III. U.S.-Dakota War of 1862--Reaction to Great Injustices

In summing up the viewpoint of the Dakota peoples by the early 1860s, one noted Dakota scholar, Charles Eastman, opined, “After one hundred and fifty years of friendly intercourse first with the French, then the English, and finally the Americans, they found themselves cut off from every natural resource, on a tract of land twenty miles by thirty, which to them was virtual imprisonment.” To be Dakota in this day and age is to have ancestors who were suffering and making difficult decisions prior to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. Prolonged human rights violations resulted in the eventual retaliation of the abused, and thus the majority of Dakota men would go to war.

The Dakota guiding values had been exhausted with the constant lies, unfulfilled promises, the strategic flow of liquor into Dakota hands, and trickery experienced in relations with the Whites. The breaking point for many was reached in the summer of 1862 when the treaty annuities were late in arriving, families were on the brink of starvation, and offensive comments were made by the Whites and local traders. At least one historian has suggested that there was a motive by the area White settlers and officials to deliberately provoke an Indian war as a pretext for seizing the reservation lands.

A. The Decision to Go to War

In the words of Chief Big Eagle, the ongoing human rights violations of the Whites towards the Dakota were central to the decision to go to war.

Then many of the white men often abused the Indians and treated them unkindly. Perhaps they had excuse, but the Indians did not think so. Many of the whites always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, “I am much better than you,” and the Indians did not like this. There was excuse for this, but the Dakotas did not believe there were better men in the world than they. Then some of the white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them, and surely there was no excuse for that.

The conflict between the Whites moving into Dakota land areas and the failure of the United States to curb White lawlessness added to the Dakota peoples' feelings of oppression and injustice in their dealings with the Whites.

With the pressure by the Indian superintendent, the missionaries, and the intermarried Dakota people, Dakota families were in turn punished for not farming and rewarded for following the White system as farmers on allotments on the south side of the Minnesota River. This division between those acting in concert with the program of the Indian agent and those who chose to continue the Dakota lifeway led to divergent views in tribal leadership on the best path forward for the peoples.

When Tom Galbraith became the Indian agent to the Sioux in 1861, he worked hard to foster the farmer program. He issued provisions to the blanket Indians only once a year, adhering to regulations, but freely gave food and other goods to the farmer Indians whenever they demanded them, as often as once a month. He believed that Indians should not be paid and fed for maintaining what to him was a slothful way of living. They should be rewarded only when they farmed and behaved the way they were supposed to, like decent Christian white men.

During the summer of 1862, when the majority of the people on the Sioux reservation were going hungry, the farmer Indians ate well and continued to receive food from the agency warehouse, sometimes within sight of their starving brothers.

In the summer of 1862, the annuities that usually arrived in June were very late. Going to the Indian agent, the Dakota peoples in the upper agency on the reservation were told that rumors that the annuities were not coming were false and to go hunt and feed themselves until late July. By July 14, an assembly of 4000 Dakota and 1000 Yankton had gathered for the payment with little to nothing to eat. Galbraith finally responded to the needs of those gathered by doling out just enough provisions to keep the Dakota and Yankton alive for the next three weeks. During this time, the local traders cut off all credit accounts, which further impoverished the Dakota peoples.

As August rolled in, no annuities had arrived. Galbraith brought in soldiers to guard the warehouse and stores at the agency. With the assistance of the missionary, Dr. Riggs, a council was held on August 7 with the Dakota near the upper agency where Galbraith agreed to distribute some of the annuity goods and provisions if the Dakota peoples would return to their homes to await the annuity payment. For three days, the distribution occurred, and the Dakota families departed back to their homes. Taoyateduta, in attendance at the upper agency, requested that Galbraith also issue provisions to those at the lower agency. Galbraith promised he would and then did not. On August 15, Taoyateduta again requested from the agent and the local traders that provisions be distributed to those at the lower agency.

After futile attempts to get definite information as to the time of payment, Little Crow, speaking for some hundreds of Indians present, said: “We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves.”

In responding, the agent turned to the traders and asked them for a reply. The other storekeepers said they would follow whatever the trader, Andrew Myrick, thought in the matter. The statement from Myrick was translated by the Reverend John P. Williamson into the Dakota language. Myrick's statement was, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” In response, the Dakota peoples gathered left expressing their anger.

