Hidden History

Today’s guest post is by Cynthia in Mahtowa, and was inspired  by Reneeinnd’s July 12th blog “Overlooked Overlook” and Happy Valley Steve’s comment about “not noticing history.”

At our little long-time book club we recently read Prudence by David Treuer. The story takes place midst WWII somewhere in northwest or north central Minnesota with characters from Chicago who own a resort on a lake near an Indian reservation and a German POW camp.


A German POW camp? In Minnesota?

None of the group had heard of such a thing. Did Treuer make it up? As it turns out, a Google search confirmed that there were indeed German POW camps in Minnesota – at least 15 of them.

Many other states also had them. Some 400,000 POWs were brought to the US to farm, work in factories, log or do whatever wasn’t getting done with American men fighting in the war. Most of the Germans were prisoners from North Africa, sent to the US by the British who no longer had room to house the number of prisoners they were capturing.

Two relatively recent MPR stories documented the camps: In March Tracy Mumford interviewed David Treuer about his novel. He grew up on the Leech Lake Reservation near Bemidji and had heard stories of a nearby camp. One of the stories told was of two prisoners trying to escape south via the Mississippi River in a row boat .

A second MPR story reported that in October, 2002 some of the former POWs and their families came from Germany to camps “to remember, learn and reconcile.”

Why had I never before heard of the camps in any of my (Minnesota or American) history classes?

Along this same line of “overlooked history,” our club also read The Assassination of Chief Hole-in-the-Day by David’s brother Anton.


Bagone-giizhig, known in English as Hole-in-the-Day the Younger, was a charismatic and influential chief who played a key role in relations between the Ojibwe and the U.S. government in Minnesota. Yet he won as many enemies as friends due to his actions during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and his claim to be the leader of all Ojibwe. In 1868, Bagone-giizhig was assassinated by a group of other Ojibwe from Leech Lake. For many years the real reason for this killing remained a mystery.“

I have lived most of my life near the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. I have had Ojibwe classmates and friends. We had Minnesota history in sixth grade.

Were we taught about this famous chief and I just don’t remember? Or, was it never included in our textbooks?

Other history I learned as an older adult are the hangings of the Sioux warriors in Mankato and the black men in Duluth. Not to mention the Dakota Conflict itself.

What history has been overlooked in your education that you wish you had known earlier?

63 thoughts on “Hidden History”

  1. Rise and Shine Baboons!

    Thanks for the blog, Cynthia! I received it in my email and got to the comments. However, there is something wonky with the display–only Clyde’s post shows up in the new selections.

    I have to comment later–much to do today.


  2. My school was extremely selective in what it taught. History, far as we knew, began in the Garden of Eden and ended with WWII (which the Americans won with a little British help, and Russia of course had nothing whatsoever to do with the European theater victory). OTOH, I would NOT have wanted them to teach me their deeply biased version of contemporary history, so it was just as well I learned about the Cold War, Vietnam, the several liberation movements, and the 1960s in general from library books.

    I don’t remember having any Minnesota history at all (that time being taken up with re-fighting the Reformation, instead–IIRC, we took a month off of world history every year to go over Martin Luther’s life and deeds) so it would have been nice to learn at least a little about the state we lived in. Of course, it would have been nice to have had art and science, too…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. There were things that were skimmed over so it appeared that Susan B Anthony gave a few fiery speeches and *poof* women had the right to vote. The Great Depression was a blip between world wars where a lot of folks didn’t have food or jobs. African Americans mostly disappeared between the end of the Civil War and post-WWII when the Civil Rights movement really got going (shooting right over Jim Crow and racism north of the Mason-Dixon line).

