Plains Folk

Questions about Whitestone Hill


My first encounter with Whitestone Hill State Historic Site was a year and a half ago, and I talked about it in a Plains Folk column. This place of General Alfred Sully’s attack on 3 September 1862 against an encampment of Dakota-just which ones is open to dispute-is a richly evocative site of remembrance, a historic site with a palpable sense of place. Since then the old Civilian Conservation Corps cabin and shelter has been destroyed by an arsonist, but the site, which I revisited recently parcel to some historical society observances, is still sublime.

Having gone over the historical studies and the primary documents associated with Whitestone Hill, I remain puzzled by a number of things. Whitestone Hill has been a state historic site for more than a century, but it’s remarkable how little we know, or understand, about what happened there.

My questions about Whitestone Hill begin with, who were the Indians encamped at the site, the ones attacked by Sully’s troops? Historians, working from the written record, debate this, although they largely agree that it was mainly a Yanktonai camp. The truth is, the attackers really didn’t know who these people were and weren’t too interested in sorting that out. The way to settle this would be to ask the descendants of the people in the camp. Go to the tribes and ask, which of your ancestors were there, including those who were casualties or captives? This is a pretty obvious idea, but no one has thought to consult the oral history in such fashion.

Why didn’t the Indians mount a better defense against the troopers? Given the number of potential fighters in the camp, commonly cited as a thousand, I don’t understand why they didn’t give Sully’s troops, no more than 600 or so ever were engaged, more fight than they wanted. My best guess about this is related to a key point in the significance of the engagement: this day marked the beginning of total war between the United States and the tribes of the plains. The people in the camp were not ready to imagine this sort of resolute, ruthless warfare by well-armed enemies operating with logistical support. They would learn.

Should Whitestone Hill be called a massacre, rather than a battle? This is a question that has dogged administrators of other sites on the plains, notably Sand Creek in Colorado and Washita in Oklahoma. Some tribal officials and activists are adamant that Whitestone should be referred to officially as a massacre. This is an understandable sentiment, but one we ought to think about critically. Use of that language cuts both ways, after all. It also might undermine the deliberate remembrance that should take place at the site.

Why was this battle, or massacre, or whatever you call it, such a confused mess? The historians agree that it was an exceedingly confused engagement, with various contingents under different officers operating independently and out of control. It seems to have been much the same on the Indian side. On the army side, we should look into the backgrounds of the officers involved, using service records and other sources. I’d particularly like to know what the interpreter, Frambois, and the guide, whom the whites called Crazy Dog, were up to in this matter.

What does this site mean to us today? It will mean more when we know more, but there is a role for a site such as this that transcends labels and fixtures. It is a place of remembrance, remembrance of the people who died, and who lived, here. Such remembrance goes beyond either anger or analysis and becomes a matter of contemplation.

Whitestone Hill, because of its historic significance, but more so because of its potential for contemplative remembrance, deserves more attention and status. Whitestone Hill should be a national historic site.

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