News Column

Alan Woolworth, who returned Little Crow's remains, dies

August 17, 2014

By Richard Chin, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Aug. 17--Little Crow went home, but the 28th Virginia battle flag stayed here, thanks in part to Alan Woolworth.

Woolworth was an archeologist, anthropologist, museum curator and longtime research fellow with the Minnesota Historical Society with an expertise in American Indian history and frontier Minnesota.

He died Wednesday at North Memorial Medical Center in Minneapolis from complications of a throat condition. The Golden Valley resident was 89.

Woolworth, a World War II combat veteran, prodigious researcher, book publisher, cat lover and friend of the Dakota Sioux community, helped decide how the historical society handled sensitive disputed artifacts including the remains of Little Crow, the Dakota chief who led the attacks against government outposts and settlements in the Minnesota River Valley in the summer of 1862.

Little Crow was killed in an ambush in 1863; his skull, scalp and left forearm ended up in the possession of the Minnesota Historical Society. In 1971, the remains were returned to Little Crow's descendants for burial in South Dakota.

Woolworth was the person chosen to carry the remains back to the family, according to friend and historian Curtis Dahlin.

"In the 20th century, his remains were looked on as a war trophy," Woolworth said in an interview this summer. When Little Crow was killed by a farmer and his son near Hutchinson, a $500 bounty was awarded by the state plus a bounty for the scalp.

"Most of the white people hated his guts and looked on him as a heathen person and were glad he was dead," Woolworth said. But Woolworth, an expert in the Dakota conflict, said he had become friends with the descendants of the Little Crow family.

'AN ETHICAL MATTER'

Local historian Pat Hill said Woolworth became an advocate within the historical society for returning the remains.

"Basically the Little Crow family wanted the remains returned to them for burial," Woolworth said. "I certainly concurred with them."

At the burial ceremony at Flandreau, S.D., Woolworth arranged to have a load of concrete poured into the grave to make sure the remains would never be dug up, said Gary Clayton Anderson, a University of Oklahoma historian who wrote a biography of Little Crow and collaborated with Woolworth on "Through Dakota Eyes," a collection of testimonies of the Dakota Conflict told from the American Indians' side.

Patricia Emerson, director of archeology at the historical society, said the return of Little Crow was an early example of repatriation of remains of native people that became common practice for museums in later years.

"I think he saw it an ethical matter, that the society had no right to not return the remains of that individual," Emerson said of Woolworth.

FENDING OFF VIRGINIANS

The battle flag of the 28th Virginia Infantry was another matter. Hill said Woolworth was an early proponent for holding on to that artifact.

The Confederate battle flag was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg by Pvt. Marshall Sherman of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment. Sherman later received the Medal of Honor and the historical society later received the flag. It has periodically had to fend off efforts by Virginians to get the flag back.

"If you give away something, the next day you might wish you had it," Woolworth said. If the state gave up the Virginia flag, "there would be demands for other flags and other trophies, and where would they stop?" he said.

Woolworth personally knew what it cost to win something on a battlefield. During World War II, he fought as an infantryman in Europe.

"I was wounded twice. Not heavily, but enough to scare the hell out of me," he said.

Woolworth's twin brother, Arlan, who was also in the Army, was not so lucky. He was killed near Anzio, Italy.

Woolworth was born in Clear Lake, S.D., and after getting out of the Army, he earned degrees in history and anthropology at the University of Nebraska and University of Minnesota.

In 1952, he became an archeologist with the North Dakota State Historical Society, once helping to acquire a vintage steam locomotive and arranging to have an authentic bison hide bullboat made. He then worked as a curator for the Dearborn (Mich.) Historical Museum. In 1960, he became museum curator for the Minnesota Historical Society and in 1970 became the society's chief archeologist, directing a statewide program of archeological surveys, salvage and contract archeological operations.

Emerson said Woolworth was instrumental in getting a state statute enacted in 1963 that protected archeological sites on public land.

Emerson's career included excavations of prehistoric Indian villages and excavations of an inland fur trade depot at Grand Portage National Monument on the north share of Lake Superior.

'A DEMON RESEARCHER'

Woolworth retired as chief archeologist in 1979. But he transferred his digging skills to the library and archive as a research fellow for the historical society.

He was an expert on the regional fur trade, frontier history and the Dakota Indians. But according to an index of 46 boxes of papers he donated to the historical society, he also collected material on a wide range of topics including fire grenades, lead shot, meteorites, caves, photographers, coal mines, grist mills, Masons, Mexican War music, bears, birds and buffaloes.

His papers also include biographical information on scores of 19th century Minnesotans including Dakota Sioux, fur traders, military officers, interpreters, slaves, steamboat captains, missionaries and mixed blood people.

"Alan was a really dedicated researcher," Emerson said. "If he got interested in any particular topic, he would research the heck out of it."

"He was able to help huge numbers of people who came to him for help with people and topics," said Debbie Miller, reference specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society library. "He was a demon researcher. That's the kind of person I am and admire."

"I couldn't have written that book without his help," Anderson said of his biography, "Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux."

"Alan went out and talked with large numbers of elderly Dakota people," Anderson said. "He was able to find the stuff I really needed."

"He was always willing to share his knowledge and materials," Dahlin said. "Not everyone is willing to share."

Emerson said Woolworth was also willing to share his opinions and not afraid to tell his bosses that he disagreed with them.

"He was opinionated. He wanted things done his way," said Woolworth's daughter, Kathryn Pegors.

Woolworth retired as a research fellow in 1998 but kept an office at the historical society as an emeritus research fellow for years beyond that. He also helped start a publishing company, Prairie Smoke Press, that published books and "The Minnesota Archaeologist," the journal of the Minnesota Archaeological Society.

He is survived by Pegors and another daughter, Marian Williams, and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be Aug. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at the James J. Hill House at 240 Summit Ave. in St. Paul.

Richard Chin can be reached at 651-228-5560. Follow him at twitter.com/RRChin.

___

(c)2014 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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Source: Saint Paul Pioneer Press (MN)


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