The Historical Society’s Very Weak Attempt at Truth Telling in the Minnesota State Capitol

1929 plaque honoring Alexander Ramsey in the Minnesota State Capitol

An old African proverb says: “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

And so it is in the Minnesota State Capitol building and the stories it tells about the early settlers and the Dakota, the original people of this place. A historic plaque hangs in the hallway near the Governor’s office extolling Alexander Ramsey, the state’s first Territorial Governor and its second Governor after statehood.

It was placed there in 1929 by a group called “The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.” The plaque tells the colonial story, saying Ramsey was:

RESOLUTE AND VIGOROUS IN ACTION
FAR-VISIONED AND SAGACIOUS IN COUNSEL
HE GAVE THE STRENGTH AND
ENTHUSIASM OF HIS LIFE
THAT THE FOUNDATIONS OF THIS
COMMONWEALTH MIGHT BE
WELL ESTABLISHED.

Not surprising for the time, the plaque failed to acknowledge Ramsey’s mercenary side, such his role in forcing through unfair treaties, or his decision to put bounties on Dakota scalps after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

The Minnesota State Capitol just underwent a major $300-million-plus renovation. It included a vigorous debate over how to tell Minnesota history through art and interpretation. Historically, gubernatorial portraits have lined the Capitol corridors with only the governor’s names and dates of office. The renovation added short biographical narratives for each governor.

The narrative accompanying Ramsey’s portrait is an improvement over the plaque, but still falls well short of freeing itself of the colonial narrative. Instead of telling multiple sides of the story, the narrative is a sad amalgam of dry and irrelevant facts and narrative that lacks context. Its silence on Ramsey’s major flaws speaks volumes about the Historical Society’s inability to tell difficult truths about the state.

Alexander Ramsey’s portrait in the Minnesota State Capitol

The Minnesota Historical Society is responsible for the art and interpretation in the Capitol.

I asked the Historical Society to describe the process it used to write the biographies. I have included the full response at the end of this blog, but a key passage say the biographies were reviewed for “accuracy, balance, and neutrality.”

Neutrality is a tricky word. It can mean that you present multiple sides of an issue without taking a position on which is right. It also can mean avoiding controversy altogether. I believe the Historical Society chose the conflict-avoidant path, and the Capitol tourists who read these biographies are the lesser for it.

The Ramsey narrative fails on “balance,” too. No Dakota people were consulted on the Ramsey biography.

New Ramsey Biography

This is the 403-word statement that now accompanies Ramsey’s portrait.

ALEXANDER RAMSEY
1ST TERRITORIAL GOVERNOR 1849-1853
2ND STATE GOVERNOR 1860-1863

ALEXANDER RAMSEY was born in 1815 in Hommelstown, Pennsylvania. Admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1839, he served as a Whig politician in the early 1840s, followed by two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

For helping Zachary Taylor carry Pennsylvania in the election of 1848, Ramsey was appointed governor of the recently organized Minnesota Territory. Once there, he invested shrewdly in Minnesota real estate. Giving up his law practice, Ramsey made real estate development his major business.

Ramsey also served concurrently as Minnesota’s superintendent of Indian affairs. In 1851 that duty included negotiations with the Dakota that opened large tracts of land for white settlement. Sectional politics and the interests of the Native Americans, fur traders, lobbyists and settlers were entangled in complex negotiations. Ramsey was accused of fraud and not exonerated until 1854 – the year after a new territorial governor was appointed.

In 1855, Ramsey was elected mayor of St. Paul and by 1857 he had joined the new Republican Party. Democrat Henry H. Sibley defeated him in the state’s first gubernatorial election in 1858. Ramsey, however, won the next two contests, becoming Minnesota’s second governor. His administration was marked by sound economic management and by two crises: the Civil War and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. In 1861, Ramsey was in Washington D.C. on business when the Civil War began and offered President Lincoln the very first volunteer regiment for the Union Army. This was the first one thousand men of the 24,000 Minnesotans who served in the Civil War.

Immediately after the outbreak of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 white settlers, Governor Ramsey led the call to exile all Dakota people from Minnesota. During Ramsey’s tenure, more than 300 Dakota were tried and convicted for participating in the war. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato which is the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Approximately 1700 Dakota, mostly women and children, were detained and relocated to Fort Snelling. In the spring of 1863, they were forced out of the state.

In January 1863, the state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. He lived in Washington D.C. from 1863-1875, and again from 1879 to 1881, serving as Rutherford B. Hayes’ Secretary of war. He retired from politics in 1886, returning to St. Paul where he died in 1903.

Eight Problems with this Narrative

Dakota concentration camp below Fort Snelling, winter of 1862-63.

