Living history: Taylor's ancestor played role in 1862 U.S.-Dakota Conflict
FLANDREAU, S.D. -- When Myron Taylor encountered an Abraham Lincoln impersonator a few years back at Pipestone's Civil War Days, the two men had a lot to discuss. Myron is a direct descendant of one of the Native Americans the real Lincoln pardoned in the wake of the Dakota Conflict of 1862.
"I felt bad, because I'm confined to a wheelchair, and you're supposed to stand in the presence of the president, don't you?" recalled Myron about the meeting, adding that a friend later told him that "Mr. Lincoln said one of the most powerful moments he'd had was meeting a real survivor (of the pardon)."
Myron is the great-grandson of Ocepiduta -- his Christian name was John Taylor -- who lived in the area between Redwood Falls and Morton when the 1862 uprising unfolded.
As part of its exhibit on the conflict, the Minnesota State Historical Society gives this capsule of those 1862 events at www.usdakotawar.org:
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 followed years of broken treaties and promises to the Dakota people combined with a burgeoning white population in the state. In August 1862, when late annuity payments and the refusal by agents and traders to release provisions found some Dakota facing starvation, factions attacked white settlements, the Lower Sioux Agency and Fort Ridgely in south central and southwestern Minnesota. A significant number of Dakota were against the war and did not participate.
The fighting lasted six weeks. Between 400 and 600 white civilians and soldiers were killed. The number of Dakota killed in battle is not known. Troops under the command of former Gov. Henry Sibley were sent to support Fort Ridgely and the settlers, ultimately defeating the Dakota forces and bringing the war to a close by the end of September 1862.
After a trial by military tribunal, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862. It remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. More than 300 Dakota men had initially been condemned to death but President Abraham Lincoln commuted all but 39 of the sentences. Another was reprieved at the last minute because of questions about the testimony used to convict him.
John Taylor was No. 29 on the list of 300 condemned Native Americans.
"When they tried them, it only took them five minutes each," related Myron. "One of my cousins says he has a (trial) document that said (John Taylor) heard there was some killing going on at the agency, so he grabbed his gun and went to work."
Although they were pardoned for their actions in the conflict, the Native Americans whose lives were spared were exiled from Minnesota.
"So he came here to Flandreau," explained Myron. "They were one of the first 11 families who came here in the winter of 1871. They offered him homestead land, so he took up a homestead here."
Myron's grandfather, Joseph Taylor, was only 4 years old when they settled in Flandreau. Joseph eventually became a Christian missionary who traveled through South Dakota and Minnesota.
"He went out to Wounded Knee in 1890 to help with Ghost Dance religion out there," Myron said. "He was one of four ministers in the church at Wounded Knee."
Starting in 1900, Joseph Taylor also became a famous pipemaker and figure at the Pipestone quarries, now part of the Pipestone National Monument. He was known as "Indian Joe," and one of the quarries is named after him.
Although he never knew his grandfather -- Joseph died in 1937 -- Myron has always been proud of his family's legacy. But the connection to the Dakota Conflict was something his family never talked about. Myron would have to uncover that bit of history on his own.
"I worked for the National Park Service, was a park ranger, and I worked at Pipestone National Monument, and they had a library there," Myron explained. "I started reading some of the books when I wasn't doing anything, and there were (a lot of books) that dealt with 1862. So I became interested in what happened there, and so we visited some of the places over there (the Lower Sioux Agency near Redwood Falls) and realized I was related to people in Morton. That's when I found out about my great-grandfather."
The Taylor family's reluctance to discuss the events of 1862 was not unusual among Native Americans, according to Myron.
"A lot of it has been suppressed," Myron reflected. "Minnesota was not very proud of what happened, and the family felt the same way. They didn't want anyone to know about it. My grandmother told my mother to raise her kids in the white world, because it was better off if you weren't Native American. Course, it was the same with other cultures. The Germans (immigrants) didn't want you to be German during World War II. They want you to be American."
Myron is proud to be American and Native American. Born in Flandreau, he graduated from Flandreau High School and attended Southern State Teachers College in Springfield, S.D. He and his brother, Lee, both served in the military during the Vietnam War, following in their father's footsteps.
"My mother was French and Cree, and they met during World War II, in Camp Carson in Colorado. Dad was based in the hospital there, and she worked in the canteen," explained Myron. "My dad was a code talker. He used the Dakota language in the invasion of New Guinea. He didn't talk about it much, but when he did, he told some good ones. My mom was the one who mostly told the stories --the stories he told her."
Like many other veterans of the era, Myron's military service took its toll both physically and psychologically. After he returned stateside, he was in a car accident while out with some other Vietnam veterans and lost his leg.
Myron's work career has included driving truck all across the United States and the aforementioned stint as a park ranger at Pipestone National Monument.
"I also worked at the Grand Canyon for two years," he added. "I got homesick and came home."
But the endeavor of which he is probably most proud is the family trade -- pipe making. Myron is a fifth-generation pipe carver.
"I've been doing it most of my life," he said. "I can take and make a nice pipe in under two hours. Some of the more elaborate pipes take a lot longer. I sell them through the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association, which is associated with the National Park Service."
With an interest in the Civil War, Myron is a gun collector, specializing in military weapons and the gear that goes with them. He also has an affinity for motorcycles.
"I ride Harley Davidson motorcycles," he said. "I've built four of them. I ride with a side car, a 2003 Springer Softail Harley Davidson with a side car. I put the wheelchair in the side car, which is a special side car that I made myself. I just put it in the side car, and away I go."
Home for Myron is now an apartment in Flandreau, and his brother and sister live in the same complex. He has two sons -- an electrician and a sound technician -- and eight grandchildren.
"They're pretty proud of their heritage, too," Myron said about his family.
Events over the last couple of weeks have given Myron much reason to reflect on his heritage. He participated in last week's "Legacy of Survival" welcome home walk from Flandreau across the state border to the sacred quarry at Pipestone National Monument in commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota conflict. Today, he will attend the 75th anniversary events at Pipestone National Monument.
"It's a special place," he said about the monument, adding that his father was born in a teepee on the monument grounds. "I can't even describe how special it is. I spent most of life there, I think. I know much of the history of the area, and I like to think I was the best interpreter there."
Through both good and bad, Myron's family history is intertwined with the history of the region and the nation.
"There's just so much history, a guy can't digest it all."