By the time the Battle of Wood Lake took place, the Dakota Conflict was all but over.
The war that began a few months prior with the killings of a five settlers in Meeker County’s Acton Township had resulted in hundreds of lives lost.
But the momentum, by late September, was well in the favor of white settlers. The Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 25, 1862, in Yellow Medicine County in western Minnesota lasted just a few hours — but it proved to be the beginning of the end.
“I don’t think they had a prayer in the long run, and Little Crow knew that,” said Allen Woolworth, an historian who spent several decades with the Minnesota Historical Society. “He was a reluctant leader. He’d been to D.C., he’d seen their weapons. He knew it was hopeless.”
In early September, Col. Henry Sibley, leading army units that had marched over from Fort Snelling, attempted to negotiate with Little Crow. But they couldn’t come to an agreement on an exchange of captives, and no accord was reached.
So Sibley marched 1,400 men nine days to Fort Ridgely where they prepared for battle. For days, though, Sibley waited before starting to fight. He wanted food shipments to arrive before starting. He also wanted his inexperienced soldiers to have more time to prepare.
When the battle started, it began by accident. A small group of soldiers was heading out hunting. As they rolled their wagons down the road, some of the wagons were riding along on the side of the road and were heading directly toward hiding Dakota warriors. Feeling that they had no choice, the Dakota opened fire.
Hearing the battle had begun, reinforcements came. Many of the army soldiers who fought in the Battle of Wood Lake had just returned from fighting Confederate soldiers in Civil War battles.
The battle lasted about two hours, and the Dakota were no match for the settlers. Sibley received a promotion to brigadier general. Chief Mankato was killed by a cannon ball.
“It was really quite a nasty thing,” Woolworth said of the Dakota conflict. “People fled to places like Mankato, St. Peter, Henderson, St. Paul, Wisconsin, even into Iowa. Twenty-three southwestern counties were depopulated. Livestock were left to roam. It was quite a serious economic loss.”
After the fight, Sibley and his troops marched 10 miles to an area near Granite Falls called Camp Release, the site where the Dakota had held their prisoners.
Sibley would later write, “The Indians and half-breeds assembled ... in considerable numbers, and I proceeded to give them very briefly my views of the late proceedings; my determination that the guilty parties should be pursued and overtaken, if possible, and I made a demand that all the captives should be delivered to me instantly, that I might take them to my camp.”
The Dakota released 91 white settlers and about 150 so-called “mixed-blood” captives right away. Within a few days, they released the rest. A total of 269 were released.
After that, about 1,200 Indians were taken into custody. By the end of the war, about 2,000 of them would face trial at Camp Release.