Someday when you’re traveling along Davenport’s East River Drive in the area of McClellan Heights, turn up McClellan Boulevard and imagine how the area might have looked 150 years ago this April 25.
That is when a steamboat came down the Mississippi River from Minnesota and docked nearby, unloading about 265 male Dakota Sioux prisoners, 16 Dakota women and two children.
There was no River Drive and no homes. The hilly, woodsy area of McClellan was a Civil War training camp, and the Dakota, chained together in pairs, were marched up the hill, guarded on each side by Union soldiers, to begin what for many would be three years of imprisonment.
By one estimate, about 120 prisoners would die here, victims of cold, hunger and diseases such as smallpox.
The men were among the Dakota — the local newspaper described them as “red devils,” “Indian murderers” and “blood-thirsty copper skins” — who surrendered or were rounded up after a six-week uprising in Minnesota during the summer of 1862.
After years of seeing their lands taken by European settlers, being cheated by traders and government agents and pushed to the brink of starvation because promised annuities, including food, had not been paid, four young Dakota men killed five white settlers Aug. 17. The fighting spread and, by late September, more than 600 white people, mostly unarmed civilians, had been killed along with 75 to 100 Dakota warriors, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.
The white community responded with mass hysteria and calls for retribution, which is one reason the prisoners were loaded onto a boat under cover of darkness and moved here: to protect them from angry settlers.
Today, there is virtually no public memory of the prison in the Quad-City area.
The only visible witness to the incarceration is a boulder in Lindsay Park, installed in 1928 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, that reads, “In 1862, several hundred Sioux Indians were imprisoned here after the Minnesota Massacre.” The date is off by a year and doesn’t convey the length of the incarceration, but the boulder is at least some tangible reminder of this piece of history.
Memories are different, however, among the Dakota.
After the prisoners were released in 1866, they were moved to what is now the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska, where their relatives joined them. Their descendants still honor them, and wounds from the tragedies that occurred, the tearing apart of a people and a culture, still have not healed.
This year, the 150th anniversary of the prisoners’ arrival here, there is renewed interest in the Davenport prison and the uprising, called the Dakota-U.S. War by today’s historians.
A new exhibit at the Minnesota Historical Society titled “Revisiting a War that Changed Minnesota Forever” seeks to tell a more complete story, with multiple viewpoints of the hurt, loss and alienation it caused.
Fifty letters written by the prisoners themselves — long stored in a collection of papers at the Minnesota Historical Society — have been painstakingly translated from the Dakota language and published in a book.
A memorial reunion is planned June 7-9 in Davenport, with dancing, food, spiritual ceremonies and a walk from the Mississippi River up McClellan Boulevard to the prison site.
And in September, Gus High Eagle, a Dakota from Canada, hopes to lead a horseback Unity Ride from Davenport to Mendota, Minn., the ancient “Garden of Eden” for the Dakota people.
While the Lindsay Park plaque might be the only readily visible reminder of the prison, numerous written records related to it are tucked away in libraries and museums around the Quad-Cities and elsewhere.
The Putnam Museum in Davenport owns a document signed by President Abraham Lincoln, pardoning 25 of the prisoners in April 1864.
The Davenport Public Library houses a 2011 report on Civil War training camps, commissioned by the Iowa National Guard, which contains more than 35 pages specifically about the prison, named Camp Kearney.
Sources used for the report by researcher James E. Jacobsen of Des Moines include microfilm of newspapers that reported on the prisoners as well as military correspondence stored at the National Archives in Maryland. There, about 900 miles from the Quad-Cites, Jacobsen found a pen drawing of the prison quarters.
“Nobody I knew of had ever looked at these,” he said.
The special collections area of the Augustana College library in Rock Island contains the notes of John Hauberg (1869-1955), a Rock Island philanthropist and amateur historian who interviewed, photographed and collected artifacts related to area history.
In 1927, Hauberg interviewed a man named Bill Boldt, who was about 10 years old at the time the Dakota prison camp existed, and took photographs of the area based on Boldt’s memory of where buildings were located. He said the Indian prison stood between what are now Middle Road and Crestwood Avenue.
One of the questions that arises when people learn of the prison is where those who died there were buried and whether the remains still lie under the lawns, houses and streets of McClellan Heights.
A map drawn in the 1920s-’30s by Davenport architect Seth Temple, based on direct or second-hand information from veterans, places the burial grounds on a hill behind what is now the “Y” intersection of McClellan Boulevard and Hillcrest Avenue.
When Hauberg interviewed Boldt in 1927, he said, “When they built the road or street through part of it, they exhumed a lot of skeletons, skulls, which were taken to the Davenport Academy of Sciences (now the Putnam), where they may be seen today.”
Grave robbers may have taken other remains. An account in a September 1878 edition of the Waterloo Courier newspaper said 16 skeletons were extracted and sold for $25 each for medical use.
Remains that found their way to the Putnam and Palmer College of Chiropractic have been reburied in Minnesota.
In November 1987, 31 white boxes containing the remains of Dakota believed to have died and been buried at the Davenport prison — 26 from the Putnam and five from Palmer — were reburied by the Lower Sioux Indian Community near Morton, Minn., said Shirley Schermer, the director of the burial program for the Office of the State Archaeologist in Iowa City.
A reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper witnessed the burial and wrote about it.
A 50-foot trench was dug outside St. Cornelia’s Episcopal Church, and the earth was sprinkled with sage and tobacco. Each box was tied with a small red sash of tobacco, a traditional offering to the Creator, and the 10 boxes believed to contain the remains of women were buried in the center.
Prayers were offered in the Dakota language, a traditional spiritual leader pointed a hand-carved ceremonial pipe in the four directions and his son beat a drum. Three dozen mourners sobbed. An Episcopal priest also spoke.
After the boxes were covered with earth, the mourners filed away to share a meal of bison soup and fry bread.
The original uprising that led to that day had begun 125 years before, only about a mile away.
That conflict, the reporter observed, “is ancient history to most white people.
“But as the tears demonstrate, the war and its aftermath left a legacy of pain and alienation, which remains close to the surface of Dakota lives today.”
How the Dakota came to Davenport
Current accounting says that about 1,000 of the 7,000 Dakota Sioux living in Minnesota at the time of the uprising were involved, and those who were most involved fled to Canada. Some Dakota who were later imprisoned actually had helped white settlers escape.
But the white population was outraged and demanded that someone pay.
“These vermin are not fit to live upon the face of the Earth, and the sooner they are totally extinguished as a race, the sooner one of the greatest of all nuisances will be abated,” an article in the St. Paul Press stated at the time.
Those Dakota who surrendered or were arrested were quickly tried by a military tribunal, with no legal representation and in a language most did not understand. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
In April 1863, Congress acted to evict all Dakota from Minnesota, relocating them to the west of the state, and the remaining convicted prisoners were sent to Camp McClellan.
With them came 16 women to do cooking, cleaning and laundry.
Initially, the Dakota were held in four former Army barracks that had the bunks removed and that were surrounded by a 16-foot-high wooden fence.
In reading accounts of prison life, two pictures emerge: one of prisoners suffering and dying because of hunger, cold and disease, and another of prisoners eventually given relative liberty and being allowed to roam about on their own.
As historian Jacobsen said, “They’re both true.”