Monday, November 11, 2013

Day hike site of historic battles in U.S.-Dakota Conflict

Fort Ridgely State Park. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Minnesota ruins commemorates
army life of 1860s

Day hikers can walk the battlefield of the other major war the Union fought during the 1860s – the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862 – at Fort Ridgely State Park in Minnesota.

The state park sits on the site of the 19th century fort where battles assured the Dakota tribes would lose any right to their land in the northern Great Plains. While there is no formal trail through the fort’s grounds, there are plenty of pathways.

Restored commissary
To reach the park, from Sleepy Eye, Minn., take State Hwy. 4 north. In about 12 miles, turn left/west onto County Road 30. After passing the park entrance station, the road follows a largely straight line going northwest; when the road turns sharp north, go right/east into the Old Fort Site’s parking lot.

Today, only building foundations remain of the fort, though the commissary/mess hall, made of granite blocks, has been restored to its original appearance. In 1862, however, Fort Ridgely was the epicenter of conflict between members of five Dakota tribes and the U.S. Army.

Fed up with corruption in Indian Affairs, a homesteading act that opened their land to settlers, and unbearable living conditions at reservations they’d been forced onto, in summer 1862 the Dakota attacked settlers and traders in southwestern Minnesota. Then the Dakota ambushed soldiers sent up from Fort Ridgely, killing 24 troops.

With that, Fort Ridgely shifted from being a training base for Civil War volunteers to a base of operations against the Dakota. Recognizing the fort’s importance, the Dakota attacked it twice, on Aug. 20 and Aug. 22 in 1862. About 280 American soldiers and civilians held out until U.S. Army reinforcements arrived and run off the Dakota.

Diorama of sieges
A few days later, Fort Ridgely sent a burial party to find and then bury civilians killed during the conflict. The Dakota battled the party on Sept. 2 and kept them under siege for 36 hours in the Battle of Birch Coulee. A relief detachment from Fort Ridgely rescued the party, however.

Most Dakota (referred by some as the Sioux, based on the name given by their enemy, the Ojibwe) opted not to fight in the war, and most of the attacking forces coming from the Mdewakanton band. They were led by Dakota chiefs whose names now are staples of the modern Minnesota landscape; among them were Mankato, Shakopee and Mankato. Eventually the U.S. Army gained the upper hand in the conflict, and by spring 1863, the Dakota were forced out of Minnesota.

Interpretive signs among the ruins and exhibits at the park’s Visitor Center/History Center (which includes a diorama of the two sieges on the fort) provide details about life at Fort Ridgely and the U.S.-Dakota Conflict. The visitor/history center is open only from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The park and the diorama exhibit each require a fee to enter.

For those seeking more than a history lesson, the park offers 11 miles of formal trails for hiking. They meander through woodlands and open prairies.

Find out about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.