Dakota War Commemorative
Dakota War of 1862
Chief Taoyateduta, known as Chief Little Crow
The Dakota War of 1862
was an armed conflict between the United States and several eastern bands of the Dakota people (also called the Santee Sioux) which began on August 17, 1862, along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota. Skirmishes in the following weeks claimed hundreds of lives. The number of Native Americandead is unknown, while estimates of settlers who died range between 300 and 800—one of the largest tolls on American civilians to ever occur. The conflict also resulted in the largest mass execution in U.S. history, when 38 Dakota men, convicted of murder and rape, were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This was the first major armed engagement between the U.S. and Dakota, though it would not be the last. It is also referred to as the Sioux Uprising, Sioux Outbreak of 1862, the Dakota Conflict or the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
In 1851, the U.S. and Dakota leaders negotiated the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Treaty of Mendota, ceding vast amounts of land in Minnesota Territory. In exchange for money and goods, the Dakota agreed to live on a twenty mile (32 km) wide reservation centered on a 150 mile (240 km) stretch of the upper Minnesota River. The deal immediately began to turn sour as the United States Senate deleted Article 3 of each treaty during the ratificationprocess. Much of the promised compensation never arrived, was lost or was effectively stolen due to corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and wrongful conduct by traders.
As Minnesota became a state in 1858, representatives of several Dakota bands led by Chief Taoyateduta (commonly known as Chief Little Crow) traveled to Washington, D.C., to make further negotiations. Again, events did not turn out in the Indians’ favor. The northern half of the reservation along the Minnesota River was lost, and rights to the quarry at Pipestone, Minnesota, were also ceded. This was a major blow to the standing of Little Crow in the Dakota community.
In the meantime, the ceded land was quickly being divided up into townships and individual plots for settlement. The traditional Dakota yearly cycle of farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering wild rice was unalterably interrupted as the forest, prairie, and other wild lands were stripped of timber to make way for new farms plowed by white settlers. In addition, wild game like bison, elk, whitetail deer, and bear had been hunted so intensively that populations were tiny compared to the populations before Euro-American settlement. The Dakota people of southern and western Minnesota relied on the sale of valuable furs to American traders to earn cash needed to buy necessities.
Payments guaranteed by the treaties were not made, due to Federal preoccupation with the American Civil War. Most land in the river valley was not arable, and hunting could no longer support the Dakota community. Losing land to new white settlers, non-payment, past broken treaties, plus food shortages and famine following crop failure led to great discontent among the Dakota people. Tension increased through the summer of 1862.
On August 4, representatives of the northern Sisseton and Wahpeton bands met at the Upper Sioux Agency in the northwestern part of the reservation. They successfully negotiated to obtain food. However, when the southern Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Dakota turned to the Lower Sioux Agency for supplies on August 15, they were rejected. Indian Agent (and Minnesota State Senator) Thomas Galbraith managed the area and would not distribute food without payment. At a meeting arranged between the Indians, the government, and local traders, the Dakota asked lead trader Andrew Myrick to support their cause. His response was blunt. “So far as I’m concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung.”
The dehumanizing comment first brought a hush over the group, but they soon began yelling at him. Soon after, with the Civil War keeping the U.S. occupied, some Dakota warriors saw an opportunity. The delayed money for the tribes arrived in St. Paul to the east on August 16, arriving at Fort Ridgelythe next day. However, it came too late to prevent violence from erupting.
Most accounts trace the beginning of the Dakota Conflict to the killing of five whites by four young Dakota men on Sunday, August 17, 1862. The Dakotas had been hunting, but ended up stealing food from the settlement of Acton in Meeker County (near present day Grove City). Soon, they had killed several of the settlers, including women. This event caused an uproar among the Santee Sioux living on the reservation, and some warriors convinced a reluctant Chief Little Crow to lead further attacks.
Hostilities in South Central Minnesota
On August 18, Chief Little Crow led a group that attacked numerous white settlers at the Lower Sioux Agency. Trader Andrew Myrick was among the first that was killed. He was discovered trying to escape through a second-floor window. Days later, Myrick’s body was found—with grass stuffed into his mouth. The stores were taken and several buildings at the site were torched, though this provided enough delay for many people to escape across the river at Redwood Ferry. An initial Minnesota militia force that was sent to suppress the uprising only resulted in a defeat of Minnesota troops in the Battle of Redwood Ferry. At least 44 deaths occurred that day.
