A change of name for Sibley State Park?
A New London woman and former park naturalist has opened a conversation and launched a petition on changing the name of Sibley State Park due to Henry Hastings Sibley's treatment of the Dakota
NEW LONDON — For Kelsey Olson, Sibley State Park is a place of many pleasant memories, from times around the campfire with family and friends to the joys of exploring its natural landscape.
None of which mesh well with the history she has researched on the park’s namesake, Henry Hastings Sibley. A fur trader who became the state’s first governor, Sibley was also the military leader who led the U.S. forces against the Dakota in the Conflict of 1862. Most disturbing to Olson, at war’s end, Sibley was responsible for moving roughly 1,700 Dakota women, children and elderly into a winter camp at Fort Snelling that she and many others consider to have been a concentration camp.
For these and other reasons, Olson has been leading a conversation aimed at changing the name of Sibley State Park.
Her family traces its roots to pioneers who settled in present day Kandiyohi County on land where Sibley once hunted with Dakota friends. She knows her life has been privileged because of what Sibley did.
“But this is where I can see righting a wrong,” she said. “Because I love Sibley State Park. I love that land and I want everyone to have the feeling and that same opportunity to feel the same peace and solace I do when I am there.”
She’s started a Facebook page, Change the Name Sibley State Park , as well as a petition on Change.org that collected nearly 370 signatures in just a couple of weeks. She’s brought her views to the New London city council. She will be hosting a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Peace Lutheran Church to talk about Sibley’s legacy.
Starting in 2014, Olson served for six years as a naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Sibley State Park. She came to know his history well from her work, which included programs on the park’s history. Within the DNR, she said there have been discussions on whether it is appropriate to name a park after Sibley.
She left the DNR convinced that a name change will only occur if the public speaks up. The idea of changing the name is a lightning rod, and she’s heard criticism from those opposed to it. But she’s also heard from many who admit they really didn’t know a lot about Sibley.
The debate over Sibley is a quandary for State Representative Dean Urdahl, R- Grove City, who grew up on Sibley Avenue in Litchfield.
“I am firmly not taking a position on Sibley,” said Urdahl in reference to changing the park name. But he said he supports discussion and education on Sibley and the times in which he lived, and a process to seek the truth. A name change would require approval by the Legislature, where he anticipates hearing the discussion.
Urdahl has long been a student of Minnesota’s early history, and in particular, the Civil War era during which Sibley led the campaign on Governor Ramsey’s orders to remove the Dakota from Minnesota. The legislator said he understands the concerns raised by Olson. Sibley was among those who called for the execution of 303 Dakota warriors at the end of the war. He was wrong in that, he noted, and President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38 of the Dakota men.
Sibley originally moved to Minnesota to work for the American Fur Company. He had a union with a Dakota woman, Red Blanket Woman, and they had a daughter. He left both when the American Fur Company went bankrupt. He married a white woman, Sarah Steele Sibley, and built her a home in Mendota, noted Olson.
“Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart” is a book by the late Rhoda R. Gilman that is respected as a scholarly examination of Sibley’s life. “Sibley was torn between his sense of justice and his genuine sympathy for the Dakota people and his loyalty to the United States, to its government, to its people in his position as a representative of those people in trying to forward western expansion,” Gilman told Twin Cities Public Television in an 2004 interview.
In that interview, Gilman said she felt it is unfair to judge any historical figure by the standards of a time 100 or even 20 years later. “What we tend to do is make a symbol of these people. If you make a symbol of a single man and vilify him, in a way, you are taking society off the hook,” she said.
Gilman said that while Sibley is often reviled today for how he treated the Dakota, during his time he was reviled by many "for not killing enough Indians."
Sibley State Park is but one of a number of places and institutions in the state bearing his name. In Mendota Heights, in response to a petition by students, the school board in 2019 changed the name of the Henry Sibley High School to Two Rivers. The board cited Sibley’s treatment of the Dakota in making the change.
Olson is unsure at this time of the prospects for changing the name of Sibley State Park. She’d like to see the change, but said her goal above all others is to open a conversation so that people can learn the full story. She’d like to see more education that includes the Dakota story. That does not happen today at a park in Sibley’s name, she said.
“Let’s gain that knowledge and let’s talk about it,” she said.