New Ulm played a major role in the Indian Wars of the 1800s. The southern Minnesota city along the banks of the Minnesota River was the site of two battles between the Dakota (Santee Sioux) and local residents. The story of New Ulm and the US-Dakota War of 1862 – the last major war for the Dakota – is told at the Brown County Historical Museum, located in a former post office building.
Minnesota was a stronghold for much of the Dakota’s time as a free people. New Ulm was settled in 1854 by European-Americans. As the years passed, the Dakota traded with local businesses.
The United States entered into the Civil War in 1861, as southern states split from the union in response to the election of President Abraham Lincoln, who favored freedom for slaves. The Civil War would last until 1865.
The Dakota lived on reservations near Indian agencies northwest of New Ulm. The neighbors peacefully lived near each other. In 1862, the United States government bailed on its scheduled payments to the Dakota in exchange for the land it took. Local businesses wouldn’t work with the Santee, without money to spend. Without money to buy food and supplies, Dakota members began to starve.
In late summer, tribal leaders met with local and federal representatives to express their concerns. In response to their concerns, a local businessman is believed to have told the Native Americans to eat grass or dung.
Angered, the Dakota gathered in council. One group wanted to go to war with the Americans. The majority of Dakota didn’t agree with the idea. However, Little Crow agreed to lead a small group of warriors into battle.
The band attacked New Ulm on Aug. 19th. The fight lasted several hours. Five residents died. Word was sent out from the town that the Native Americans had attacked and New Ulm needed help.
About 600 Dakota – much larger than the original band of warriors – launched its second attack on the town. Outnumbered by the Native Americans, locals and their reinforcements held their own during the fighting. However, some of the Dakota were able to advance into the town and started a fire that engulfed all but a few buildings.
Following the daylong battle, the Dakota retreated for the night. The next morning, a few men showed up and fired on the city, but for the most part the New Ulm battle was over. Residents were taken to Mankato for their safety. New Ulm was eventually rebuilt.
Following the battle, some of the Dakota escaped to the west and Canada. Others – my great-great –grandparents and great-grandfather among them – were taken into custody and imprisoned at Fort Snelling, near St. Paul. They were among the 1,600 who had little to no involvement with the attacks. The Dakota were eventually moved to the current reservation in northeast Nebraska.
The Brown County museum captures the history of the events and tells the story well, mainly from a settler’s perspective. The events leading up to the battles are well-documented from both sides. The museum’s third floor is dedicated to the story’s exhibits.
While the battles of New Ulm may be a major piece of Minnesota history, the museum shares more of its local story with a large collection on the first floor of the museum. New Ulm is proud of its German heritage and that can be seen with some of the vases, cups and other china pieces on display.
An old ice cutting tool is prominently displayed. Before electric-powered freezers, people would take ice cutters to froze lakes, ponds and rivers and cut ice squares for home use or to sell. Next time you reach for the ice tray in the freezer, think about what we would have had to done more than a century ago.
Medical advancements, such as an early hearing aid, can be viewed. Think about what dentistry was like in the early 1900s. Ouch!
Female-focused items are on display, from fashionable hats to an early hair curler.
Local businesses are highlighted at the Brown County Historical Museum. Many cities once had their own phone companies. Movie theaters were once mainstays along Main Street.
The Brown County Historical Museum may best be best known for its award-winning US-Dakota War exhibit, but the museum does an outstanding job of sharing local history. We enjoy visiting history museums when we travel because you can get more of an area’s story from the items people have collected over the years.
We enjoyed our visit to the Brown County Historical Museum. It helped with a chapter of my personal history, seeing some of the items and reading stories of the US-Dakota War of 1862. We recommend visiting the museum.