The battle of Birch Coulee was fought on Sept. 2 and 3, 1862. On Sept. 1, a burial detail of soldiers and civilians was dispatched from Fort Ridgely to bury the remains of settlers who had been killed in the early weeks of the U.S.-Dakota War. At the end of the first day of the expedition a flat, open piece of ground near a small creek, or “couley,” was selected for the night’s camp. During the night, the detail was surrounded by Dakota, who attacked at dawn. Badly outnumbered and highly exposed, the detail was under siege for nearly 36 hours until a detachment of soldiers from Fort Ridgely arrived at the battle site and lifted the siege. The original detachment suffered severe casualties, with more than 25 men and all of its horses being killed.
Birch Coulee Battlefield was designated a state park by the Minnesota legislature in 1893, only the second to be so named. The original five-acre site, which was added to in the 1920s, ultimately encompassed 80 acres, part of which was platted as a veterans' cemetery. Only one veteran was in fact buried there, and the little-used park and planned cemetery underwent a number of improvements made by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. The land was graded and seeded, a footbridge, stone arch, roads and a parking area were added and trails were made through the wooded section of the park, but it remained largely unused over the next four decades.
The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and in 1976, the Minnesota legislature transferred it to the Minnesota Historical Society.
Visitors now can walk a self-guided trail through the recreated prairie environment and read about the battle from the perspectives of Joseph Anderson, a captain in the U.S. Army, and Wamditanka (Big Eagle) a Mdewakanton Dakota participant. Sketches from soldier Albert Colgrave provide vivid battle details. Guide posts pinpoint where the soldiers were camped and the positions the Dakota took while surrounding them.
For more information, visit www.mnhs.org/birchcoulee. For more information about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, visit www.usdakotawar.org.