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’38 Nooses’ looks at the U.S.-Dakota War from a national perspective

“This was an incredibly important, defining moment in history, not just for Minnesotans,” said author Scott W. Berg.

As we approached the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, a flurry of books about the topic were published. I’ve written about many of them — so many that perhaps it’s time to take a break from the topic for a while. But first, one more. Scott W. Berg’s “38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End” is a outstanding look at the tragic events that occurred on the western prairie, in part because he takes a step back, away from Minnesota, to view the war from the perspective of the larger narrative of American history.

“This was an incredibly important, defining moment in history, not just for Minnesotans,” said Berg in an interview. “Our history is part of the great sweep of American history, from the very first encounters white explorers had with Native Americans to today, and this was a pivotal moment in that story.”

Berg says he has long been fascinated with the Dakota War. He grew up in Roseville, and earned an architecture degree from the University of Minnesota before heading to the East Coast, where he studied writing and ultimately landed a job teaching nonfiction writing at George Mason University. He is also a regular contributor to The Washington Post, and his first book, “Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington D.C,” allowed him to explore his interest in architecture. From a distance, he continued to read about Minnesota history, though, and he realized the book he really wanted to read hadn’t been written yet. So he wrote it.

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Overshadowed by Civil War

“For me, it came down to the fact that this was a national story and I never read anything that fit what was happening in Washington, in Lincoln’s cabinet meetings, in the South, with what was happening on the western prairie. The reason for that is timing. The Civil War was under way. If [the Dakota War] had not happened at the darkest period of history for the union, it would be recognized today as the huge event that it was. It would take its place alongside the great national stories of Native American history, like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Battle of Little Big Horn. Instead, the Civil War blocked out this event.”

Scott W. Berg
Scott W. Berg

Berg begins “38 Nooses” with a story from Kentucky, 1786. Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather is killed by Indians and his young son Thomas nearly kidnapped; Thomas is saved by a brother, and goes on to become the father of the 16th president of the United States. Like all of history, things could have so easily been otherwise. Instead, Lincoln is in the White House at the moment the country divides down the middle, and he’s there to decide the fate of 303 Dakota prisoners accused of murder and atrocities. He does not listen to popular opinion and quickly condemn them all; instead, he studies conviction records on each man, and decides just 38 meet the legal requirements for execution. Meanwhile, thousands of Dakota people are interned in camps for months, then driven out of Minnesota in a dramatic moment that signaled to white settlers that the west had been won.

“The War of 1862 marks in a really clear and powerful way the end of the era of native, or First People’s, hold on this land. After this event, the Dakota people are gone, and Western expansion plays out very rapidly,” Berg says. “They knew it, even then. Within 10 years, shows and reenactments of the Dakota War and Indian history become very popular. People knew it was already history, that they had witnessed the end of something that would never be again.”

Key players’ stories

The stories of key players, including Lincoln, Little Crow, and Mary Wakefield, a settler who was captured by Dakota and wrote a “captivity narrative” about her experiences, provide a framework for Berg’s wide angle look at history. But as he researched the book, reading through archives and visiting key sites in Minnesota and Washington, he was ever conscious of all the unnamed lives that were part of the story.

“You think about what it must have been like to be in those Dakota camps, what it must have been like being a white settler seeing the prairie for the first time. There are thousands of characters moving through this story that didn’t leave a record, but their experiences were just as intense. It was an incredible moment in history and they lived through it.”


Reading tonight, Jan. 16, 7 p.m. The Bookcase of Wayzata.