Disappeared persons, a drowning, even a murder—these are part of my family history. So too are summer reunions, barn raisings, and establishing church congregations. Human beings go to a great deal of trouble to get together.
This past Memorial Day weekend, I drove two and a half hours west of St. Paul to attend the annual meeting at Vestre Sogn Chapel in Wang Township in western Minnesota. The first white settlers there arrived in June 1867 in five ox-drawn covered wagons. One of these Norwegians, Christian Narvestad, settled north of the others along Hawk Creek. The pioneers said no one would homestead beyond his farm. They could not imagine family farmers venturing farther into the tallgrass wilderness. But, of course, people did, and agricultural history rolled north and west even as the newcomers made this assertion.
Human affairs and natural events continually prove the limits of our imagination. Yet we need imagination, not only to anticipate the future, but also to reorder the past. The evolution of our stories—indeed, the evolution of our thinking—requires re-imagining how things came to pass.
This issue includes two telling examples of the need to rethink events. "Fishing After the Flood" looks at the aftermath of the disastrous 2007 flood of the Whitewater River. Immediately afterward, few people could have imagined that fish would endure the reshaping of the river. But the fishery did survive, and fisheries experts continue to speculate about how trout and macroinvertebrates rode out the flash flood. DNR hatchery supervisor John Huber says, "It makes you feel small when you have 40 years into fish and you still don't understand what's going on."
"Deeper Into History" by David Mather, suggests how imagination helps experts piece together a puzzling past. At Fort Ridgely State Park, three archaeologists search for and find artifacts from a battle in 1862 between Dakota Indian warriors and Minnesota soldiers. Digging deeper, one thin layer of soil at a time, they also discover evidence of far older American Indian history, including a mysterious circle of stones. Mather, himself an archaeologist, tells how the state parks investigators debate the history of the stones. With incomplete evidence, they try to imagine the possible timeframes—Woodland period, perhaps Archaic, or Paleoindian?
Many of us visit historic places and go to reunions to re-imagine a story, to fill in knowledge gaps, or perhaps to rewrite the story. While working on his book The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, historian Nathaniel Philbrick visited the battlefield several times. "When I visit a location, what I get out of it changes depending on where I am in the process," he told radio show host Kerri Miller. He described his first visit as impressionistic. "It's a battlefield that packs a tremendous emotional wallop," he said. "You look out and it's this haunted, spiritual landscape that just reverberates." That impression remained on subsequent visits. But the more he learned about the battle, the more specific his questions: Where did that happen? When did this occur? In the end, he said, the terrain became a character in the story.
Among my weekend stops was the Wood Lake battle site of the U.S.–Dakota War of 1862. My guide was local history buff Gene Flaten. South of Upper Sioux Agency State Park, at a crossroads in farmland, we stopped at a one-acre site with a monument honoring Col. Henry Sibley's troops who camped here and died on the battlefield nearby. Flaten is part of a group working to preserve and "respectfully interpret for all people" the battlefield and its history. We drove north and stopped on a hill overlooking the ravine of Wood Lake Creek. Standing there, one might begin to imagine Little Crow watching the battle develop.
Other visits on my heritage tour included the site of the Hawk Creek country school that my dad and his siblings attended, the Weflen homestead, and three cemeteries where relatives were laid to rest. My view is still impressionistic. To hone my questions on family history, I'll need to keep showing up at reunions and revisiting these familial places.
As the historian said, terrain is a main character in our ever-changing stories.
Kathleen Weflen, editor