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Chuck Haga, Forum Communications, Published July 07 2012

Grand Forks man ponders war that took ancestor’s life

GRAND FORKS – Kjersti Johnson’s death at the age of 71 “came very suddenly,” the Hillsboro Banner reported in 1933. “She had not been ill and was feeding a flock of chickens when she fell over dead.”

Her life had started more dramatically. Born in February 1862 in southern Minnesota, she was an infant when her Norwegian immigrant father was killed in what has come to be known as the Dakota War, one of the most troubling episodes in regional history.

Faced with the loss of much of their land and constraints on their traditional way of life, the Dakota of southern Minnesota were starving in 1862. Some white settlers tried to help, but Indians were angered by reports that traders and agents were keeping government food allotments from them.

The violence started when a small hunting party killed five settlers, and soon Dakota warriors were attacking farms and settlements up and down the Minnesota River Valley. The U.S. Army was brought in – despite the Civil War raging to the east – and hundreds died before the last band of Dakota warriors surrendered.

Surviving members of the Kjersti’s family carried her to safety in a nearby fort. As a young woman, she crossed into the new state of North Dakota, married and settled near Buxton in Traill County, where she became the matriarch of a large extended family.

“She had no formal education, but she would be called a whiz at math, and she kept the books,” said Ray Holmberg of Grand Forks, Kjersti’s great grandson. In her later years, “she liked to sit on the porch and smoke a pipe.”

Lingering hostility

Holmberg, a state senator and retired high school guidance counselor, has heard stories about Kjersti recently from an elderly aunt in Colorado. As he learned about her, he thought about the tragic clash between Dakota Indians and white settlers 150 years ago and how the wound has festered.

“The next generation knew about what had happened, but they didn’t talk about it,” he said. “They didn’t talk about ‘the troubles,’ and my dad’s generation grew up in a household with an interesting attitude towards native peoples.

“My 94-year-old aunt uses the word ‘butchered’ rather than ‘killed’ ” when talking about the settlers who died, he said.

Similarly, as this year’s commemorative events and displays have shown, Indian families have passed down stories of white injustice that sparked the explosion and later punished the innocent as well as the guilty.

Holmberg said his father, born in 1919 and a teenager when Kjersti died, “never talked about it,” but the family’s direct link to the Dakota War “definitely had an impact on attitudes toward what we call diversity. A friend said they were ‘diversity averse.’”

Brutal history

He said he first came upon the story of his great-great grandfather, Gulbrand Palmeson, and his great-grandmother’s flight while working on family history years ago. Filling out the story recently, in part with genealogical information translated from Norwegian, has provided him with some insights.

“I have a much better understanding after the last few days of what shaped that generation’s attitudes,” he said. “Having seen or heard what they did while growing up, you can understand how they would feel the way they did.”

They had seen brutality or heard terrible first-hand accounts, that first generation on the prairie. And while they were reluctant to discuss those events as the years passed, and their children reluctant after them, fear and hatred were part of their legacy.

Holmberg said he has been reading about the war, its confused origins and many victims, white and Indian, including the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men at Mankato, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. More than 300 had been condemned to die, but President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of most.

“Think if Lincoln hadn’t stepped in!” Holmberg said.

He said he plans to attend the official commemoration of the war later this summer in New Ulm, Minn., where many of the region’s settlers sought safety and fought off attacks by Dakota warriors.

“It’s a fascinating part of the history of the area,” Holmberg said. “It affected attitudes, and attitudes can last a long time.”

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Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald