Sunday, August 14, 2011

Author Q & A: Gregory F. Michno

Gregory Michno has authored or co-authored at least eight books and many more articles dealing with the Indian conflicts in the West. His most recent publication, Dakota Dawn: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 17-24, 1862 (Savas Beatie, 2011) is a fascinating moment by moment recounting of events, and he's kindly agreed to answer a few questions about it for CWBA.

DW: You’ve published widely on the Indian Wars of the West. What led to your interest in the Dakotas of Minnesota?

GM: I’ve probably had an interest in the Uprising since reading about it in high school many years ago; it is one episode among many that I’ve studied and wanted to learn more about. That is probably why I write—so I can learn more while doing it. I have been asked when I will write something else about the Little Bighorn. Perhaps I will, but there are so many other subjects in Western history that intrigue me.

DW: In addition to the many eyewitness accounts available in print, the 1862 Great Sioux Uprising has been treated to a number of overview histories by writers and historians like Kenneth Carley, C.M. Oehler, Jerry Keenan, Duane Schultz, Hank Cox, and John Koblas. In terms of strictly military history, I greatly value Micheal Clodfelter’s The Dakota War. Do you have any particular favorites among the many books published on the subject?

GM: The books you mention are all helpful: Carley does a great overview; Oehler is a bit dated; Keenan does a fine summary, Schultz gives a bit more detail but the sources are sketchy; Cox is centered on Lincoln; and Koblas gives many details, but unfortunately the text is error-prone. Clodfelter’s Dakota War is one of the best treatments of the whole affair and puts it in perspective. An old book by Charles Bryant and Abel Murch, A History of the Great Massacre, was helpful in providing eyewitness testimony. Gary Anderson’s biography of Little Crow was very useful. Minnesota in the Civil and Indian Wars, published in the 1890s, has many primary sources. Reminiscences by participants like Jacob Nix and Rudolph Leonhart give the story a first-hand reality.

DW: The Dakota War that began in Minnesota was a lengthy one fought over a huge geographical expanse. What factors were behind your decision to concentrate your own effort in Dakota Dawn on the first week of the conflict?

GM: This was mainly a matter of book length. Publishers are always concerned about printing costs and pricing, and now they have competition from electronic versions; they are not so willing to invest in a massive tome with no guarantees they will make their money back. I needed about 400 pages in Dakota Dawn, just to cover one week. The majority of the killing, capturing, and fighting took place in that week, and the Dakotas experienced their greatest gains. After that, their offensive was virtually over. It was a natural break point. Perhaps I can follow-up with the rest of the story in another volume.

DW: What types of source materials did you integrate into your work that have been neglected or underutilized by previous writers?

GM: Like most researchers and writers I believe I used a spread of primary and secondary sources, and some material now available on the internet. I believe one of the best resources is in the Minnesota Historical Society collections. There are tons of eyewitness testimonies available for the researcher—probably more than reasonably can be incorporated into any one book. The letters, diaries, and stories of the participants are among the best sources of anecdotal flavor.

I did get to the National Archives to dig into the Indian Depredation Claims, which were filed by people who claimed to have lost property as a result of Indian attacks. These are great sources of original details, many of which have never been in print before. One probably has heard the phrase “cutting through the red tape.” As I opened these old boxes, many files were still tightly tied in what was once red ribbon, now faded brown, cracked and dry. The archivists allowed me to “cut” some of the ribbon to make photocopies. It got me to wonder if this was where some of the “red tape” legend came from.

DW: How much material from the Sioux perspective is available?

GM: As usual, the documentation from the Indian side is much less than on the white side. A good number of the participants, however, did give their reminiscences to recorders in the late 19th Century and into the early 20th. You will find them scattered in a number of publications. One collection published in 1988, by Gary Anderson and Alan Woolworth, Through Dakota Eyes, is very helpful.

DW: In a recent published collection of interviews [ Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres, Lawrence & Lawrence, U. of Okla. Press, 2011 ], Robert Utley stated that he did not consider the men, women, and children killed by the Sioux in Minnesota to be victims of a massacre. Do you have any thoughts on that?

