As many times as I’ve been to New Ulm, I had not yet gone through the cemeteries prior to May this year. The cemeteries are easy to pass as you’re driving on Highway 14 toward Sleepy Eye, Springfield, and Walnut Grove (the highway is known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway).
But on May 16 I had the opportunity to visit the cemeteries because I was in town for a couple of book readings/talks. New Ulm’s cemeteries are unique in that the city cemetery, the Catholic cemetery and the Lutheran cemetery share the same acreage. You have to read signs carefully to know which one you’re in, signs both directional and symbolic (i.e. crosses on top of the Catholic gravestones).
One thing I wanted to look for in the city cemetery were the monuments marking those who lost their lives in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. If you didn’t know anything about history, seeing gravestone after gravestone marked with 1862 as a date of death for so many would spur you to learn more. But some of the engravings also tell the story.
These gravestones are etched with phrases that might make us cringe today. There might be people who call for the replacement of such markers. But we can’t censor or erase the past. History is uncomfortable—there’s no way to make it always palatable. The best we can do is recognize this is one side of the story and ask ourselves, “What made survivors want to include this information on a gravestone?” and “What led to this violence?” We need to put ourselves back into 1862 the best we can to fully understand.
What are you thoughts?
There are a couple of great resources for people who want to know more about the U.S.-Dakota War. This website helps to interpret the complex, multi-faceted events of that time:
Minnesota Historical Society. The U.S. Dakota War of 1862. Retrieved from http://www.usdakotawar.org/.
Gwen Westerman and Bruce White wrote Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota, which won a 2013 Minnesota Book Award.