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Dakota in Exile: New book explores survival of a people after war

Dakota family posing for a photo

Robert and Samuel Hopkins, center, with Sarah Hopkins to the left of Robert, at Thomas Williamson’s Pajutazee Mission, August 17, 1862. Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

If the study of history only included dates, places, and names, then the Dakota War of 1862 might read something like this:

In 1862, after a series of broken treaties with the U.S. government and on the brink of starvation from a series of failed crops, Dakota men attacked U.S. settlements and settlers in what is now Minnesota. After brutal fighting with high casualties on both sides, the Dakota lost.

History, however, is more than events. It is an evolving story of people, cultures, and ideas—which can continue after events end.

Cover of book Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War with images of an evnelope and a wooden barrack with people standing in frontIn her new book, Dakota in Exile: The Untold Stories of Captives in the Aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War, Illinois State University’s Professor of History Linda Clemmons looks at how the Dakota people endured in the years following the war. “The trauma they experienced was incomprehensible, but I don’t think they should be only defined by that trauma,” said Clemmons, who teaches courses in Native American and antebellum United States history. “They did everything they could to try to survive.”

Headshot of Linda Clemmons

Linda Clemmons

The Dakota are one of more than 550 tribes of Native Americans recognized by the federal government. Comprising more than 3 million U.S. citizens, more than a third of Native Americans still live on reservations—or land the U.S. government used to round up tribes and separate them from the growing frontier settlements. Though the most intense and violent internment of people to reservations came throughout the 1800s, the repercussions of a history of forced relocations and racial isolation reverberate today. “Many reservations in places like North and South Dakota are some of the poorest areas in the United States,” said Clemmons.  “Many of those living on reservations suffer from high unemployment and increased rates of suicide and alcoholism. Historical trauma plays into that.”

To help readers understand the human impact of war’s aftermath, Clemmons concentrated on the family of survivor Robert Hopkins Çaske, a Dakota man who converted to Christianity nearly 20 years before the war. “In order to help with religious conversions, Protestant missionaries adapted the oral Dakota language into a written language, and Robert learned to read and write Dakota,” said Clemmons, who added a wealth of Hopkins’ letters survive.

There are descriptions of a hill that is filled with the graves of children. — Linda Clemmons, referring to the early days in the Crow Creek reservation.

After the war, Hopkins joined more than 300 other Dakota men imprisoned in Davenport, Iowa, at a military facility next to Fort McClellan. The women, elderly, and children were sent to a reservation called Crow Creek nearly 400 miles away in what would become South Dakota. “Crow Creek was underdeveloped land that settlers didn’t want,” said Clemmons. “It had contaminated drinking water and poor farmland—nothing would grow on it.” Those on the reservation faced starvation once again. “There are descriptions of a hill that is filled with the graves of children,” Clemmons said of the high death toll. The men did not fare much better in Iowa, with nearly half of the inmates dying at the prison.

drawing of prison with words "Indian Prison Quarters"

   The “Indian Prison Quarters” at Camp Kearney in Iowa

In the face of this devastation, Clemmons explores how Dakota families worked to survive. In Crow Creek, women adopted the traditional male role of hunting, even though it meant walking hundreds of miles to find buffalo. At the prison in Iowa, men found a way to earn money from the fascination of settlers. “Tourists came from everywhere. There were expeditions that were formed from Illinois to ‘see the Indians,’” said Clemmons, pointing out a sketch of the prison that included a large, wooden walkway constructed around the top of the walls. “It was designed for guards to patrol the prisoners, but so many people wanted to see the Indians that it became almost a human zoo, and the inmates learned to play off their fame.” Family members who lived in the prison collected shells which the men used to create items to sell to the tourists.  The prisoners also charged to have their portraits taken. “They then sold these items which they used to purchase needed supplies,” said Clemmons.

In Dakota in Exile, Clemmons also examines the role missionaries played for the Dakota, occasionally acting as advocates and intermediaries. “The inmates in Iowa could make money, but not buy food or blankets. Missionaries could,” she said. The written Dakota language, once seen as a means of persuasion by missionaries, now became a vital way for Dakota to communicate with family hundreds of miles away. “They used literacy as a tool,” said Clemmons. “And they looked to men like Robert Hopkins, who were already literate, to teach literacy at the prison and also at Crow Creek.” Missionaries would be known to carry hundreds of letters back and forth on their trips between Iowa and Crow Creek.

Even though the war was more than a century ago, the consequences continue into present day. “Many Dakota are still in exile,” said Clemmons, who connected with the descendant of Hopkins, named Robert Hopkins Flyingshield. He contributed the forward to the book. “His ancestors suffered—and survived—but he currently lives on a reservation in Montana, a result of his great-great-grandparents’ exile from Minnesota after 1862,” she said.

Find out more Dakota in Exile.

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