    One thing that was purposefully inserted, and not skipped over, by my high school American History teacher was the McCarthy trials. He was a Paul Robeson fan, so brought in albums that he played to kick of the lessons. I think parts of what he taught went over our teenaged heads (he probably should have been teaching college), but it was important to him that we know it. Especially since this was the Reagan years when it was beginning to feel McCarthy-like again. There were a handful of us who “got it,” and I think that was enough for Mr. Anderson. Bless him.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Good post, Cynthia. An overlooked bit of history was the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. I only heard a tiny bit about that travesty of civil rights because an elementary school classmate was the son of parents who were placed in the internment camps, I think one in North Dakota.

    Lest we think that was an aberration, imagine that some regional superpower such as Iran rises up in the Middle East and declares official war on the US. It won’t surprise me in the least if the Feds round up every brown person wearing a hajib, a turban or with a “strange” name like Hussein, Ali, or Osama, and toss them into internment camps for “national security reasons.”

    Of course, this time we’ll send ’em to Arizona and Nevada because, you know, “those people” are used to the heat. 😦

    Chris in Owatonna

    Liked by 7 people

  5. In grade school I read a series on American heroes. Looking back, I perceive that those books were part of american mythology told without description of the foibles to which we humans are subject. My silhouettes of presidents Washington and Lincoln were never perfect. Neither were they.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Readin, ritin& rithmatic leave precious little time for perspective and when time is carved whose perspective gets plugged in?
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we took experts in categories and allowed them to teach the district about Indian or African-AmericaPuppy classes are worthless
    Let them be puppies until they are 9 months old
    Just teach them to love you and respond
    At 10 months training starts hard
    If you want my puppy technique I’ll provide no charge
    I love raising fogsn or Japanese-American or Norwegians or pole locks or Scandinavians or Slovaks or Chinese or Japanese but instead we get the same story
    My great grandfather was in Ojibway who grew up on the reservation near Aiken Minnesota and I hope someday to be able to tell his story
    He was sent off to school to lose his Indian traditions and spent his life trying to help the people around the Leech Lake reservation maintain a sense of dignity
    My next-door neighbor growing up was a Japanese American always put in the POW camp after his family was given 72 hours notice to sell their house and all their belongings a tragic story never told
    Someone mentioned while we were discussing mid evil times with serfdom in Europe Africa was going through a Renaissance that no one ever learned anything about no one ever studied the culture and civilization of China for the 2000 years they were diddling around while the Europeans were trying to understand The concept of civilization
    It’s not too late we can study all the stuff now and it looks to me like if we spent a year on each civilization that we were missing living to 120 would not be too much time

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Puppy class insert came from yesterday’s opinion
      Out of context sounds like the yahoo yokel it truly is
      I should likely try to do this myself without the help of the cut and paste option
      It’s hell when your dumber than a word press feature

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What an interesting topic, Cynthia.

    When I ask myself why this wasn’t taught in my schools, one answer is that my schools (which were in Iowa) taught nothing in the way of local history. And given the politics of education, I’d not expect public schools to do a decent job of teaching sensitive social history. One of my favorite films (“Lone Star”) includes a fiery dispute over how Texas schools could teach about past disputes between whites and Hispanics.

    My schools failed to mention anything in US history that might reflect badly on European settlers or the US government. I was shocked when, in college, I learned about the Japanese internment camps.

    The little reading I’ve done about POW camps in the Midwest includes several observations:
    * German POWs were amazed at how much food they were given.
    * The best camps for Germans were in areas, like New Ulm, where many locals spoke German.
    * The decency of US government was a shock to some POWs who had believed anti-USA propaganda.
    * Some POWs had experiences positive enough to encourage them to relocate to the US after the war.
    * The generally humane treatment of POWs helped soothe hurt feelings after WWII.

    I don’t assume the above points are balanced and fair. That’s just what I’ve read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HVS, I think the observations are mostly correct. A friend who grew up in southern MN said the same thing about the camps. And the MPR story about the POWs who returned for a visit apparently had positive feelings about their experience. David Treuer’s book Prudence includes a character from the POW camp who stays or returns to be part of the community. I suppose if their experience was not so good, we wouldn’t hear about it?


