In the words of Tom Lalim, the program supervisor for Ft. Snelling, "This place encapsulates so much of the story of American history:  The good, the bad, and the ugly can all be found here."

For generations, Minnesotans were taught a history of Ft. Snelling that began in 1825, when the fort was completed. 

It became a launching point to the great frontier and a protector of settlers and fur traders. Its military history includes the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment, a thousand volunteers who played a decisive role in the battle of Gettysburg.  

It is also where hundreds of thousands of soldiers were inducted in and trained for the Spanish War, and World Wars I and II.

But there was always more to the story, like the Japanese code breakers and segregated Army units, who rallied to the defense of a nation that still denied them civil rights.

"It is one of the most important sites in Minnesota and one of the most complicated stories that we could possibly tell," said Bill Convery, head of research for the Minnesota Historical Society.  

"I'm afraid that by focusing on 1825 we cemented a particular idea about the forts’ significance in the minds of many Minnesotans. And by doing that, we really obscured a lot of really, nationally, significant stories, particularly the story of Dred and Harriet Scott," Convery said.  

Slaves in the North

Dred and Harriet Scott were slaves who met and married at Ft. Snelling. Military officers were allowed to have slaves in the free territory. And when their new owner wanted to split up the Scotts, and their children, the Scotts took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

The factual basis of the case concerned their time kept as slaves in the free territory of Minnesota.

Half the U.S. Supreme Court justices had slaves themselves.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in perhaps its most shameful ruling, said no black person "had any rights that a white person was bound to respect."

The decision became one of the catalysts for the Civil War.  

"That’s a story we have to tell. That's a story that we cannot ignore," Convery said.  

To capture this expanding narrative, the Minnesota Historical Society now calls the 24-acre park site Ft. Snelling at Bdote. The rebranding didn’t go over well with some state Republican lawmakers, who accused the Minnesota Historical Society of ‘revisionist history,’ tried to cut its funding, and take Ft. Snelling and 15 other historic sites away from the Society’s oversight.  

History as a Weapon?

"I think history is becoming a weapon in the culture wars," said Katherine Kersten of the conservative thinktank Center for the American Experiment.  

Kersten believes the story of Ft. Snelling has been hijacked by activists and specifically calls out Syd Beane and his daughter Kate, who is in charge of Native American Initiatives for the Minnesota Historical Society.  

"The idea is to throw into doubt, to discredit or delegitimize our nation's foundations with an eye to a transformative cultural and political change," Kersten said.  

And it’s not just Ft. Snelling. Kersten sees the battle lines everywhere, from the renaming of Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, the toppling of the Columbus statue at the Minnesota Capitol, and the debate over K-12 social standards and so-called ‘critical race theory.’

"They (students) will learn if they are white, they will be encouraged to feel guilty about things that their ancestors allegedly did 150 years ago," Kersten said. "Behind all this is a premise that is often not articulated, that history is a power struggle between contending groups, between two groups really, oppressors and victims."

Even the State of Minnesota’s founding fathers are under reconsideration.

The names of governors Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey were recently removed from Twin Cities schools.  

"As we began to incorporate more Dakota voices, it became clear that maybe we weren't telling the whole story of people like Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey. And we need we needed to tell a fuller story," Convery said.

Both Sibley and Ramsey defrauded the Dakota of annuity payments, setting the stage for the Dakota War of 1862, which cost the lives of 600 settlers and soldiers.

Governor Ramsey told the legislature: "The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state."

Ramsey assigned the task to Gen. Sibley, a former fur trader who fathered a child with a Dakota woman.  But Sibley also orchestrated the removal of the Dakota from Minnesota and presided over trials that resulted in the hanging of 38 Dakota men at Mankato.

Two other Dakota leaders – Shakopee and Medicine bottle – were hanged at Ft. Snelling.

And later, as president of the Minnesota Historical Society, Sibley made sure history would tell that story from the victor’s perspective.

"You know, it's not like we go and hide history," Convery cautioned. "It's not like nobody could look at the record and see what Alexander Ramsey had been doing. But we weren't asking the right questions very often."

What emerges are two very different viewpoints of how we should interpret history: One that is fixed with fidelity to precedent, the other views history as shifting with the perspective of the present.

Convery, of the Minnesota Historical Society, said, "We always rewrite history through the framework of events that are important to us at the moment. And this is a particularly fraught moment."

Beane believes the diversity of the early Minnesota Territory – with its mix of settlers and soldiers, Dakota and Ojibwe, French and British fur traders, and intermarriages among all of them -- holds lessons for the diversity of contemporary life.  

From this perspective, Ft. Snelling isn’t just an antique sitting on a shelf, it becomes a metaphor and a reminder that history isn’t just names and dates but complicated human beings with flaws and virtues.  

Beane said his family tree reflects the diversity of Minnesota history.  

"I challenge you to find a family more Minnesotan than my family."