A painting of the attack on New Ulm.
Confident with their initial success, the Sioux would continue on to attack the white settlement of New Ulm on August 19. Dakota warriors decided not to attack the heavily-defended Fort Ridgely along the river, instead turning toward the town and killing many white settlers along the way. By the time New Ulm was attacked, residents had organized defenses in the town center and kept the Dakota at bay, but portions of the town were still burned down.
In the meantime, there were also raids on farms and small settlements throughout the south central part of Minnesota and eastern Dakota Territory. Initial counter-attacks by Minnesota troops resulted in another defeat of white soldiers at Battle of Birch Coulee on September 2.
The Battle of Birch Coulee began when a large group of Dakota attacked a detachment of 150 U.S. soldiers at Birch Coulee, 16 miles (26 km) from Fort Ridgely. The detachment had been sent out to find survivors, bury the dead, and report on the location of Dakota fighters. A three-hour firefight began with an early morning assault. Thirteen United States soldiers were killed and 47 were wounded, while two Sioux were killed. A column of 240 soldiers from Fort Ridgely relieved the detachment at Birch Coulee that afternoon. Fort Ridgely was defended by Companies “B” & “C” of the 5th Minnesota Infantry August 20–22, 1862
Hostilities in northwestern Minnesota
Further north, the Sioux attacked several unfortified stage stops and river crossings along the the Red River Trails, a settled trade route between Fort Garry(now Winnipeg) and St. Paul in the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota and eastern Dakota Territory. Many settlers and employees of the Hudson Bay Company and other local enterprises in this sparsely populated country took refuge in a prairie “fort” known as Fort Abercrombie, located in a bend of the Red River about 25 miles (40 km) south of present day Fargo, North Dakota. Over a period of six weeks, the Indians launched several attacks on Fort Abercrombie which were repelled by the white defenders and which came to be known as the “Siege at Fort Abercrombie”. Steamship and flatboat trade on the Red River came to a halt, and mail carriers, stage drivers and military couriers attempting to reach the Pembina and Fort Garry settlements and St. Cloud and Fort Snelling were killed by the Indians. Eventually the garrison at Fort Abercrombie was relieved by a United States Army company from Fort Snelling and the civilian refugees were removed to St. Cloud.
The Chippewa or Ojibwa Indian bands from Pembina and Red Lake were awaiting a treaty goods shipment for a contemplated land cession of 1862 along a ford of the Red River near the junction with the Red Lake River near present day Grand Forks. The shipment never arrived, and the treaty negotiations were postponed until 1863, when the Treaty of Old Crossing (1863) was consummated near Huot, Minnesota, a ford of the Red Lake River utilized by oxen-drawn Red River carts. The Ojibwe at times were accused of complicity or direct involvement in the attacks, but no evidence exists that any of the atrocities associated with the conflict between Indians, whites, and half-breed settlers of 1862 were perpetrated by anyone other than the various bands of the Sioux Indians.
Continued developments in the south
Due to the Civil War, repeated appeals for help were required before President Abraham Lincoln appointed General John Pope to assemble troops from the Third and Fourth Minnesota Regiments to quell the violence. Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey also instructed Colonel Henry Sibley (the state’s first governor) to aid in the effort.
The fighting lasted for six weeks. The final large-scale fighting took place in the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept 23, 1862. According to the official report of Lt. Col. William R. Marshall of the 7th Minnesota Volunteers (with five companies of the 7th Minn—A, B, F, G, and H, a 6 pounder gun and a company of the 6th Minnesota Infantry) had half his men in rifle pits and the others were in a skirmish line which then charged on a ravine occupied by Indians. The 7th lost 1 man killed; 3 wounded or injured while Indian casualties amounted to 7 killed.
Some Dakota fighters surrendered at Camp Release on September 26. The place was so-named because it was the site where 269 captives of the Dakota were released to the troops commanded by Col. Henry Sibley. The captives included 162 mixed-bloods and 107 whites, mostly women and children. Most of the Dakotas guilty of war crimes left before Sibley arrived at Camp Release.
