By Larry Granger and Vonda Kelly
Bloomington Historical Society
Attacks upon unarmed civilians have long been an undesirable consequence of war and are today often considered “crimes against humanity,” according to the United Nations.
Such a situation happened on Sept. 11, 2001, when four hijacked passenger planes crashed into the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a farm field in Pennsylvania before damage could be done to the nation’s Capitol building.
Some 3,000 citizens died, including Tom Burnett, Jr., who grew up in Bloomington and was one of the heroes of United Flight 93, which he and others forced down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, before it could crash into its intended target, the U.S. Capitol building. Terror ensued across the country.
So it was with similar unexpected terror and death for white civilians in August and September 1862, when a faction of Dakota Indians from reservations in the Minnesota River Valley attacked white farm families, traders, small towns and the Fort Ridgely military post. When the six weeks of conflict was over, about 550 civilians and 100 military soldiers were dead, along with 100 Dakota warriors.
Among the dead were 160, aged 18 and younger, including 80 five years and younger who died up close by tomahawk, knives, fire, boot stomping and bullets.
Among the traders killed was Peter Quinn, Bloomington’s first white resident who came in 1842, one year before missionaries Gideon and Samuel Pond established a mission and farm on the bluffs of the Minnesota River, to guide Dakota Chief Cloudman’s band in learning farming. This was the largest and most deadly attack on American citizens prior to 9-11.
Today our nation works to keep the memories of 9-11 alive in tribute to those who were killed, but also as a warning that terror can be created by small numbers and do great damage. This is what the late Tommy Burnett, Jr., a 1981 graduate of Bloomington Jefferson High School and a successful medical device business executive, was sensing as a possibility, based upon his national and international travel. And he shared his thoughts with family and friends.
The memories of the 1862 terrorism are complex far beyond the number of people who died, for the Dakota settlements were in the midst of transitioning from hunting and gathering to a mixture of farming and reliance on annuities via treaties. This split the Dakota into those willing to adapt and those wanting to retain a traditional lifestyle, even if they had to go to war and drive whites out of the Minnesota River Valley.
Rev. Gideon Pond, who had been working with the Dakota since 1834, was concerned and worried whether this transition of Dakota culture would take place quick enough to avoid bloodshed. After the war, many Dakota followed their leaders to the Dakotas, while non-combatants were exiled to Nebraska. Warriors who were adjudged to have collectively killed more than 100 whites were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862. This hanging of 38 was an event considered justice to war survivors and unjust to others.
Bloomington’s connection to the war continued with Gideon Pond ministering to confined Dakota warriors; the travel of non-combatants from Fort Ridgely to Fort Snelling, passing through Bloomington on Old Shakopee Road and camping near Nine Mile Creek; and a number of Dakota who previously lived and farmed in the river bottoms by the Pond Mission, who were allowed to return there to live.
In both cases of these major attacks on civilians, there were warning signs that some people, but not enough, picked up on. Be alert as we live our lives side-by-side with others is the common message from 1862 and 9-11. It is also the message of Beverly and Thomas Burnett, Sr., the parents of Thomas Burnett, Jr., who responded to 9-11 by establishing a family foundation that sponsors citizenship, education, college scholarships and community service projects for youth.
Granger is the president and Kelly is the executive director of the Bloomington Historical Society.