      1. That is a good guess, Cynthia. I’m suspicious of the positive stuff I’ve read about the camps. Even though I’m a liberal, I don’t expect government to get things right on the first try. One of my guesses (not supported by reading so far) is that US POW camps might have been modeled on CCC camps, which is one possible reason they were so humane.


  8. There s an amateurish but good little history book on the pow camps. I bought it at the brewery in new Ulm. My surprises were that they existed, how long it was before some were released, and, this should not be a surprise, how much most of them hated the U.S. When they left, but then that is war.
    Good topic.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Having helped teachers write curriculum in all history, I can assure you it is a cherry-picking act with political implications. In the south they are upset that any thing but raw patriotism and jingoism is now taught. A big hole is also Union history.
    History is the story of dead white men.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. You would like to think that history could be taught by sticking to the facts, but it is never that simple. Everyone wants to see issues of good and evil in the past. The history of Minnesota is mostly uncomplicated, although it includes two terrific tragedies: the Hinckley firestorm and the 1862 uprising. Troublesome ethics were not part of the Hinckley story (unless you want to look at the ethics of foolish forest management). But the ethics of the uprising story are painfully complex. Whites did unspeakable things to the Sioux and then the Sioux rebelled and did unspeakable things to white settlers. How would you ever teach that to youngsters?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Good morning. When you don’t know your history, the mistakes made in the past are often repeated. In fact, it seems to me that our history has been kept from us because there are some people in power who want to continue along a path of destruction. Our country’s history is one of seeking to dominate in very harmful ways and we are still doing this. Howard Zinn wrote a history book that covers many often ignored aspects of our history related to our troubled past.

    The farmers in Hollandale, MN told me a little about a German POW camp located in that area. One of the fields they farmed is referred to as the camp field because that is the former location of the POW camp.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Good one, Cynthia. Maybe this will get me to finally read A People’s History of the US by Howard Zinn – it’s over there on the shelf, Husband read it and was impressed to know the history of our Have Not” as well as the Haves.

    Gotta run, more later.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Interesting post, Cynthia. Thank you!

    I’ve read so much history since my school days it is hard for me to sort out what I learned when.

    A couple of things stand out:
    Third grade at my school was state and local history. I can still tell you that Carroll County, Iowa was named for a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the county seat was originally Carrollton, now mostly just a historical site.

    In sixth grade, we had a student teacher who was African-American. At one point she indicated the US flag (which in every classroom was in a bracket on the white painted board used as a screen for the overhead projector). She told us if this were her classroom, that flag would be replaced by the Afro-American flag (3 broad stripes:red, black, green).

    I have no idea how that even happened. This in Coon Rapids, IA, pop. 1500, company town for Pioneer Seed Corn. My sixth grade teacher was Mrs. L’Vene Thomas, widow who retired maybe 10 years later.

    I was blessed with some truly extrodinary teachers.

    Do wish I knew more actual world history, particularly 19th century Europe.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. There was an attempt for awhile to make history be more about the lives of ordinary people. What was it like to be an Irish immigrant, a slave, a family in the depression, a pioneer, a banker in the late 1800’s. But that all takes time and is hard to measure. Can you teach such things as facts? But that effort has mostly withered on the standardized testing vine. Why is death in war noble but surviving one of the many depressions not?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wars are sometimes necessary, but that doesn’t make them any the less tragic, wanton, squalid.
      When looking at history, I regard the wars as black boxes; what specifically happened inside of them– the machinations of them–is not so important as what led up to them and what happened afterward, not in the larger sense of history.