During this August of 1862, young men out hunting had a hard time providing meat for their hungry families. So it was on August 17 when four young men went out hunting, argued over the courage to eat eggs found near a White family farm, and ended up killing three White men and two White women. When the young men returned to Rice Creek village, the elders and leaders met in council and considered the military retaliation that was expected. At this point, in reviewing the many injustices perpetrated on the Dakota, the annuities not arriving, the starvation conditions of the majority of the people, and the lack of any trust in dealing with the Whites to resolve the situation, the decision was made to go to war against the Whites and clear them from Dakota lands. Taoyateduta at first spoke out against declaring war, but accepted his leadership role in leading the warriors on the course of action that had garnered a consensus.

B. The Dakota Forces Strike Out Against Whites in the MinnesotaRiver Valley

When the Sisseton and Wahpeton at Pejutazi (Yellow Medicine) met in council on whether to join in the war, they were of many views with supposedly the Sisseton urging the killing of all the Whites and the Wahpeton in favor of merely plundering all the goods held by the Whites. In my own family history, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Mahpiya Hotanka, fought in the Dakota War. He joined the forces seeking to ambush the U.S. military gathered at Wood Lake and was killed in that battle. From my grandmother's paternal side, we are related to the Renville family through her great-grandmother, Anna Renville. For the most part, the Renvilles were considered Indians friendly to the Whites during the Dakota War. Two well-known Renvilles, the brothers, Gabriel and Michael Renville, served with General Sibley to bring in and punish the Dakota men involved in the War.

Over the span of about a month, the U.S.-Dakota War raged on for thirty-eight days in August and September 1862. White traders, Whites in towns near the reservation, and White soldiers were killed by Dakota men angered over the great injustices that had been brought to bear on their families. Battles occurred throughout the Minnesota River valley. For example, as many as 800 Dakota men took part in the charge against Fort Ridgely on August 20th.

While the main body of the Sioux warriors was alternatively attacking Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, smaller parties were carrying out raids all over southwestern Minnesota. Among the places where white casualties were heavy were Milford Township in Brown County, Lake Shetek in Murray County, and portions of Kandiyohi County. In most cases the men were killed, the women and children taken prisoner and held until the final defeat of the Indians at Wood Lake.

At the same time, many of the Dakota men who had chosen to take on White dress and be farmers opposed the war and sought to harbor Whites. In addition, there were Sisseton and Wahpeton leaders who ignored the call to war, as they were more concerned with hunting buffalo than with being at the agencies.

C. Dakota Efforts to End the War

Dakota warfare had never had the goal of killing whole communities and many of those involved lost heart as the purpose of the war lost meaning to them. Dakota families were also aware of the statements made by Minnesota Governor Ramsey about exterminating the Sioux or driving them forever from the state. In this charged atmosphere, the Dakota men involved in the war sought to bring it to a close. Captives were taken during the war and viewed by the leaders as bargaining chips to lead to eventual negotiations on concluding the war.

On September 12 Little Crow [Taoyateduta] gave the Long Trader [General Sibley] one last chance to end the war without further bloodshed. In his message he assured Sibley that the prisoners were being treated kindly. “I want to know from you as a friend,” he added, “what way that I can make peace for my people.”

Sibley sent a cold reply to Taoyateduta and offered no way to make peace. A second Dakota leader, Wabasha, at the same time, had sent word to Sibley seeking a truce and promising delivery of the captives. Following this exchange, another battle at Wood Lake occurred with the Dakota forces hoping to surprise the soldiers camped there. The ambush was disrupted by a group of soldiers going to dig potatoes that caused the battle to begin before the ambush was fully in place. In the aftermath of the battle, White soldiers scalped and mutilated the bodies of the Dakota men killed at the site.

As the Battle of Wood Lake was concluding, some of the Dakota people who sought to end the war began to establish a temporary camp. They also gathered some of the captives to wait for Sibley at the camp. Taoyateduta refused to fight against the Dakota in this temporary camp, called Camp Release. Further, he agreed to the release of all captives to those in the camp as he gave orders for his people to depart to the westward plains on September 24, 1862.

At the conclusion of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, General Sibley did not immediately march into Camp Release. Instead, he slowly made his way over three days when he could have arrived in one afternoon. Upon his arrival, he demanded release of the captives, which numbered 107 Whites and 162 Mixed-Bloods. Sibley then announced in the subsequent council with those present that they “should consider themselves prisoners of war until he could discover and hang the guilty ones among them.” Also, he put a cordon of artillery around the temporary camp and sent out Dakota men as messengers to call in all Dakota people to voluntarily come to the camp.

