An Interview with Dakota Dawn author Gregory F. Michno
: Describe the feeling of the country at the time of the Sioux uprising?
GM: In the summer of 1862, the Civil War had been in progress for more than a year, and although the major fighting was in the east, there were also battles west of the Mississippi. In Minnesota, however, the Dakotas were on a reservation and the whites believed they were making progress in learning to farm and becoming “civilized.” The sudden uprising was an unexpected shock.
: Many readers are probably unaware of what was going on in the west, especially since much of the country was focused on the Civil War at the time. What prompted you to write about this important event in American history?
GM: The greatest battles of the Civil War were fought east of the Mississippi and that seems to be where most readers’ interests are focused. The Dakota Uprising in Minnesota, however, occurring for the most part over the span of a few weeks in August and September 1862, took the lives of more than 600 white settlers and about 80 soldiers. It was the greatest loss of white settlers in such a short period of time in the nation’s entire history. I focused on the uprising’s first week, which saw the most rage, fury, and destruction.
: You researched many primary and secondary sources of information about this subject. How long did it take you to finish this project and what makes your effort different from others who have written about the episode?
GM: I used a great number of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection of primary sources, the best of which are the eyewitness accounts that provide great detail and an immediate “you are there” flavor. One source rarely used is the Indian Depredation Claims in the National Archives. After the Dakota uprising, settlers filed nearly 3,000 damage claims. I was able to use about 100 of them, which I do not believe have ever been incorporated into a book before. They illuminate many episodes and correct some previous misconceptions.
The many attacks on isolated settler cabins can be difficult to comprehend geographically, so another feature I provided was about 20 maps garnered from contemporary accounts and Bureau of Land Management records, to locate the cabins and make it easier to understand the flow of action. I don’t believe any other books provide such detail.
As for time frames, I have been studying the western Indian Wars for 40 years, but this project took about three years to complete.
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