  15. My Grade 6 teacher read the book Birch Coulee to us, which seemed, from my memory, to be a more balanced version of the Sioux Uprising, portraying the Indians as people pushed to their absolute limit. About 50 miles north of my present locaction, is the Killdeer Mountain Battle Field, when a village of Sioux, most who had not participated in the Minnesota conflicts, were attacked and massacred by General Sully’s troops in reprisal for what had happened in Minnesota. It was a pretty awful battle, and everyone the soldiers found, even children, were killed. As it occured during the Civil war, it is considered a Civil War battle, so there were Civil War battles in ND.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. The series on pbs out of the bbc on sacred sites of Britain. Was wonderful. Downton Abbey it seems teaches much history. Kids told me they learned history from my a. P. English class.
    Christians are not aware or do not want to acknowledge the history of not only how the Bible developed but how it has been read through time or in other cultures. So much of the best YA lit teaches history. Johnny Tremain was powerful for me in jr. High because it taught me history is not always about dead famous white men. My grand daughter loves history. Reads all kids of books on it. Their trips to history sites have had a huge effect on them. Williamsburg and D. C.–they were the perfect age this summer. Next year they will visit the Pickwick mill and bun ell house.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Great topic, Cynthia. This lands squarely in my field of interest (notice I refrained from saying “wheelhouse”).
    American history, as it was taught to me, began with the pilgrims landing, leaped to the Revolutionary War, alternated between presidents, explorers, white men inventing Great Things, the French and Indian War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, stories about famous generals and professional bloviators, the Spanish American War, the First World War, more presidents, more inventors, the Second World War and, as an afterthought, the Korean War.
    Scant mention of the 150 years of colonial life between the pilgrims and the revolution. No mention at all of the native population before European exploration, when settled populations were building Cahokia and similar constructions throughout the Mississippi watershed, to say nothing of the cliff dwelling cultures further west.
    No mention of slavery and the support of it in the northeast. Little explicit mention of it in the south. Certainly no details on the abolition movement and the long build up to the Civil War. No discussion of reconstruction or the dismantling of it. No labor history. No women’s history. No discussion of the role religious movements, whether as part of The Great Awakening, the Mormons, religiously-based utopian communities, or in the form of charismatic individuals, played in the development of the culture. American History as it has been taught tends to be so whitewashed as to be more mythology than fact.
    Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb and Marconi didn’t invent the radio.
    As it happens, my period of special interest is the nineteenth century. In my reading, I look for ways to understand the mindset and the points of reference that comprised the popular culture. I look for connections between individuals and events that haven’t been heretofore spelled out. Often I look for it in proxies.
    Proxies are what I call items of popular culture that, because they are indirect, are free to be honest about prevailing opinion. An example would be theatre, which reflected events and opinions in the same way television and movies do today. Another example is humor. I am especially attracted to humor that was popular in its day but that hasn’t translated well to modern sensibilities; that suggests to me that the humor is more pointedly topical and better representative of its contemporary mindset.
    I also like to read multiple accounts of the same subject or event. I have over a dozen versions of the story of John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Some of them were written by persons who knew John Brown personally. Some are written by modern historians. W. E. B. Dubois wrote one and so did Robert Penn Warren. Historian Truman Nelson called John Brown “the stone in the historian’s shoe”. Interpretations of Brown’s story vary widely depending on the interpreter and the time in which he/she is writing. Weighing the different perspectives and considering their source is like a course in mid-nineteenth century America in a nutshell.
    Some books you may appreciate:
    -“The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, about the mass migration of blacks out of the south in the early twentieth century.
    -“Old Man River” by Paul Schneider, a linear history of the Mississippi watershed from the precolumbian peoples of Cahokia and their ilk through the early Spanish and French explorers and upwards to the present.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. I had an incredibly boring American History teacher in college, but I remember two lectures with some fondness. One was about the medical practices during the Civil War. I got a bad case of medical disease, my arm hurt for quite a long time after the descriptions of amputations. The other was about the Mormons. The professor came to life with his telling of how it came to be Joseph Smith believed in and promoted polygamy. As I recall it wasn’t necessarily with kindness. The rest of the semester may have had some good tidbits, but I don’t recall them.