GM: I really don’t understand Bob’s stance on this one. If any settlers could be considered victims of a “massacre,” a great number of the Minnesota farmers were. I am not talking about those who were armed in Fort Ridgely or New Ulm for instance, but hundreds of Scandinavian and German farmers did not even own firearms, contrary to the American myth of every pioneer being armed with a rifle. These people, many of whom tried to remain peaceful even when threatened with imminent death, did not deserve their fates. Some may have encroached on Dakota lands, but they did so under the notion that the government had opened up the lands for settlement. In any case, their transgressions did not translate into an open season of slaughter.

DW: How has your own book on Sand Creek, which takes great pains to present the army perspective, been received?

GM: My first thought is just to say that the Sand Creek book hasn’t been received at all. It had a very small print run, was never advertised much besides in the publisher’s catalog, and its price probably precludes the general reader from purchasing it. The little feedback I received was both hot and cold. I got comments that it was very fair and proved that the Cheyennes were not innocent victims as they are almost universally depicted. I also got comments that I was too anti-Indian. I suppose trying to defend white military action in this episode is a losing cause. No matter what evidence is presented, some will refuse to accept Cheyenne culpability. The situation is ironic to me, because I am on the left of the political spectrum and I admire the Indians’ resistance to a white culture who certainly took advantage of them. On the other hand, I was called too pro-Indian in Lakota Noon. I guess if you tick-off both sides, maybe you are being balanced.

DW: Getting back to the Sioux in Minnesota, your book details the fighting at places like Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. Previous books only briefly summarize these events. How difficult was it to piece together what happened?

GM: Piecing together various bits of sometimes conflicting historical information is something I enjoy doing; one might compare it to doing a crossword puzzle. Some details might point in one direction and other references might support it, or if not, it should cause you to think perhaps the original supposition may need adjustment. It’s a constant reworking of the pieces until hopefully you have what appears to be the most logical scenario. Sometimes contradictory testimony leaves you puzzled, and you have to make your own best estimation. Writing Lakota Noon was similar, like trying to fit together a giant jigsaw puzzle.

DW: What are the biggest misconceptions about the uprising that you sought to clear up in your book?

GM: Honestly, I didn’t set out to prove anything or discount any misconceptions. I write for myself, so I can better understand an event to my own satisfaction. I learn as I study, and there is so much to learn. If I can explain an episode clear enough so that it makes sense to me, I’ve gained some comprehension and I am satisfied. What I say is plain and direct and hopefully readers will be in accord with my argument, but I rarely have a hypothesis that I want to prove beforehand.

DW: Mentioning the recent Violent Encounters again, the interviewers and interviewees seemed quite comfortable with a number of 400 white civilians killed. Most earlier publications present a number between 600 and 1000. Is it possible to arrive at a reasonably accurate number?

GM: I don’t know that we will ever come to an agreement on the total number of whites killed. Examining the first week of the uprising in Dakota Dawn, I referenced at least 400 deaths. After the first seven days, numbers of white deaths dropped drastically, as most of those still alive had heard the news and either fled or forted up and armed themselves so that they would not be taken unaware again. I do not believe the number of whites killed was more than 500; in any case it is a horrendous statistic.

DW: Finally, you have another book slated for publication soon, The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s. What will readers with a primary interest in the Civil War gain from reading this book?

GM: Studying the Texas frontier during the decade of the 1860s naturally covers the Civil War years of 1861-65, and the story of the Texans’ defense is an integral part of the book. I look at the U.S. Army, the Confederate Army, the Texas State Troops, the Rangers, the militia, and the settlers, to see who did a better job of protecting the frontier. The answer may be surprising. I look at strategies and tactics to see what worked best, and I look at troop strengths to see if numbers made a difference. Again the answers might be surprising. There were factors involved in Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache raiding that had nothing to do with numbers of soldiers or the tactics they used. Without giving away too much, one might say the soldiers could have stayed home for all the good they did. Stay tuned.

DW:  Thanks for your time, Greg! Readers, look for a review of Dakota Dawn in coming weeks.

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