The biographical sketch does little to elaborate on  Ramsey’s impact on Minnesota — and why readers should care. Here are eight problems with the current narrative:

1. Irrelevant Facts: If you only have a limited space to tell a story, don’t waste words talking about Ramsey’s admission to the Pennsylvania bar or when he served as St. Paul mayor. They don’t help tell the story of how Ramsey shaped Minnesota or the critical issues of his day.

2. False Praise: The new biography says Ramsey: “invested shrewdly in Minnesota real estate.” “Shrewdly” implies that Ramsey was smart and astute. It ignores the tremendous advantages he had in business: he benefited from both his political position and stolen indigenous lands.

3. Fraud, What Fraud?: The narrative gives us this teaser: “Ramsey was accused of fraud and not exonerated until 1854 …” The reader is left wondering if Ramsey was innocent or if he got off because of political allies. We don’t even know what the fraud charge was. This factoid isn’t helpful in illuminating Ramsey as a person without more information.

4. Word Choices Obscure Important Context: The biography says in 1851, Ramsey’s “duty included negotiations with the Dakota that opened large tracts of land for white settlement.” Saying Ramsey was following his “duty” to negotiate treaties is a positive frame, making it sound like he didn’t have a choice about how to conduct those treaties. He did have a choice, and he personally benefited from the treaties. The narrative also talks about treaty “negotiations,” which makes it sound like the two sides had equal power in reaching an agreement. They did not. Absent from this narrative is a description of the government’s strong-arm tactics and deception in the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in which the Dakota ceded almost all of their land in Minnesota.

5. Feel Good Facts: We love to tell the story of Minnesota being the first state to offer Union troops to President Lincoln for the Civil War. It might be a fun fact, but it was just a coincidence. Ramsey happened to be in Washington D.C. at the time the war broke out. This did not influence the outcome of the war. This reflects nothing special about Ramsey or Minnesota.

6. In Describing the Dakota-U.S. War, the Narrative Focuses on White Victims: The biography says: “Immediately after the outbreak of the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, resulting in the deaths of more than 600 white settlers, Governor Ramsey led the call to exile all Dakota people from Minnesota.” That framing makes the exile seem justifiable. Instead of discussing the war’s causes, the narrative starts with the deaths of 600 white people. There is no mention of the broken treaties that led to starvation and anger among the Dakota. Those broken promises sparked the war. What did Ramsey do, or not do, to make sure treaty rights were met? The narrative ignores the question.

Sketch of the gallows from the mass hanging of Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 (Wikimedia Commons)

7. What About the Deaths of Dakota Women and Children at Fort Snelling?: The biography says 1,700 Dakota were detained and relocated to Fort Snelling, then were forced from the state. That is the blandest possible way to tell this history. It fails to talk about the 150-mile forced march of Dakota women and children from southern Minnesota to Fort Snelling. It fails to acknowledge that at least 300 Dakota women and children died in deplorable conditions of cold, hunger and disease at the camp. That is part of Ramsey’s legacy, too.

8. It Ignores the Backstory to the Hanging of 38 Dakota Men: The narrative talks about the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. It does not let the reader know about the extremely brief sham trials that were held to get more than 300 convictions. President Lincoln unilaterally reduced that number significantly, angering Ramsey. Later, Ramsey would put bounties on Dakota scalps, another fact missing from the biography.

The fact that the Historical Society thinks this narrative of Ramsey is illuminating and helps Minnesotans understand their history is tragic. It still tells a one-sided colonial story.

Historical Society’s Response

I shared these eight critiques with Lory Sutton, Chief Marketing Officer for the Minnesota Historical Society. I asked if the Society had consulted with any Dakota people on these biographies. I sent her an alternative version of Ramsey’s biography for consideration. Here is her email response, in full:

First, please know that we all at MNHS appreciate and respect feedback given on the biographies associated with the Governor portraits at the Minnesota State Capitol.  We always welcome feedback on our work and review input carefully.

The Governor biographies were written in 2017 from historical sources including the MNHS website and the National Governors Association website. MNHS staff and an independent editor reviewed all the biographies for accuracy, balance, and neutrality.  In addition, the content for about 10 bios (including the bios for Ramsey and Sibley) was developed and reviewed by independent historians.  As you know, history is a compilation of diverse perspectives seen through many lenses, and we are constantly learning new information about our history. In this case, the goal of the independent historian was to review the bios with sensitivity to how we understand history today.

As you noted, the 38 governor bios are limited to about 350 words each, making it challenging to convey the complexity and nuance of the historical time period in which each governor served.  At this point, we continue to welcome and review input, but we do not plan (or have a time established) to revise bios in the near future.

You also asked about review from Dakota historians. The MNHS Native American Initiatives (NAI) team, which was newly formed at the time the bios were written, did not review the bios, as they were engaged on a broader portfolio of projects at the time, including interpretation of larger pieces of art in the Capitol. It is the goal of MNHS to include their input moving forward on topics related to the history of Native American people.