Records conclusively show that more than 500 soldiers and settlers died in the conflict, though many more may have died in small raids or after being captured. Estimates for U.S. losses range up to 800, though there is no accurate accounting of deaths on either side of the conflict.
Trials and mass execution
This drawing of the mass hanging in Mankato, Minnesota was long a familiar icon in Minnesota.
Six weeks later, 303 Sioux prisoners were convicted of murder and rape by military tribunals and sentenced to death. Some trials lasted less than 5 minutes, and the Dakotas had no one to explain the proceedings to them or to represent them. President Lincoln reviewed the trial records and distinguished between those who had engaged in warfare against the United States and those who had committed the crimes of rape or murder of civilians. He approved of the execution of 39 of the latter, and commuted the death sentences of the others. The 38, for whom the evidence seemed strongest, were executed by hanging in a single day on December 26, 1862, in Mankato.
The mass execution was performed for all to see from a single scaffold platform. It was, and still is, the largest execution in the history of the United States. The bodies of the Indians were pronounced dead by the regimental surgeons and then they were buried in a long trench, which was dug in the sand of the riverbank. Before they were buried, however, a “Dr. Sheardown” supposedly removed some of the Indians’ skin. Little boxes containing the skin were sold in Mankato after the hangings. Over the years, many “souvenir” pieces of skin have continued to be sold, some on eBay. Of course, most are hoaxes and are just hunks of pigskin.
At that time, there was a high demand for anatomical subjects, so several doctors attending the hanging asked for the bodies. One of those was Doctor William Worrall Mayo. The mass grave was re-opened and the bodies removed for distribution. As fate would have it, Mayo received Marpiya Okinajin (He Who Stands in the Clouds or Cut Nose), with whom he had a confrontation earlier in his career. The body of Marpiya Okinajin was brought to Le Sueur where Mayo dissected it in the presence of some medical colleagues. Afterwards, the skeleton was cleaned, dried and varnished; Mayo kept it in an iron kettle in his home office. The identifiable remains of Marpiya Okinajin and other Native Americans have been returned by the Mayo Clinic to the Dakota Tribe for reburial under the U.S. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The remaining convicted Indians stayed in prison that winter. The following spring, they were transferred to Rock Island, Illinois (near Davenport, Iowa) where they were held in a prison for almost four years. By the time of their release, one third of the Indians had died of disease. The survivors were sent with their families to Nebraska.
The 38 men who were hanged are remembered each year at two separate pow-wows in the state. The Mankato pow-wow, held each year in September, commemorates the lives of the condemned men, but also seeks to reconcile the white and Indian communities. The Birch Coulee pow-wow, held on Labor Day weekend, honors the lives of those who were hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history. There are also several stone statues at the site, in downtown Mankato, where the execution took place.
As a result of the war, the U.S. government abolished the reservation, declared all previous treaties with the Dakota null and void, and undertook proceedings to expel the Dakota people entirely from Minnesota. To this end, a bounty of $25 per scalp was placed on virtually any Dakota found free within the boundaries of the state. The only exceptions to this were 208 Mdewakanton “friendlies” who sat out and even helped to protect a few white settlers in the conflict.
1,300 to 1,700 Dakota people were rounded up and held through the winter of 1862–1863 in a compound described as a “log jail” by contemporary observers, and as a “concentration camp” by modern historians. This compound was located on Pike Island below Fort Snelling. In the spring, the camp was moved southwest toward the current site of the Mall of America, prior to the mass removal of these people to Nebraska and South Dakota including the Crow Creek Indian Reservation on the Missouri River on May 4, 1863. More than 130 Dakota died in the camp and subsequent removal.
The Minnesota Sioux War of 1862 was the first violent engagement between the Dakota Indians and the United States. It would not be the last, however. The battle of Killdeer Mountain occurred in 1864, Red Cloud’s War followed in 1866–1868, and the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 and Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 also involved the two parties.
He briefly stayed in Canada, but soon returned to the area. He was killed on July 3, 1863 near Hutchinson, Minnesota while gathering raspberries with his teenage son. The pair had wandered onto the land of white settler Nathan Lamson, who shot at them hoping to collect the bounties. Taoyateduta’s skull and scalp were removed from his body, and were set on public display in St. Paul, where they so remained until 1971.
Lamson received an additional $500 reward for his efforts; Taoyateduta’s son (who was captured in the incident) was at one time condemned to die, but later had that sentence commuted to a prison term.
