ST. PAUL — Up a craggy road in the south central Minnesota city of Morton, two granite obelisks stand at opposite ends of a clearing.

Stretching some 50 feet into the air, the monuments were intended to greet rail passengers from the hilltop as the city entered their view.

Inscribed on the first monument are the names of U.S. soldiers and civilians killed or wounded in one of the hardest-fought battles of the Dakota War of 1862: the battle of Birch Coulee.

On the second are names of the six “loyal Indians,” called so unironically, who did not fight in the conflict.

Today, no one seems sure of what to do with either of them.

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It is difficult today for the monuments, erected in 1894 and 1899, respectively, to be seen at a distance through the trees and brush that encircle them. Seeing them up close isn’t much easier.

"There’s a road that takes you up, and I’ve been up it once, and I made somebody else drive because it’s very steep. And last year we had two floods that came through and washed the road out twice," Renville County Historical Society executive director Nicole Elzenga said.

Efforts to address the damage and neglect have been held up because of a land dispute in which officials at different levels of government disagree on who should take responsibility.

The Birch Coulee monument in Morton, Minn., pays tribute to the U.S. soldiers and civilians killed in the 1862 Dakota War battle of the same name. Matthew Guerry / Forum News Service
The Birch Coulee monument in Morton, Minn., pays tribute to the U.S. soldiers and civilians killed in the 1862 Dakota War battle of the same name. Matthew Guerry / Forum News Service

The first monument, the one memorializing U.S. soldiers and civilians, was built atop what at the time was a fairgrounds. More recently, the city of Morton had mowed the property which, according to online records, is owned by the state. Officials differ on whether the city, nearby township or county is responsible for all or part of the road leading up to it.

Most people seem to agree, however, that the monuments are significant and worthy of preservation. Morton Mayor Greg Deinken, who recalls spending time growing up at a farm his family used to own near the battlefield, said it's hard for the city "to justify spending the money" on the monuments, however, "because it doesn’t really generate any money for the city."

There is no official cost estimate for a clean-up project, Deinken said.

An informal committee made up of county officials, Renville County Historical Society members, representatives of the Minnesota River National Scenic Byway and others had been working together to take the situation into its own hands, Elzenga said. But the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has delayed their plans.

It's been suggested over the years that the monuments be relocated to the battlefield itself, just a mile and a half away. Fourteen other markers dot the grass pathways that wind through it and describe the 36 hour siege between Dakota soldiers and U.S. soldiers and civilians that took place there, an episode whose significance is highlighted by an entry on the National Register of Historic Places.

Deinken agrees "that’s probably where they should be."

"But whether or not that’s going to happen ever I seriously doubt," he said.

(Forum Design Center)
(Forum Design Center)

And the idea of relocating the monuments hasn't always been popular. Tom Ellig, a retired Minnesota Historical Society site manager, said the society floated the idea shortly after taking over the battlefield for the state park system in the 1990s.

"And for the most part, people were not in favor of doing it. They had been sitting in that location for a long time, people were accustomed to them being there," Ellig said.

Relocation efforts were also stymied by cost concerns, though it's unclear how much they would have totaled.

If there's one other thing that seems to be in broad agreement, it's that the monuments will remain where they stand for the foreseeable future, though Elzenga said there is still interest in relocating them.

"I don’t foresee that happening in the next five years," she said, "but who knows."

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