Thanks again for reaching out to us, Scott, and please know that we appreciate and welcome your input.

My Take: This response, while pleasant enough, does not address any of the specific criticisms that I raised. It seems to justify the existing biographies based on the fact they they consulted “historians.” I am left to wonder about the historians chosen and their particular bias.

The Society says on one hand: “We always welcome feedback on our work and review input carefully.” And on the other hand, don’t expect changes: “… we do not plan (or have a time established) to revise bios in the near future.”

I am left to wonder why they did not consult Dakota community members. (It was probably happening at the same time the Walker Art Center was engulfed in the controversy over the sculpture “Scaffold.”) Sutton seems to think it would not have been a priority for Native advisers, saying members of the newly formed Native American Initiatives team “were engaged on a broader portfolio of projects.” I am left wondering if the team even was offered a choice to review these biographies.

It is difficult to convey nuance in a short biographical sketch, but there is tremendous room for improvement over the current text. I wrote an alternative biography for Ramsey (same word count) and offered it to the Historical Society. Sutton offered no opinion on this version.

Alternative Brief Ramsey Biography

Here is the version I proposed, focusing on the most important impact that Ramsey had on Minnesota history and important events of his time.

ALEXANDER RAMSEY
1ST TERRITORIAL GOVERNOR 1849-1853
2ND STATE GOVERNOR 1860-1863

ALEXANDER RAMSEY had a powerful influence on Minnesota’s founding. He played a key role in opening Minnesota for settlement. At the same time, his bad-faith dealings with the Dakota people had devastating consequences for them, a legacy that continues today.

Ramsey came to Minnesota from Hommelstown, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1815. He helped Zachary Taylor carry Pennsylvania in the 1848 Presidential election. That earned him an appointment as governor for the newly organized Minnesota Territory. Once there, he invested in real estate, a prosperous business as new lands for settlement opened.

As Territorial Governor and Minnesota’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Ramsey helped force through the 1851 Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. The Dakota ceded all of their Minnesota lands to the U.S. government, except for small reservations along the Minnesota River. The treaty cheated them out of much of their initial payment through a clause that was never explained to signers.

The treaty benefited white settlers and land dealers, but the U.S. government failed to honor its side of the deal. It didn’t provide promised food and money when the Dakota were desperate and starving. These conditions sparked the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862. At the time, Ramsey was serving as Minnesota’s second governor. He assigned Henry Sibley, his political rival and Minnesota’s first governor, to lead military efforts to quell the fighting.

Both sides suffered. More than 600 settlers died, the disproportionate number of casualties. Revenge was swift. Under the thinnest of legal proceedings, 303 Dakota men were convicted and sentenced to death. President Lincoln commuted the death sentences of all but 39 – outraging Ramsey and many Minnesotans. Eventually, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Dec. 26, 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Some 1,700 Dakota women, children and elders were held at Fort Snelling that winter under brutal conditions; some 300 died. In the Spring of 1863, the remaining Dakota were taken to Crow Creek, a barren piece of land in South Dakota.

Congress passed two bills in early 1863. One exiled the Dakota, the other exiled the Winnebago people from their southern Minnesota reservation. The Winnebago had nothing to do with the war, but they occupied prime farm land settlers desired.Ramsey called for the exile or extermination of Dakota people, putting bounties on their scalps.

Ramsey died in 1903.

4 thoughts on “The Historical Society’s Very Weak Attempt at Truth Telling in the Minnesota State Capitol

    • Just now read this insightful blog post. Thank you for researching the history of Gov. Ramsey, of the Dakota and other indigenous people–and of the plaques at the MN Capitol. It’s so important for us, the public, to see and hear history balanced by the perspectives of all those who played a role in the history. And it’s important for us all to be truth tellers. Thanks for exposing in a matter-of-fact style the weaknesses in the messages of those who are content with less than full truth.

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  1. The alternative bio you wrote on Alexander Ramsey is illuminating. I am disturbed by the MN Historical Society’s inadequate process for preparing the synopsis for each governor, neglecting to consult with the cultural team already in place to give more accurate historical context. Lame excuse, they were busy with a “broader portfolio” of projects. Isn’t this Type of historical consultation PRECISELY their purpose?
    And their discounting of your concerns. Seems like pulling a Walker (oh we didn’t know the scaffold would disturb people). Of all people the MHS should know the importance of bringing legitimate consultants to the table. Shame on them!

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  2. This is a wonderful piece. Sadly, the victor’s history (not only the bio but the US-Dakota War in general) continues to be the mainstream narrative. It bears mentioning that the decades of depredations leading to the war (including the environmental devastation and the fur trade’s credit system creating indentured servitude) are rarely mentioned either. We need to learn.

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