Untold Epilogue to the Dakota War

Iowa Culture
Mar 23, 2020 · 3 min read

Every year, the State Historical Society of Iowa presents the Benjamin F. Shambaugh Award for the best Iowa history books published during the previous year. The award’s namesake served for 40 years as the society’s superintendent, taught at the University of Iowa and vigorously promoted state and local history.

Linda Clemmons won this year’s award for her book, “Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War” (272 pages, University of Iowa Press), which award juror Pamela Riney-Kehrberg reviewed below.

In “Dakota in Exile,” Linda Clemmons explores an overlooked chapter of the U.S.-Dakota War — specifically, what happened to Dakota prisoners who escaped the mass execution of 38 of their number at Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862. Clemmons uses the story of Robert Hopkins and his family, Dakota converts to Christianity, to put a face on the larger group whose lives were permanently disrupted, or destroyed, by the war and its aftermath.

“Dakota in Exile” is a story of both Iowa and the Midwest. The Dakota War over treaty violations took place in southwestern Minnesota while the broader Civil War raged farther south, but its reverberations affected farmer-settlers in border areas of both Minnesota and Iowa. Readers may be more familiar with the fighting, which took place in 1862, as the Sioux Uprising or the Dakota Conflict. Treaty violations, as well as annuity payments that came late or not at all, led to hunger and unrest among the Dakota. This led to attacks on settlements, and months of fighting between the Dakota and the U.S. Army.

The U.S. government imprisoned more than 300 Dakota men who were convicted of murder to Camp Kearney Prison in Davenport, where they stayed until 1866. The government exiled the prisoners’ families to Crow Creek, in Dakota Territory. Eventually, as the government pardoned and released the prisoners, and set up new reservations for the Dakota, they were moved to new locations in Dakota Territory and Nebraska.

Clemmons tells a story of suffering but also adaptation. Hopkins and others like him struggled to survive their imprisonment and made good use of their connections with missionaries in order to plead for their freedom. In order to earn desperately needed money for food, clothing, paper and postage, they took shells from the Mississippi River and carved them, and many a child in Davenport had a Dakota-made bow and arrow set.

In addition to poor conditions, the prisoners endured the stares and abuse of the Davenport locals, who treated them as animals in a zoo. Their families in Crow Creek struggled along without them, without adequate food, clothing or shelter. Hopkins’ wife, Sarah, contracted a fatal case of tuberculosis.

Families like the Hopkinses used many tools to mitigate the worst effects of their ordeal. Some turned to Christianity, and by doing so gained what little protection the missionaries could provide. They learned how to read and write Dakota, so they could communicate with their families across the miles. Others took the most contested action of all and joined the Dakota scouts and the U.S. Army in disciplining and fighting against their own people.

While all of these actions loosened the bonds of Dakota culture, the Dakota also made use of religion, literacy, and collaboration for their own purposes.

Clemmons has written a fascinating account of a chapter of Midwestern and Iowa history with which most of us are unfamiliar. In doing so, she has helped to create a fuller and more nuanced view of the Native American history of our region.

— Reviewer Pamela Riney-Kehrberg teaches American history at Iowa State University.

Iowa History

State Historical Society of Iowa.