Those who refused to come in voluntarily would be hunted down and captured or killed. While the Santees were being rounded up and disarmed, the soldiers cut down the trees and constructed a huge log building. Its purpose was soon made clear, when most of the male Santees--about 600 of the camp's 2,000 Indians--were chained together in pairs and imprisoned there.

D. Minnesota Mob Mentality and Racial Vengeance

In reading many of the non-Indian narratives on the U.S.-Dakota War, the context and rationale for the Dakota men to go to war is completely missing and unanalyzed. The narratives start at the point of the assault on the four trading posts at the Lower Sioux Agency. These narratives use the most derogatory adjectives and labels for the Dakota men and profess the peacefulness of the settlers surrounding the ten-mile strip of remaining reserved lands along the Minnesota River. In actuality, many of the settlers in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory held views of White superiority and a racial hatred for the Dakota peoples.

Evidence of this racial animus was apparent in Minnesota newspapers. Special agent Kintzing Prichette sent from Washington and present in Minnesota in 1857 reported on the racism towards the Dakota peoples.

The attitude of those people toward the Indians was suggested by an item in a Red Wing newspaper noted by Prichette: “We have plenty of young men who would like no better fun than a good Indian hunt.”In Minnesota he found that “but one sentiment appeared to inspire almost the entire population, and this was, the total annihilation of the Indian race within their borders.”

It should be no wonder, then, that no aid by Whites was provided to the Dakota peoples when they were starved and cheated as part of U.S. Indian policy.

In Minnesota, as the Dakota War ended, the newspapers were full of racial hatred for the Dakota peoples. A frequent slogan appearing in the editorials and newspaper stories was the extermination of the Indians. The views expressed extended to men, women, and children. “As late as February 1863, a Faribault newspaper published a letter that declared: ‘Extermination, swift, sure, and terrible is the only thing that can give the people of Minnesota satisfaction, or a sense of security.”’ Another historian described the Whites' heated passion as a state-wide cry.

As the terrible news of the massacre of August 18 spread throughout the settled parts of the state, there rose everywhere the cry: “Death to the murderous Sioux. . . . Exterminate the fiends. . . . Let vengeance swift, sure, complete and unsparing teach the red-skinned demons the power of the white man.”

This racial hatred has motivated Whites to caricature, dehumanize, and misrepresent the Dakota peoples from first contact to the present. Further, this dehumanization has allowed the worst crimes to be committed against the Dakota peoples by all levels of the U.S. government and by U.S. citizens. In reading the summaries of historians, the racist-laden adjectives and descriptions of the Dakota peoples continue well into books published up through the 1970s. The mainstream White historian has participated in the dehumanization of the Dakota peoples by insisting that the Dakota are “warlike.” This characterization is further propagated in contemporary use of Dakota men as the sports mascots at primarily White state educational institutions, such as the University of North Dakota's “Fighting Sioux” mascot and the Sisseton High School's “Redman” mascot located as a public school on the Lake Traverse Reservation of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.

The treatment of the Dakota peoples following the surrender at Camp Release has been called “one of the blackest pages in the history of white injustice to the Indian.” For the Dakota peoples who had either asserted allegiance to the Whites or who voluntarily turned themselves over to General Sibley, the punishment called for by the Minnesotans fell heavily upon them. With public sentiment seeking vengeance, a military commission was assembled and all Dakota men subjected to prove their innocence or be subject to death by hanging. “Thus the revered Anglo-Saxon principle of law that a person is considered innocent until proved guilty was reversed in the case of Indians.” At the conclusion of the military commission's interrogation, 303 Dakota men were convicted and condemned to death with sixteen others sentenced to long prison terms. Sibley was denied the authority to immediately execute them and ordered to return to Fort Snelling.

