Wood Lake Battlefield archeology study helps tell the story

The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath had a profound impact in shaping Minnesota.

By TROY KRAUSE | Redwood Gazette, Minn. | Published: October 13, 2017

REDWOOD, Minn. (Tribune News Service) — In 2014, the American Battlefield Protection Program awarded a grant to the Wood Lake Battlefield Preservation Association (WLBPA) to conduct an archaeological survey of a 33-acre parcel of land where the last major conflict between the United States military and Dakota nation as part of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 took place.

That survey was conducted in 2015 by a team lead by Sigrid Arnott, principal investigator, who presented the information to the WLBPA during a meeting held Sept. 23 at Rock Valle Lutheran Church, which is located just a few miles east of the battle site.

Arnott said the team walked every inch of the 33 acres with metal detecting equipment and flagged each hit as they walked.

While she said some of those hits resulted in the discovery of more modern debris, many also resulted in the discovery of items from the time the battle occurred – Sept. 23, 1862.

"We know exactly where everything was found," Arnott said.

The process of discovery was conducted based on what Arnott indicated is a relatively new area of study known as conflict archeology, which studies the placement of items in the broader context of personal accounts of those events to corroborate or question the stories that have been told over time.

No, said Arnott, not every account is accurate, whether that is an indication of embellishment or simply a matter of a person recording the event stating a wrong direction.

"There are not a lot of accounts from that time, because most of the people who were involved were not literate," said Arnott.

The accounts are also, at times, biased, said Arnott, adding the good thing about studying the archeology of an area is of value because "the artifacts do not have a bias."

One of the areas of study that helps to tell the story, said Arnott, is the weaponry that was used. The two groups facing off against each other did not have the same weapons, and the bullets discovered in different locations indicate where a group likely would have been on the battlefield.

Arnott added even within the Army itself on the field of battle that day the weaponry was different, as the Renville Rangers who were on site would have had different guns than the standard military issue.

Finding bullets from the guns used by the Rangers also provides an indication of how the battle would have unfolded. Arnott said the study indicates what most would have expected. One of the reasons for the U.S. military victory was the fact that it had superior military advantage.

Its weapons, including the artillery, could fire at much farther distances to be effective, while the weapons used by the Dakota, primarily flintlock muskets with round balls and more traditional weapons, such as clubs and bows and arrows) had to be used at much closer distances to be effective.

One of the accounts that has been at issue is one of a description of which direction the Army headed as being north "up the road," but what has been discovered is that the road the men followed did not take a directly north track which indicated why initial study of the area seemed to conflict with the account.

However, when one went up the road rather than straight north the study revealed more specifically what likely happened as part of the battle. Arnott said artifacts also help to tell stories that provide some context to the time and events.

For example, she said a pile of unfired minie balls all in one location likely indicate a quick retreat. Yes, said Arnott, the area has been disturbed and collectors over time have likely removed artifacts from the site that would have helped to better tell the story, but she said the survey that was conducted can now be used in conjunction with the written accounts to see how they fit together to come to a better idea of what really happened.

Many of the artifacts that were collected are currently being housed at the Mankato campus of Minnesota State University. Their future is still up in the air.

According to Scott Larson, a member of the WLBPA board of directors, there is also other more sensitive information indicated in the book, and he said the association has no interest in pursuing further those areas considered sacred ground.

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