      1. There is so much more to the story of Joseph Smith and the Mormons than polygamy. The precedents that Smith drew from in inventing his religion were commonplace in the “burnt-over region” of New York State, the beliefs there a strange mix of evangelism and magic. The question of why Mormonism succeeded when so many other attempts at new religions foundered could fill a book in itself. The propaganda leveled against the Mormons and their countervailing mythologies play a significant role in the story of westward expansion, slavery, and territorial autonomy leading up to the civil war.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Of course, it just happens to be what I remember from the lecture. Jon Krakauer wrote an interesting history of the Mormons “Under the Banner of Heaven.”


  18. Very interesting and thought-provoking topic, Cynthia. Thanks.

    I suspect that the teaching of history all over the world is biased, slanted by whatever political alliances hold power at the time of the teaching.

    I grew up in post-World War II Europe. We spent far more time in history classes throughout my schooling focusing on ancient history of all kinds and next to nothing about recent world history. World history meant largely European history, and next to nothing about American (I know, that’s shocking), Chinese and other Asian or African history. The colonizing of the world by white Europeans was taught as if it were a benign and inevitable occurrence; the perspective of the colonized nations left out almost entirely and of no consequence..

    By the time I started first grade the Cold War was already taking hold, and by the time they started teaching us about World War II, the American involvement was downplayed, as was the Russian involvement.

    To be fair, I don’t know that most school aged children have that must interest in history – I know I didn’t – but I can imagine that presenting a balanced and accurate picture of the past is a difficult thing to do. For one thing, important information that has altered the course of events often comes to light years after the fact. The victors write history and from their perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. While I was never that much into History when I was in school, but I always enjoyed reading biographies and historical novels, which is a much more enjoyable way to learn about history. It’s the storytelling, the characters and consequences of events that I find fascinating. My oldest son is a former Marine and History Major at the U of MN – Mpls and I’ve read some of his books like “The Sinking of the Bismarck”, “Flyboys”, “Black Hawk Down”, etc.

    These are well-written books with a storyline, a good narrative, interesting characters and important events that are presented in a way that makes for fascinating (and rather detailed) reading. But I certainly concur with what most of you have said — most history was learned out of school from other books and experiences. I remember reading the book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” — although I admit I couldn’t finish it because it was just so hard to get through all the wrongdoing and broken treaties.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Joanne. I recently got involved in reading about the Norwegian Resistance during WWII. Fascinating storytelling, especially by David Howarth. I first got hooked on his books with The Shetland Bus. He was second in command of the British operations in the Shetland Islands when they were using fishing boats to bring intelligence officers and ammunitions to Norway and refugees back.
      Our Sons of Norway lodge and the public library partnered to do a series of programs on the Norwegian Resistance. More than one person commented that they had no idea or knowledge about the Resistance in Norway.
      Another source i hope is good information/history is any BBC series because I love them and get hooked on them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I recall a lovely children’s book about the Norwegian resistance transporting gold under blankets on sleds.

        Baboon Book-seekers, anyone else remember this?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is a fictional story. Another, more recent young adult book based on a true story and person is “Shadow on the Mountain” by Margi Preus.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Now I will need to look for both.
          I feel I’ve said this here before, but as an adult I have been bemused to realize that in the Little House books, my people would not have been the Ingalls, but more akin to those “outlandish” Norwegians.

          Speaking of Laura, I have a project in mind if anyone knows where I might get approx. $300K in investment money…..

          Liked by 2 people

      2. If you want a good mystery with a bit of Norwegian WWII history sewn in, I highly recommend The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo. Gets inside the heads of Norwegian men who fought for the Nazis thinking that it was about keeping Russia at bay…and then realizing what they had gotten themselves into.


  20. We had something called Assemblies in junior high school. The whole school would sit in the auditorium to watch some kind of presentation. One day they marched us in and ran an hour-long film about the Nazi death camps. I was almost physically ill after that and I could scarcely believe the horrors shown in the film. I still remember the seat I sat in that afternoon.