First, those Dakota who were not convicted were marched to Fort Snelling. They departed the camp on November 7 and arrived on November 13. As they made the march in winter in Minnesota, they were attacked by a mob in the town of Henderson. “As the wretched prisoners traveled through Henderson, the people--men, women, and children--with guns, knives, clubs, and stones, rushed upon them and, before the guard could drive them back, maltreated many. One infant snatched from its mother, was so injured that it died a few hours later.” For those who had been condemned to death, Sibley marched them to a camp west of Mankato. As they passed through the town of New Ulm, another angry mob attacked the Dakota traveling through. “While they were being escorted past New Ulm, a mob of citizens that included many women attempted ‘private revenge’ on the prisoners with pitchforks, scalding water, and hurled stones. Fifteen prisoners were injured, one with a broken jaw, before the soldiers could march them beyond the town.”

The military commission's request for execution of the 303 condemned men had been forwarded to General Pope, who held command over the northwest, and he in turn wired the list of names to U.S. President Lincoln with a request to authorize the executions. Lincoln requested the trial records for review, which led to outrage by the bloodthirsty Minnesotans set on exterminating the Dakota peoples. During the review, the condemned Dakota men were held at a site known as Camp Lincoln. Then, “on the night of December 4 a mob of citizens stormed the prison camp intent upon lynching the Indians. The soldiers kept the mob at bay, and next day transferred the Indians to a stronger stockade near the town of Mankato.” The Dakota families being held at Fort Snelling in concentration camp conditions were “tormented by wild rumors concerning the fate of their menfolk and perpetually in danger of being killed by parties of whites who repeatedly threatened to break through the wooden fence erected for their protection.” As many as twenty to fifty people died each day from starvation, the cold, and a plague of measles in the concentration camp at Fort Snelling.

On December 6, President Lincoln's decision reached Sibley authorizing the execution of thirty-nine Dakota men; one would not be executed upon a later decision. The other men were to be kept until further orders were received. The largest mass execution in the history of the United States took place on December 26, 1862 when the thirty-eight Dakota men who had sought protection at Camp Release were hanged at the same moment on a specially built scaffold for that purpose. A Dakota hymn was sung by the men as they waited for death to ensue.

For those held as prisoners in the Fort Snelling and Mankato camps, the missionaries set about converting them to Christianity, and lessons were given in reading and writing. Meanwhile the calls for extermination of the Dakota peoples by Whites in Minnesota were relentless. “At Fort Snelling, thirteen hundred Sioux were still captive by the spring; three hundred had died over the winter.” The men sentenced to prison terms would be taken to Davenport, Iowa to serve their terms.

In response to the White public sentiment in Minnesota, the U.S. Congress enacted two pieces of legislation in 1863. The first act was titled, “An Act for the Relief of Persons for Damages Sustained by Reason of Depredations and Injuries by Certain Bands of Sioux Indians.” In section one of the federal law, all treaties with the Dakota were declared to be annulled and abrogated, all lands and rights of occupancy forfeited, and all payments and claims due forfeited. Further, a portion of the forfeited annuities were to be distributed by a U.S. commission to Whites in Minnesota claiming damages from the actions of any Dakota person. The second federal law was enacted in March 1863 for the removal of the Dakota peoples. The U.S. President was authorized to designate a reservation “outside the limits of any state” and divide it into eighty-acre allotments for those Dakota who wished to pursue farming. Further, the law directed the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to sell the reservation lands in Minnesota and apply the proceeds to further agricultural efforts in the new homes. An explicit provision was made in the law that no monies were to be directly paid to Indians. A separate law was also passed to remove the Winnebago Tribe from Minnesota, although they had not been involved in the U.S.-Dakota War.

In April and in May, two groups of the Dakota peoples were taken in cramped quarters with meager provisions by steamboat to Dakota Territory and placed on a reservation at Crow Creek.

Nothing grew there. Nothing could grow there. It was a barren stretch of emptiness for as far as the eye could see--and beyond. There was not a house within fifty miles, no game, no berries, no edible roots. Weakened and diseased from their terrible journey, the Sioux began to die within days of their arrival, three or four every day. In a few weeks, 150 were dead, and by the end of the summer, the number had climbed to 300. “For a time,” Williamson said, “a [tipi] where no one was sick could scarcely be found, and it was a rare day when there was no funeral. So the hills were covered with graves.

As for many who had lived on the upper agency, they had fled as General Sibley sought to capture or kill all remaining Dakota following the surrender at Camp Release. A large body of the Sisseton and Wahpeton peoples had settled just west of the Lake Traverse-Big Stone Lake area. Dakota Territorial Governor and ex-officio Superintendent of Indian Affairs Newton Edmunds eventually recommended that a reservation be set aside in that area for the Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota.