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At home with Meeker County's history

  • 9 min to read

Brian Pease was in his element as he stood at the front of the Grand Army of the Republic Hall and led a Civil War Roundtable discussion in August.

It wasn’t just because his presentation about the Acton Massacre and how it precipitated the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 was one of countless pieces of Minnesota history Pease has researched.

And it wasn’t just because two of his biggest inspirations to pursue a career in history were sitting in the audience.

For Pease, being in the G.A.R. Hall was akin to being home. This was one of his favorite hangouts when he was a kid growing up in Litchfield.

Pease and his family attended “the church next door,” he recalled, “and every month they would have a fellowship dinner. So, I would quickly eat my food, and then while everyone was talking, I would run over here.”

He was enamored with the Civil War history found within the hall’s four walls and the historical artifacts preserved inside the attached Meeker County Historical Museum.

Pease’s dad, Chuck, and uncle, Dave, also hold an appreciation for history, and helped whet the impressionable young man’s appetite for wanting to learn more about the past.

“Even when he was a kid, he knew what he wanted to do — he wanted to work at a museum,” Chuck Pease said.

Today, Brian Pease works as the historic site manager of the Minnesota Capitol for the Minnesota Historical Society and gives tours of the St. Paul building — highlighting its history, art and architecture.

He returned to Litchfield in August to lead the G.A.R. Hall’s monthly Civil War Roundtable.

“It’s good to be back,” Pease said, “which is kind of hard to say because I still think of this as my home. So, it’s just an honor to be asked to be a part of any program in the G.A.R. Hall.”

The war’s prominence in history

Pease’s presentation focused less on the Civil War and more on the Acton Massacre, “which, when you put it all together, is all part of the Civil War. It’s all happening, not just in Minnesota, but everyone is affected in the United States by the Civil War in 1862,” he said.

The U.S.-Dakota War occurred 156 years ago, and “very few can argue against that being Minnesota’s most horrific and tragic event. That six-week war involved 23 counties. It cost 600 lives, thousands of Dakota people were exiled, banned from the state, and 38 men were hanged at Mankato, Minnesota,” Pease said. “That war also had a dramatic impact on Meeker County. By my account, 19 people died here as a result of the events surrounding the war, from August to September 1862 to 1863.”

The tragic story of the U.S.-Dakota War started on the western edge of Meeker County in two settlers’ cabins, with the death of five people, he said. “The actual incident, or massacre, or murders, or first blood are some of the titles you see when looking at sources introducing this episode. The last one — first blood — pretty much says it all. This event alone put Meeker County on the map of Minnesota history.”

The Acton murders are only about a paragraph long in the collection of history of the Civil War, “because of all the battles and all the stories behind what was happening,” he said.

The Acton Massacre might not hold significance in some history books, “but for Meeker County, it’s more than just a footnote in the book. It’s a footprint that left a deep impression on the history of this part of the state.”

In the many accounts Pease has read about the Acton Massacre, details of people’s recollections differ. He tried to take the most reliable sources, such as the coroner’s inquest provided by the survivors of the massacre, and content from various versions of historians into his account of what happened.

Taking a closer look

“Let’s pull back our magnifying glass of history to what was happening in the Civil War. ... There’s not a whole lot going on, on Aug. 16. Nothing significant. Alexander Ramsey was governor of Minnesota. The state was four years old. Thousands of people were coming in to what is now Minnesota from 1855 to the 1860s,” Pease said. “As a state, we had already sent five infantry regiments, several artillery and cavalry units, and two sharp shooting units to fight and preserve the union.”

President Lincoln in July 1862 had called for 300,000 more troops, and more men from the state had or were enlisting at Fort Snelling to join the second wave of patriotism.

“Let’s move that lens even closer to where we are. Meeker County ... had about 1,200 people living within its boundary in 1862. The main settlements were Forest City, Kingston and Manannah. They were all built along the north branch of the Crow River.”

Further south were other settlements, including Ness, Swede Grove and Acton. The area was prospering with industry and agriculture, he said, “there were a lot of things happening here in Meeker County in 1862. By all accounts, in Meeker County, things were going pretty well. For the 16 people involved in this tragedy in Acton, none of them woke up that morning Aug. 17 contemplating that violence would swirl around them a few hours later.”

Those involved included:

  • Robinson Jones and his wife, Ann Baker Jones.
  • Robinson’s niece and adopted daughter Clara Wilson, and his nephew Robinson Cotton.
  • Ann’s son, Howard Baker and his wife, Emily Baker, and their two sons David and William Baker.
  • Viranus Webster and his wife, Roseanne, who were visiting the Bakers.
  • Four Dakota young men who belonged to the Shakopee band — Sungigidan (Brown Wing), Kaomdei-yeyedan (Breaking Up), Nagiwicakte (Killing Ghost), and Pazoiyopa (Runs Against Something When Crawling) — as well as two more Native Americans who arrived later.

The massacre

It was Aug. 17, 1862, a Sunday around 11 a.m.

“We’re not sure what Robinson Jones was doing when he saw four Dakota men approach his house, which also served as a store and trading post. He would have noticed that two of them were wearing white man’s clothes. Some had feathers stuck in their hats and all appeared to be young men. All, under the age of 30. They all seemed to be in a good mood and did not portray anything other than a group of hunters passing through,” Pease said.

“As anyone living in the Minnesota River Valley would know, and anyone living in Meeker County at this time, the traditional Dakota people relied on annual government annuities from the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Treaty of Mendota. To help them survive throughout the year. The money was never enough to keep them and their families fed. So, continuing their traditional lifestyle (of hunting) was a matter of necessity.”

