By Tim Krohn
They were the biggest events in Minnesota history that virtually no one knows about.
William E. Lass, professor emeritus of history at Minnesota State University, states unequivocally that the U.S.-Dakota War was the single most significant event in Minnesota’s history.
While those living in southern Minnesota have varying degrees of knowledge about the events that happened 150 years ago this month, many Minnesotans and most in the nation know little or nothing of the war.
The war was, until recently, commonly known as the Sioux Outbreak or Sioux Uprising of 1862. Noting the word Sioux was a derogatory name given to the tribe by other Indians and whites, the conflict has most recently been known as the U.S.-Dakota War.
The military phase of the war began Aug. 17 and ended at the end of September. On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
In between, 450-600 settlers and soldiers were killed. Indian deaths due to battle, difficult to verify, were likely only in the several of dozens, Lass said. However, many Indians died of disease and malnutrition following the war, most of whom were not involved in the violence.
It also was the beginning of battles with Indians farther to the west that would continue until the Wounded Knee Massacre nearly 30 years later, which marked the end of major fighting between the U.S. and the Dakota.
The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, signed in July 1851 at a spot on the north end of St. Peter, is the focus of most who live in the Mankato and St. Peter area.
But Lass said that treaty must be viewed in conjunction with the Treaty of Mendota signed that August.
The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was made with the Sissetons and Wahpetons, commonly called the Upper Sioux, while the Treaty of Mendota was with the Mdewakantons and Wahpekute, commonly called the Lower Sioux.
The treaties specified the bands cede all their lands in Minnesota Territory and Iowa in exchange for money and goods and an agreement that the tribes live on a 20-mile-wide reservation centered on a 150-mile stretch of the upper Minnesota River.
Much of the promised compensation never arrived to the degree the Dakota expected. Some of the compensation went to traders to pay off debts the Dakota incurred — or were claimed to have incurred — with the traders.
As Minnesota became a state in 1858, representatives of the four Dakota bands led by Chief Taoyateduta (commonly known as Chief Little Crow) were taken to Washington, D.C., to make further negotiations. 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 were also ceded. This was a major blow to the standing of Little Crow in the Dakota community.
On Aug. 17, 1862, a hunting party of four young Dakota men were near Acton in Meeker County, 45 miles from their village along the Minnesota River.
The Dakota ended up stealing food from the settlement and killed five, including women.
After returning to their village and telling what had happened, Chiefs Shakopee and Red Middle Voice convened a council at the village of Chief Little Crow with the council deciding to attack settlements throughout the valley to try to drive whites out.
Chief Little Crow became the reluctant leader of the attacks. Little Crow, who’d seen the military strength of the U.S. during his trip to Washington, knew there was no hope of defeating the military.
The day after the initial bloodshed, Little Crow led a group on a surprise attack of the Lower Sioux (or Redwood) Agency, killing several government employees and burning most buildings with many people fleeing to Redwood Ferry.
A militia force and B Company of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry also had been sent from Fort Ridgely to Redwood Ferry, where Little Crow next attacked. At least 44 were killed, including two dozen soldiers.
Dakota war parties swept the river valley, killing many settlers.
Siege of New Ulm
On Aug. 18, a recruiting party for Civil War volunteers left New Ulm but was ambushed in the Milford Township raid. Survivors raced back to town to warn settlers who began erecting barricades on the streets.
New Ulm, with 900 residents, was the largest town in the region.
The first attack came Aug. 19 with about 100 warriors firing on the city from the bluff.
On the morning of Aug. 23, the Dakota launched their second attack on the city. With superior numbers, the Dakota encircled the town.
The Dakota burned several buildings to force the settlers into the open. After nightfall, settlers burned the rest of the buildings outside of the barricades to prevent them from being used by the Dakota for cover. In all, 190 structures were destroyed.
The next morning, the Dakota made a slight assault on the community but then withdrew.
Battle of Fort Ridgely
Between the two attacks on New Ulm, the Dakota attacked the military post of Fort Ridgely — fewer than 20 miles to the northwest of New Ulm.
On the morning of Aug. 20, about 400 Indians attacked the ill-prepared post. By the end of the day, five soldiers were killed and 15 wounded.
On Aug. 22, the Dakota returned with a stronger force of about 800. Toward evening, the Dakota warriors staged a more serious attack on the northern side of the fort.
The buildings on the north end were ordered burned as the Dakota were using them for protection. As the buildings burned and night fell, the Dakota melded into the woods.
Birch Coulee fiasco
The only large battle fought by the Dakota that had no strategic advantage — but turned out to be a victory for them — was at Birch Coulee, a place near Morton, about 16 miles north and west of Fort Ridgely.
On Sept. 2, a detachment of 150 soldiers had been sent from the fort on a mission to search for and bury settlers who had been killed in the area in the previous couple of weeks.
On the first night out, the commander of the burial detail chose a rise on open prairie to bivouac — a site choice that would prove deadly.
That night the Dakota closely encircled the camp. The next morning the Dakota attacked, killing 13 soldiers before reinforcements arrived.
Northern Minnesota attacks
The bloodshed was not limited to south-central and southwestern Minnesota.
Further north, the Dakota attacked several unfortified stagecoach stops and river crossings along the Red River Trails, an intermittently settled trade route between Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) and St. Paul, in the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota and eastern Dakota Territory.
