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Proposed Minnesota state park name change sparks debate

A second community discussion hosted on changing the name of Sibley State Park in west central Minnesota brought together three dozen people with differing views on the proposal.

Sibley State Park name change 001.jpg
A vehicle drives past the welcome sign to Sibley State Park on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, near New London.
Macy Moore / West Central Tribune
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NEW LONDON, Minn. — Kelsey Olson is hoping to change the name of Sibley State Park, but most of all, she wants to promote a local conversation on the legacy of the park's namesake, Henry Hastings Sibley.

It’s exactly what she got.

Henry Hasting Sibley
Henry Hasting Sibley, circa 1862, was the first governor of the state of Minnesota, and a U.S. military leader in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and a subsequent expedition into Dakota Territory in 1863.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Olson heard both support and opposition to her proposal Monday evening in a community conversation she hosted at the Peace Lutheran Church in New London, Minnesota.

“You have to hear the good with the bad about Col. Sibley,” said one participant as discussion opened among the three dozen people in attendance. Participants included members of the New London City Council, who will be considering a request by Olson for a letter of support to change the park’s name.

Olson, of New London, served as park naturalist for Sibley State Park for seven years. She does not believe the park should be named for Henry Hastings Sibley due to his treatment of the Dakota people.

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Sibley led the U.S. military force against the Dakota during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He brought Dakota women, children and elderly to what Olson described as a concentration camp at Fort Snelling following the war. In addition, Sibley wanted to see the more than 300 captured Dakota executed at war’s end. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38.

Sibley also served as the state’s first governor, and as the Minnesota territory’s representative in Congress. His military role was aimed at saving the lives of the early settlers. Somewhere between 400 to 800 settlers, children and women included, were killed at the start of hostilities, participants pointed out during the discussion.

“You cannot erase history,” said one audience member of both the good and bad represented by Sibley’s legacy.

Kelsey Olson served as a naturalist at Sibley State Park for six years and gave programs on the park's history. She is shown leading a program in 2017.
Kelsey Olson served as a naturalist at Sibley State Park for seven years and gave programs on the park's history. She is shown leading a program in 2017.
Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune file photo

Olson said she favors a name change that better represents the park’s landscape. It could help attract visitors. There is precedent, she pointed out. The O.L. Kipp State Park near Winona was renamed as Great River Bluffs State Park for that reason.

But Roger Imdieke, a Kandiyohi County commissioner and business owner near the park, said he was concerned that changing the name would result in fewer visitors to the park. If it were named "Hickory Dale State Park," for example, “you are going to lose people going to that park. They’ve never heard of it,” he said.

Sibley State Park has enjoyed some of its highest visitor numbers in the past six years, according to Colin Wright, a parks and trails supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He said he felt that if a discussion on whether or not to change the park’s name is to be held, it should be initiated by the Dakota within the state.

Some participants also questioned if today’s moral standards should be applied to a historical figure outside of the context of the times in which he lived.

Sibley is among many controversial historical figures who have legacies both good and bad, noted Erik Hatlestad, a member of the New London City Council. He pointed to Oliver Cromwell, celebrated in England for opposing feudalism and reviled in Ireland for his brutal campaigns against the Irish. You won’t find Cromwell’s name on places in Northern Ireland, he said.

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It would require legislative action to change the name of Sibley State Park. The park has held that name since its founding in 1919.

Olson said she is hoping to meet with area legislators and outline her reasons for changing the name. She will be meeting again with the New London City Council, and said she is willing to meet with any group interested in learning about this effort.

She has sponsored a Change.org petition and a Facebook page for changing the park’s name. Both are aptly named " Change the Name Sibley State Park " to outline the effort.

There is also a Change.org counter-petition called K eep the Name Sibley State Park .

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoors reporter for the West Central Tribune.
He has been a reporter with the West Central Tribune since 1993.

Cherveny can be reached via email at tcherveny@wctrib.com or by phone at 320-214-4335.
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