38 Nooses by Scott W. Berg: a review

38 Nooses Mankato cover

38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End by Scott W. Berg. Pantheon Books, New York, 2012. 364 pages. $27.95

reviewed by Margaret J. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Twin Cities native Scott W. Berg is currently on the faculty of George Mason University where he teaches nonfiction writing and literature. In 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, Berg draws on primary sources and, with liberal quotations from salient documents, draws together in captivating and vividly detailed prose the background and contextual realities of those fateful six weeks now known as the U.S. -Dakota War of 1862, including their tragic aftermath on our nation’s history.

Interweaving individual biographies, an analysis of personal relationships and professional conflicts, the place of Minnesota as a newly minted State in a Union being torn apart by Civil War, tribal differences, and the ever-changing relational dynamics among Indians, traders, missionaries, settlers, and governments agents, Berg deftly describes the complex and connected interactions that drove a pivotal period in American history.

On top of this is an overlay of government policies opening the west to settlement where each successive treaty and policy had the effect of disadvantaging Native tribes in relationship to their historic homelands, as well as their ability to maintain cultural and religious identities in territories rapidly being overrun by immigrant settlers from the eastern states and Europe. Readers will gain a deep understanding of the insuppressible conflict between a government that saw a “frontier” where the Native peoples saw “home.”

38 Nooses is a comprehensive book that can profitably be read by those who want to know what happened on the Minnesota frontier, how it happened, and why it happened. Civil War scholars will find 38 Nooses an important source for forming a more expansive view of the Northland. The Notes, Bibliography, and Index provide a rich resource for those who want to delve deeper. Photos are inserted in the text at the points where they provide helpful information, although the Table of Contents is useless.  This book should be read by anyone who is open to knowing more about what they think they already know.

Berg’s book is filled with the kind of detail that makes good historical narrative flow. In page after page I found new insights and answers to questions that had lingered after reading other sources. For example:

  • How did other Dakota communities react to the war? How about the other tribes in the upper mid-west and across the nation?
  • Who were the settlers? What happened to those people who fled their homesteads and fledgling communities? How long was it before the Homestead Act’s westward march continued appropriating tribal lands?
  • How did Abraham Lincoln know so much about what was happening as it happened?
  • Was there really a Confederate effort to co-opt native peoples against the Federal government?

Berg seems to be constantly weighing the question of “How do we know what we know?” For example, during this period the news from Saint Paul to the rest of the nation was instantaneous – the telegraph lines ran east and many Federal officials were in Saint Paul at the time including Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Nicolay. The news Saint Paul received from Minnesota’s rural areas, however, relied on the reports of those fleeing from the west or returning after a military action, and those “facts” were fragmentary, conflicting, and in too many cases pure fiction –all of which was passed along to the eastern press as news.

Berg has sifted through numerous primary sources, weighing their veracity and presenting a rich contextual foundation upon which to build this story.  He interweaves the personal stories of Little Crow, Sarah Wakefield, Bishop Henry Whipple, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey. Other significant persons receive similar attention. We come to understand these people, caught in their human complexity and frailty as history swirled around them.

  • Little Crow – an aging leader who had been to Washington, participated in all of the treaty negotiations, tried to understand western ways and remained Dakota to his core.
  • Sarah Wakefield – an unhappy woman captured by the Indians and vilified as an “Indian Lover” when she defended her protector, Chaska.
  • Henry Whipple – a leading and influential Episcopal bishop passionate in missionary work, present on Civil War and Dakota battlefields, well connected to national leaders, who had the ability to comprehend the reasons for the conditions around him. He became a powerful advocate for reform and justice, but continued to believe in the need to “Christianize” the indigenous populations.
  • Abraham Lincoln – a man who transcended his family history and read every telegram sent to the War Department and sought the best way forward within the provisions of civil and military law in the midst of two significant wars.

While Berg makes no pretense to connect this history with current events, the connections are there. The inability of so many frontier immigrants to speak English resonates with “English Only” movements today. “Failures of law, failures of policy, failures of justice and lasting personal grievances” overwhelmed the ability of the government to honor sovereign peoples within the expanding United States. This reality is still reflected in jurisdictional disagreements on reservations and anger toward Mexicans crossing a border into lands that were once theirs. Is our administration of foreign aid another manifestation of how we dealt with our treaty obligations? How should we treat enemy combatants held in Guantanamo? Does Lincoln’s distinction between those who participated in massacres and those who participated in battles apply to terrorist embedded in the world’s current uprisings?

Reading good history helps us develop a willingness to delve deeper into common wisdom to discover deeper nuance. 38 Nooses helps us do that and just may be the beginning of helping us understand the lingering effects of these momentous events still rippling through American history.

Margaret J. Thomas is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) having served as the executive director of the Presbyterian Synod of Lakes and Prairies (1995-2000), which includes Dakota Presbytery, and the as the chief operating officer of the denomination (1977-1985). She served as the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches from 1985-1995.

*****

Scott W. Berg will be speaking at the historic Gideon and Agnes Pond House in Bloomington, MN at 2:00 PM on Sunday, August 18, 2013.  Open to the public.

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