John LaVelle just drove half-way across the country and back to walk where his Native American ancestors walked more than 150 years ago.
A law professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law and an enrolled member of the Santee Sioux Nation, LaVelle wanted to visit the places in Minnesota that figured into the Dakota-U.S. War of the summer of 1862, formerly called an "Indian uprising."
His journey also brought him to Davenport.
A week ago he and his husband, Monte Deer Carden, drove to Lindsay Park where there is a plaque on a boulder that states, "In 1862, several hundred Sioux Indians were imprisoned here after the Minnesota Massacre."
They drove to the hill behind the Y-shaped intersection of McClellan Boulevard and Hillcrest Avenue, an area that is believed to be where the remains of about 120 Indians who died while imprisoned were buried.
And they walked to the intersection of Middle Road and Crestwood Avenue where it is believed the prison stood.
"Of course now it is just residences," LaVelle said of the area. "It is always a matter of imagining what it was like back then.
"But there is a sense of place. Sense of place is very important to the Santee Sioux people. Just knowing that I'm standing where they stood, on the very ground, is a profoundly moving experience. To be actually walking on the ground where they walked."
The prison was called Camp Kearney, located in the same vicinity as Camp McClellan, where soldiers were being trained for the Civil War, raging elsewhere on the continent during this same time period.
Readers may recall a series of articles I wrote about this mostly forgotten prison several years ago. LaVelle found them online and called me when he visited, which is how I am able to share his story today.
How the war started; the prison
The Dakota (also known as Sioux) war began like this: 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 on Aug. 17, 1862, near Acton, Minnesota.
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 why the Dakota men were loaded into a boat under cover of darkness and moved down the Mississippi River to Davenport.
The prisoners arrived on the morning of April 25, 1863, (the date on the boulder in Lindsay Park is one year off) docking near what is now the McClellan Heights neighborhood.
There were about 265 men prisoners plus 16 women and two children. Among them were two men who lived to become LaVelle's great-great-grandfathers. Had they not survived, had they succumbed to the cold, the hunger, the disease and the heartbreak of having their people and culture torn apart, LaVelle would not be living today.
LaVelle's journey to the Midwest was to honor these men and to learn more about his family's intersection with history. "It was a deeply moving and sacred thing for me," he said.
Trials, execution, pardon
His great-great-grandfathers were Iyasamani and the Rev. Artemas Ehnamani. The latter had converted to Christianity and became the minister of the Pilgrim Congregational Church on the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska. That is where he settled after the Civil War ended and the remaining prisoners in Davenport were released by order of President Andrew Johnson.
Both men had been among the hundreds rounded up after the six-week war and tried individually by a military tribunal. The trials were conducted in a language most Indians did not understand and without legal representation.
LaVelle read through the trial transcripts on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. It's likey each trial lasted only about five minutes, he said. "They are one paragraph," he said of the transcripts for each.
Of those tried, 320 were convicted and 303 were sentenced to death.
Presbyterian church leaders who had been ministering to the Indians for nearly 40 years before the war urged President Abraham Lincoln to overturn the death sentences. But there also was pressure in Minnesota to uphold them.
Lincoln responded by sparing all but 39. And due to a last-minute reprieve, one more was spared.
On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
"I am living proof of Lincoln's mercy," LaVelle said. "If he had not intervened, I would not be here today. He was under huge pressure to execute them all."
Those spared remained under the cloud of possible execution as they were moved to prison in Davenport. But during the time of incarceration, Presbyterian ministers and others continued to plead on the men's behalf and on April 30, 1864, Lincoln signed a pardon for another 25, ordering their immediate release.
The Putnam Museum holds in its collection the original document signed by Lincoln.
When LaVelle visited Davenport, curator Christina Kastell retrieved the document, and LaVelle was able to hold it in his hands. He found the name of his great-great-grandfather, Iyasamani, at the top of the second column.
While the war and the existence of a prison in Davenport has long since vanished from the collective memory of most people living in the Quad-Cities today, it is very much alive among Indian descendants, such as LaVelle.
LaVelle grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, but his mother was born on the Santee Sioux Reservation where the history of the people was part of growing up.
During his journey, LaVelle researched several other ancestors and visited places such as the area below Fort Snelling in St. Paul where about 1,700 of the Indians who were not sentenced to death, mostly women and children, were first confined.
"Below the actual walls there is a steep grade, a road, to the low lands where the internment camp was," LaVelle said. " It was the world's first concentration camp. It was very moving. There were prayer ties, red prayer ties in the trees. There was a circle of prayer sticks."
As LaVelle told me about his journey to honor his ancestors, I felt honored myself.
I got quite immersed in the story of the war and the prison in Davenport when I researched it four years ago. I never imagined I would be able to talk to someone with a connection to both.