By the 1880s, a number of Dakota had trickled back to the Minnesota River valley, notably the Goodthunder, Wabasha, Bluestone, and Lawrence families. They were joined by several families from the Wahpekute Dakota who had been living under the protection of Bishop Whipple and the trader Alexander Faribault. The small Lower Sioux Indian Reservation was reestablished at the site of the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton, and in the 1930s an even smaller Upper Sioux Reservation (little more than a square mile in size) was established near Granite Falls.
Many Dakota did not join in the attacks, choosing to aid and protect settlers and to serve with the Minnesota soldiers who responded to the attacks. The Yankton Sioux chief Struck by the Ree deployed his warriors for this purpose. Monuments to their actions were erected in the 1890s on the river bluff opposite the Lower Sioux Agency. Even so, Struck by the Ree’s people were not judged “friendly” enough to be allowed to remain in the state after the war.
A monument in Reconciliation Park across from the Mankato library where the execution occurred, commemorates the 38 Dakota hanged.
The Minnesota River Valley and surrounding upland prairie areas were largely abandoned as a direct result of the war. Many of the surviving families who fled their farms and homes as refugees never returned. Following the end of the Civil War, however, the area was re-settled by European immigrants and United States migrants, and became a flourishing agricultural region by the 1890s.
By the late 1920s, only a handful of eyewitnesses remained to provide a first-hand account of the Sioux Outbreak, and the conflict passed into the realm of oral tradition. Eyewitness accounts were communicated first-hand to individuals who survived into the 1970s and early 1980s. The images of innocent individuals and families of struggling pioneer farmers being killed by marauding bands of Dakota, often in horrific and inhumane ways, have remained in the consciousness of the prairie communities of south central Minnesota. See, for example, the Euro-American family oral histories referred to in Part 4 of the Minnesota Public Radio program referenced in the bibliography, below, and the memories of both Indian and white descendents of participants in the battle at Slaughter Slough in the references, below).
Contemporary accounts by percipient (white and mixed-blood) observers or victims of the Uprising included graphic and sensationalistic descriptions of what it was like to witness one’s own father, mother, siblings or children slaughtered by “enraged savages”. An example is the book-length compilation by Charles Bryant entitled “Indian Massacre in Minnesota”, initially published in 1863 and frequently reprinted thereafter. Statements such as the following excerpts no doubt reinforced the perception of diabolical savagery on the part of the Sioux that continued into the 20th century in some parts of rural Minnesota:
“Mr. Massipost had two daughters, young ladies, intelligent and accomplished. These the savages murdered most brutally. The head of one of them was afterward found, severed from the body, attached to a fish-hook, and hung upon a nail. His son, a young man of twenty-four years, was also killed. Mr. Massipost and a son of eight years escaped to New Ulm.” (Bryant, at p. 141).
“The daughter of Mr. Schwandt, enciente, was cut open, as was learned afterward, the child taken alive from the mother, and nailed to a tree. The son of Mr. Schwandt, aged thirteen years, who had been beaten by the Indians, until dead, as was supposed, was present, and saw the entire tragedy. He saw the child taken alive from the body of his sister, Mrs. Waltz, and nailed to a tree in the yard. It struggled some time after the nails were driven through it! This occurred in the forenoon of Monday, 18th of August, 1862.” (Bryant, at pp. 300-301).
This genre of eyewitness description now requires a preface that explains the extreme prejudice and racist points of view of the victims (see, e.g., the introduction to the Tolzmann reprint of Mary Schwandt’s eyewitness account of her family’s killing, published in 2002), and is now considered over-done and unreliable. More modern commentators generally omit such viscerally compelling personal recollections of white victims while emphasizing the abuses and neglect perpetrated by the governmental reservation and trading system. These later accounts sometimes fail to convey sufficiently the widespread panic that resulted from attacks suffered by isolated frontier families during the uprising.
A number of local monuments including the Acton monument to the initial attack on the Howard Baker farm, near Grove City in Meeker County, the Guri Endreson monument in the Vikor Lutheran Cemetery, near Willmar, in Kandiyohi County, and the Brownton monument to the slain White family in McLeod County, serve as permanent reminders of the innocent men, women and children on isolated farms and hamlets who were the initial victims of the Uprising.