Many settlers and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company and other local enterprises in this sparsely populated country took refuge in Fort Abercrombie, located in a bend of the Red River 25 miles south of present-day Fargo.
In August and September, the Dakota launched several attacks on Fort Abercrombie; all were repelled by its defenders.
In the meantime, steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River came to a halt. Mail carriers, stage drivers and military couriers were killed while attempting to reach settlements such as Pembina, North Dakota, Fort Garry, St. Cloud and Fort Snelling. Eventually the garrison at Fort Abercrombie was relieved by a U.S. Army company from Fort Snelling, and the civilian refugees were removed to St. Cloud.
Due to the demands of the Civil War, the region’s representatives had to repeatedly appeal for aid before President Lincoln appointed Maj. John Pope to quell the violence.
Pope planned strategy for troops from the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 10th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which were still being formed, dispatched troops to the front.
Minnesota Gov. Alexander Ramsey also enlisted the help of Col. Henry Hastings Sibley (the previous governor) to aid in the effort.
End of the war
After the arrival of a larger Army force, the final large-scale fighting took place at the Battle of Wood Lake, in present-day Yellow Medicine County, on Sept. 23.
The 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment used 6-pound cannons deployed equally in dugouts and on skirmish line. After brief fighting, the forces in the skirmish line charged against the Dakota — who were in a ravine — and defeated them overwhelmingly.
Most Dakota fighters surrendered shortly after the Battle of Wood Lake at Camp Release on Sept. 26. The place was named because it was where the Dakota released 269 captives to the troops commanded by Sibley. The captives included 162 “mixed-bloods” and 107 whites, mostly women and children.
The surrendered Dakota were held until military trials took place in October.
In October, 303 Dakota prisoners were convicted of murder and rape by military tribunals and sentenced to death. Some trials lasted only minutes and the Dakota were not represented in court.
Lincoln personally reviewed the trial records to distinguish between those who had engaged in warfare against the U.S. versus those who had committed crimes of rape and murder against civilians.
Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, urged Lincoln to be lenient. On the other hand, Minnesota newspapers pushed for a hard line.
Lincoln commuted the death sentences of 264 prisoners, but he allowed the execution of 39 men.
Republicans did not fare as well in Minnesota in the 1864 election as they had before. Ramsey, then a senator, informed Lincoln that more hangings would have resulted in a larger electoral majority. Lincoln reportedly replied, “I could not afford to hang men for votes.”
One of the 39 condemned prisoners was granted a reprieve. The Army executed the 38 remaining prisoners by hanging on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato, in what remains the largest mass execution in American history.
The execution was performed publicly on a single scaffold platform. After regimental surgeons pronounced the prisoners dead, they were buried en masse in a trench in the sand of the riverbank.
An unknown person removed some of the prisoners’ skin. Small boxes purportedly containing the skin later were sold in Mankato.
At least two Dakota leaders, Little Six and Medicine Bottle, escaped to Canada. They were captured and hanged at Fort Snelling in 1865.
Pike Island internment
During this time, more than 1,600 Dakota women, children and old men were held in an internment camp on Pike Island, flat land on the Minnesota River below Fort Snelling.
Because of horrible conditions, more than 300 died in the camp.
In March 1863 Congress declared the treaties null and void. The land ceded by the Dakota remained in place, but annuities to the Dakota ceased.
Congress also undertook proceedings to expel the Dakota people entirely from Minnesota. A bounty of $25 per scalp was placed on any Dakota found free within the boundaries of the state.
The only exception to this legislation applied to 208 Mdewakanton, who remained neutral or assisted white settlers in the conflict.
Most of the Dakota already had fled to the northwest.
The banishment did not apply to the Ojibwe, Minnesota’s largest tribe, which did not participate in the war.
In May Dakota survivors still in southern Minnesota were put on steamboats and relocated to the Crow Creek Reservation in the southeastern Dakota Territory. Many of the Dakota wre later moved to the Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska.
Little Crow’s death
Little Crow was forced to retreat in September. He stayed briefly in Canada but soon returned to Minnesota. He was killed on July 3, 1863, near Hutchinson, while gathering raspberries with his teenage son. The pair was on the land of white settler Nathan Lamson, who shot at them to collect bounties.
For killing Little Crow, the state granted Lamson an additional $500 bounty. For his part in the warfare, Little Crow’s son was sentenced to death by a military tribunal, a sentence then commuted to a prison term.
Once it was discovered that the body was of Little Crow, his skull and scalp were kept by the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. The trophies were held until 1971, when the state returned the remains to Little Crow’s grandson.
After the expulsion of the Dakota, some refugees and warriors made their way to Lakota lands. Battles continued between Minnesota regiments and combined Lakota and Dakota forces through 1864.
Sibley with 2,000 men pursued them into Dakota Territory and defeated them in four skirmishes in 1863, forcing the Dakota to retreat farther.
America’s desire for control of the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota prompted the government to authorize an offensive in 1876 in what would be called the Great Sioux War. By 1881 the majority of the Dakota had surrendered.
In 1890 the Wounded Knee Massacre ended Dakota resistance.
Dakota uprising commenced a long fight, ending with Wounded Knee massacre
By Tim Krohn
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