Thursday, April 04, 2013
In the neighborhood of Fort Brule
It's not that I've been down the road a thousand times or anything, but we've taken this county road east and west often enough to have stopped, but never did. Last week we found ourselves with some time to kill, so I pulled off along the road when a bleached out sign announced a historical marker--and we found this.
I've read and written a ton about the Dakota War of 1862, a war I laughed about, years ago, when an old neighbor told me a story his grandmother had passed along to him--about how all the settlers came into town toting pitchforks and hammer handles and whatever else they could come up that felt like a weapon. Somewhere west there was an Injun' uprising, men, women, and children tortured and murdered. They were there to save themselves and their white families.
They weren't wrong. Ugly things happened all along the Minnesota River valley in August, 1862, but the story I was told transpired in a settlement of Dutch immigrants, my own ancestors among them, some 500 miles east of the Minnesota River--and there was no CNN to broadcast the news. Word had traveled as desperation does.
And the word came here too, with good reason. Just a few years before, Dakota warriors had attacked settlers, killing a dozen or so, around Spirit Lake, just two, maybe three days of travel away. Then, in August of 1862, it had happened again at Lake Shetek, Minnesota, same distance. Who knew what might happen?
So out there, not all that far from where we live, those tough settlers got together and constructed a fort of sorts, a haven, a refuge, a military camp to fight off an attack that never came. But I can envision what kind of panic was in the air back then because the waves of fright traveled like concentric circles in a still pond, circles with a radius of more than 500 miles.
Fort Brule, at Brule Creek, named after a tribe of Lakota people, in fact, is not all that far from where we live. I must have passed the place a three or four dozen times and never knew a thing about it.
I wouldn't have guessed there were white people there in 1862, enough of them at least to build a fort. But I know that when Lewis and Clark came north through the region, following the Missouri, their path was a good deal east of where it would have been had they traveled up the river last summer. Somewhere along the line, the Big Muddy decided, in a snit, to take a different path and left the settlers at Fort Brule high and dry.
They would have been here that early because of the river, I'm guessing. Water was the highway. But the Missouri swung west later and left fine farming country in the flat pan where it once ruled.
So much has changed. I've lived here for forty years and never knew the story of Fort Brule. It took an afternoon jaunt--it took retirement for me to spot the marker and imagine my way into the story that happened just down the road.
I think I understand more about displacement today than I did years ago when that old friend of mine told me the story about Dutchmen and pitchforks. I think I understand more about what happened when suddenly hoards of white folks swarmed in to all this open land, simply assuming it was all free and full of promise, a story that's epic in proportions, full of far more tragedy than those of us who live here, white men, are willing to admit or even remember.
It made my day to stumble on Fort Brule, despite the fact that it had such a short life--raised in haste and hate and deep fear in 1862, abandoned just seven years later, when there were far more of us and far less of them--eight years before what the Lakota call Greasy Grass, Custer's fool demise at Little Big Horn, 500 miles west.
It's amazing what you might stumble over if you just take the time to look.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:06 AM