They traveled through and hunted in Kandiyohi, McLeod, Meeker and Wright counties.

“They were hunting on these lands for generations before any white people were here. So that wasn’t uncommon to have Dakota come into your house or on your property. Or stopping in and asking for some food. That was a common occurrence,” Pease said.

What Robinson didn’t know was that not long before his encounter with the four men in his store, the four Dakota had found one of his hen’s nests. One of them was going to eat an egg raw. As he was about to do so, one of his companions scolded him and said, they were the white man’s eggs, and he should not do that. The man said he was not afraid and boasted he would kill the first white man he saw.

However, Jones knew these men, Pease said. “He has been encountering and engaging with the Dakota for the past five years. He can speak some of the Dakota language.”

As the four hunters looked at the goods in the store, they asked to buy some whiskey, which was something Jones had available on his shelves, but he was not allowed to sell or give it to the Indians, Pease said.

As they continued to talk, Jones asked one of them if he could have his gun returned — one that he had loaned to one of the Dakota the previous spring. What was said and how Jones said it is not known. The four Dakota walked out of the house, and headed east down the road in the direction of Howard Baker’s farm.

Jones grabbed his gun and followed the men to the Baker’s house, where Jones’ wife, son-in-law and grandchildren were visiting. When Jones arrived, the Dakota had already been there for about 15 minutes. They had shaken hands with Baker and Viranus Webster, been given water and were smoking pipes with tobacco provided by Baker.

“It’s very domestic, very commonplace, nothing is on edge,” Pease said. Jones went inside the Baker home and told his wife and others that the Dakota hunters had been at the store earlier and asked for whiskey to drink, which he refused to give them.

At this point, two more Dakota men came down the trail and joined the four others in the front yard at the Baker house. Jones, after talking to his family, walked outside and renewed the conversation with the Dakota about the borrowed gun.

“This discussion moved from returning the gun to trading for a gun. Howard Baker’s gun came into play as items to be bartered. After handling it and looking it over, one of the Indians traded his for Baker’s (gun),” Pease said.

“With the new gun in hand, the Dakota hunters wanted to test it out and challenged Jones and Baker to shoot at a marked place on a tree,” Pease said, which was 30 to 35 yards in front of the cabin.

“Each one steadied his gun and after taking careful aim, pulled the trigger, sending a solid ball smack into the tree,” Pease said.

Both parties seemed to be satisfied with the traded guns and began to go their separate ways.

“The Dakota stood in a group talking and reloaded their guns as if they were going to go back out hunting,” Pease said.

Jones, suspicious, walked to a corner outside the house and watched the Dakota men.

Baker placed his newly acquired gun inside the house and leaned against the front door, watching the happenings around him.

“In front of him, he saw Viranus Webster, who had not been involved in the shooting match, get a handful of belongings from his wife in the wagon and walk toward the house. Baker looked at the six Dakota men with guns loaded, spread out in front of the cabin. The one closest to him cradled a double barrel shotgun in his arm. Before he and the other unaware settlers knew what had happened, a loud gun blast sounded in front of the house. He saw Webster fall in a heap several yards in front of him,” Pease said.

Baker was next. The Dakota man with the shotgun pulled the trigger on the first barrel, injuring Baker. A second shot from the other barrel killed him.

Baker’s mother, Ann Jones, moved to the door to see what was happening. She became the next target. As she turned to flee, two more shots rang out, killing her.

Seeing what was happening, Robinson Jones moved for cover, trying to reload his gun on the run. One of the Dakota men chased after him, shooting and killing Jones was about 15 yards away from the cabin.

The fifth and final victim of the massacre was Clara Wilson, who was killed while inside the cabin.

“All of this was over in a matter of seconds,” Pease said. Roseanne Webster and Emily Baker, with her two children, sought cover in the brush along the edge of the woods before going to get help. A coroner’s inquest took place a day later. The five victims were

buried in a mass grave at Ness Lutheran Church. And a marker, which also serves as their headstone, was placed at the site by the state of Minnesota in 1878.

A collective memory

“This tragic story is just the beginning chapter in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. The details are still so compelling to talk about and care about a century and a half after the event,” Pease said.

“Historians have oversimplified the Acton murders to get to the heart of the U.S.-Dakota War, but in Meeker County, the Acton Massacre was the most famous event in our history, or we could say infamous event in our history.”

How this tragic event has been remembered for the past 150-plus years is to look at the collective memory of the Acton killings — the primary and secondary resources, and how that information has been recorded, commemorated or memorialized, he said.

“Right here, this is a perfect example of a collective memory — the G.A.R. Hall. It’s a place of history and memory. Memory is the core of what we see here today. It’s not so much a collection of writings, it’s the history that we see in the eyes of the people on these walls right here,” Pease said.

The G.A.R. Hall, built in 1885, served as a place for people to gather and share their Civil War experiences and memories.

“This was and still is a place to collect those memories and keep them alive. Take a closer look in this museum, and you’ll see in the midst, several mementos and curiosities and artifacts — physical memories of the Acton Massacre. They’re important, powerful reminders of that terrible event that changed the history of Minnesota and the United States.”

Pease pointed out a model of Jones’ log cabin, made from wood of the actual cabin. In addition, in a display case are pieces of wood from the target tree.

“So, here you have bits and pieces of that history all around us,” he said. “This building is the reason I went into history. So if someone says, ‘History doesn’t matter,’ have them talk to me. Or (if someone says) that, ‘This building doesn’t matter,’ have them talk to me. You’ll see that someone’s life changed because of it. I had the chance to come in here on Sunday afternoons and just look around and absorb all this history. That had a great influence on me. That’s one reason that I’m standing here today.”

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