    I used to pick my daughter up after a day in fourth grade. Once I sat there a long time. The kids were almost ten minutes late getting out. I was later told that my daughter had caused the delay. They showed her class a film about the life of Martin Luther King. Molly had no warning about the end of the film, where MLK was assassinated at the motel. She bawled so uncontrollably that the whole school was chaotic until they could get her calmed down.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. A recent biography of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson was quite unsettling to me in the detail of events leading up to WWI and that we still live with the results of. More evidence of what happens when we don’t learn from history.


  22. Speaking of (hidden) history, the Free Range Film Festival in Wrenshall is featuring “Lost Conquest” about the history (or not) of Vikings in Minnesota. Looks like it may be a fun film. Saturday night at 7:05. Details at freerangefilm.com or http://lostconquest.com


    1. Interesting.

      Someone also wrote about the possibility that the Ojibwe are somehow descended from the Vikings who left the Kensington Rune Stone. Strains credulity, but entertaining read.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. At the time Smith developed the religion, a practice called “money digging” was common. It sprang from the belief that the Lost Tribes, or pirates or perhaps the Spanish had preceded known settlement and buried treasure here and there. Money Diggers were basically con men who played on that folk belief and convinced credulous persons that they had detected, often through the use of “peep stones” or divining rods or through visions of some other kind that treasure had been buried on the credulous person’s land. Once hired to find it, they would dig awhile, then report that a guardian spirit had driven them away from the treasure hoard. Joseph Smith had engaged in this sort of money digging prior to his reported discovery of the golden plates. This is a great simplification but it gives a sense of the precedents that went into the birth of Mormonism.

          Liked by 2 people

  23. I find myself wanting to know more about my ancestors – what life was like in Norway, Sweden, Wales, and now France, before Christianity came along – what were the old religions, customs? These things aren’t taught in Western Civ or World History classes. If I had it to do over again, I would major in Cultural Anthropology.

    There was a Sami (native Scandinavians) exhibit at the American Swedish Museum (last year?) that touched on this. And I know an ancient Swedish line dance (which was done at the Summer Solstice) from the time before waltzes and other couple dances invaded Europe.

    For Clyde and anyone else following this, there is one more installment of that Sacred Wonders of Britain scheduled this Thursday eve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. BiR, if you subscribe to Netflix, there is a wonderful BBC documentary about the early Vikings with archaeologist Neil Oliver. He delves deep into the early history of Scandinavia.


    2. Scotland as well. Your Welsh Sterlings likely originated there, where Stirling is a place name and the motto “Gang Forward” almost certainly is.

      Liked by 2 people

  24. Hey Cynthia, I loved your post–I just had little time to respond today. So much is left out of formal history. Thank goodness we can all study as we want to!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Thanks for this Cynthia.
    I can’t say I remember *what* exactly they taught me… but I do remember the teachers.
    Mr. Olson taught ‘World Geography’ and I knew him from church and was glad to get him for my teacher.
    There was Mr White who I think taught American History; he was a real character and I enjoy him as a teacher.
    (saw him walking down the street 20 years later but his memory was going and he didn’t know who I was. He died of Alzheimer’s complications a few years later.)
    Mr Neeb taught history and he was fun. And a neighbor for a few years.

    And Mr Aachor taught current events. He was a first year teacher (but not a young, fresh-out-of-school guy) so he had opinions that didn’t agree with administration and he only lasted one semester; which he pretty much told us was going to happen.
    I liked Mr Aachor.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. I would’ve liked to learn more about the flu pandemic of 1918-1920. It was overshadowed by the war, and I was surprised to discover that it killed an estimated three to five percent of the world’s population. That’s really staggering. My history classes studied the world wars, but I don’t recall this massive disease outbreak ever being mentioned.

    Liked by 3 people

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