One Noose, Two Beams, Same Story

Like PBS’s History Detectives? Read on.

*****

Roughly a decade ago, a Blue Earth County Historical Society volunteer took a historian into the back room of their Mankato, Minnesota facility and unwrapped a huge wooden timber. The volunteer said it was reputed to be a beam from the scaffold that executed 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862.

The volunteer was unaware that this showing violated BECHS policy. When the historian (who is white) requested a second, closer examination of the beam through official channels, the historian was denied in writing on the grounds that the beam, as a relic of the 1862 executions, was a “sensitive” object that held sacred funerary significance for the descendants of those who died on it, so could only be viewed by Dakota people.

By the twenty-first century, I think the state’s historical societies would understand that the politically expedient –cover-ups, denials, administrative rulings –only make some historians more intent to discover the truth hiding beneath.

Sunday January 29, 2012, the subject of BECHS’s sequestered beam surfaced again in the opening article in Dakota War of 1862 sesquicentennial coverage in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In the article, reporter Curt Brown probed public opinion on the subject of another relic of the Dakota executions: a hangman’s noose sequestered in the bowels of the Minnesota Historical Society History Center in St. Paul where only Dakota people have been allowed to view it.

In the wake of the Strib. article, the Mankato Free Press, on Feb. 4, 2012 ran an article by Tim Krohn on Blue Earth’s own sequestered relic: the forbidden beam. Krohn’s article included a reprint of a 1927 newspaper story declaring the timber to be a beam from the 1862 scaffold. In it, the prescient reporter gave detailed dimensions and noted the remnants of a shipping tag affixed to one end of the beam.

Last week, Blue Earth County Historical Society (BECHS) Executive Director Jessica Potter took the 1927 specs to the back room and unwrapped the beam. The Mankato Free Press ran a follow-up story by Dan Linehan complete with photographs on Feb. 10, 2012.

Potter’s verdict: the beam does not match the 1927 description of the scaffold piece but may be an object described as an 1856 bridge timber accessioned by BECHS around the same time it acquired the piece of the 1862 scaffold.

However this bridge timber, as it is now identified, comes with a twist. Inside a small frame nailed to the end of the timber is an aged paper tag like the one the 1927 newspaper story attributed to the scaffold beam.

This story is missing pieces bigger than the hand-hewn notches in the timber.

BECHS once owned two beams. Between 1927 and 1987, Potter believes, the scaffold beam was lost and its tag switched to the bridge timber.

The beam they denied the white historian access to is nothing but an innocuous chunk of (likely) the wrong species of wood. An old hunk of bridge, that, it is said, modern Dakota people have wept and prayed over believing it to be a piece of the scaffold that executed 38 of their ancestors.

What makes something true? Denial? Belief? Tears?

That’s what makes history slippery.

It was true 150 years ago that relics of a grotesque execution were so treasured that one official planned to make a present of 38 nooses to his superiors in the nation’s capital who had authorized the mass hanging. Until a soldier detailed to remove the nooses from the necks of the executed Dakotas –the same guy who told this story –filched a noose, stuffed it inside his jacket, then slept with the knotted hemp like a giant pea under his mattress until the furor over the missing 38th noose subsided.

In the 143 years since the soldier donated the noose and its story to the Minnesota Historical Society, politically correct perceptions of “the truth” have made seismic shifts, especially in response to the American Indian Movement. MHS is now self-conscious about the things it once proudly collected and is scrambling to appear forthcoming about its past –we can hope including the collections and access policies it has a history of sealing, denying, deaccessioning, and legally covering-up.

A decade ago, why did not BECHS invite a historian with a measuring tape who had seen a photograph of scaffold beam into its back room and let the historian do what historians do? (The photo of the beam was subsequently lost by the Minnesota Historical Society.)

That’s the rub. If the people who collect history were routinely forthcoming, we historians would have to devote ourselves to more essential questions like, “What happened 150 years ago?” instead of following the rabbit trails and red herrings of forbidden objects locked in the basements of historical societies.

Why do historical organizations rebuff those who might help them make sense of their institutional past?

History suggests this new buzz-word, “truth-telling,” is inherently self-limiting.

*****

For the record, I am not the historian who was shown, then denied access to the BECHS beam. In the wake of MHS’s recent rediscovery of the noose and its accession story, I was invited to view the noose. I had not made up my mind about accepting when MHS removed the noose from the collection of potential exhibit objects open for comment. 

This entry was posted in Blue Earth County Beam, Minnesota Historical Society, Opinion, truth-telling. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to One Noose, Two Beams, Same Story

  1. G_teach says:

    This story is fascinating to me for what it shows about conflict among cultures–White and Native, historian and public, institution and public…It also challenges me because, as a White person, I see “truth” as something I should always have access to, but this is not what everybody believes. I think I get to know every story, but here is a concrete example of how that thought leads to conflict. It makes sense to me that this relic, if it is the timber, is not for everyone’s eyes. What I am confused by is why the paper (Feb. 2012) got to take and publish photographs. It seems like there is still controversy, so did the historical society get permission from Native leaders before the news story? If not, what does this say about their policies for keeping some objects out of the public eye? Who is the policy really for, then? Lots to think about!

    • Carrie says:

      Gretchen,

      It is good to see you here:). A lot has happened with this story since February. The Mankato Free Press ran those photos because the Blue Earth County Historical Society invited them in when BECHS’s preliminary research indicated it was likely a bridge timber and BECHS wanted to share that discovery. But as I subsequently found when I researched the history of the beam (see the “Execution Artifacts Report” on the Research tab), BECHS had been misinformed that the beam, if it was from the 1862 scaffold, was protected as a native funerary object under NAGPRA. It is actually NOT a legally protected. In late April, 2012, BECHS reconsidered their position based on new evidence, including a photo of their beam when it was owned by the University of Minnesota. (Those newspaper stories are linked in the “In the News” tab.) Currently, BECHS is pulling together a team of people to lead a new round of investigation into the beam’s story.

  2. G_teach says:

    I had read the other parts about this–it still is so strange to me how we have decided to resolve these conflicts. Thanks for clearing up the information about the pictures, especially in light of their original strong statement about what historians/Whites could see.

    • Carrie says:

      Gretchen, I think that is why this is one of the more resonant stories to surface so far this year. Everyone involved is concerned to do the “right thing” but there are competing ideas about what “right” is –and about how fast it has to happen, what acceptable outcomes are, and how public the process needs to be. The noose at MHS is snarled in the same thicket and it remains to be seen if/how MHS finds its way out.

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