The Dakota war


One of the problems with public education is that curricula, teachers, and teaching materials oversimplify history.  We may certainly understand why this is so at the elementary level, but not as children progress into secondary schools.  Another possible explanation for oversimplification is that what most students know of history, they glean exclusively from their teacher’s lectures.  Few high school students today read and comprehend at “grade level.” Children who cannot read (or understand) have no interest in it[1].  There is no “love of reading” in our society today.  Social media toys have replaced books, and video games have replaced night time reading.  Parents today are themselves poor models, for reading.  Additionally, state curriculum and teaching materials simplify history to such an extent that its relevance is no longer self-evident.

There is far more to history than black and white, good, or evil, or winners and losers.  What students should gather from the past is that (a) some good people exercise poor judgment, (b) some thoroughly unpleasant actors occasionally surprise us by doing good things, and (c) that to perceive such things, a reader of history must always keep an open mind —not to excuse unacceptable past behavior, but rather to understand the circumstances under which unpleasant events happened in the first place —and that, there are consequences.  Finally, history students must learn (d) that two people can observe the same event, and come away with two completely different perspectives of what happened and why. 

Treaties with the Dakotas

In 1851, the United States government and Dakota leaders negotiated two treaties.  The first was the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux on 23 July, and the second was the Treaty of Mendota on 5 August.  Afterward, the Dakota Indians confined themselves to a reservation area twenty miles wide and 120-miles long adjacent to the upper Minnesota River.  Article III of each treaty specified the size of the reservation.  The United States government guaranteed that the Dakota Indians would never receive promised compensation when the U.S. Senate deleted Article III (without any effort to renegotiate either treaty).  Ultimately, corrupt Indian agents siphoned off much of the promised payment or applied it to Dakota’s debts with white traders[2].

After Minnesota achieved statehood on 11 May 1858, representatives of several Dakota bands, led by Little Crow[3], traveled to Washington, D.C., to insist that the “great white fathers” fulfill their treaty obligations.  Little Crow, as a primary spokesperson, was a simple, uneducated man.  Skillful government lawyers fooled and out-maneuvered him into giving up half of their meager allotment along the Minnesota River and the Indian’s rights to the quarry at Pipestone.  It was thus that Little Crow lost credibility with his people and ended up “disgraced.”

White settlers divided the northern half of the Dakota reservation into two townships.  Logging and agriculture on these plots of land gradually eliminated surrounding forests and prairies —the effect of which was a significant disruption of the tribe’s seasonal activities: hunting, fishing, and farming.  With an increasing number of white settlers hunting for game to feed their families, white hunters dramatically reduced the availability of wild game (bison, elk, deer, and bear), which equated to a decrease in the availability of meat in southern and western Minnesota.  It also harmed the tribe’s ability to sell or trade fur for other goods.  Beyond this, the land “granted” to the Dakota was unsuitable for agriculture.  Within a short time, the Dakota people expressed extreme displeasure over their land loss, the lack of promised compensation, broken treaties, food shortages, and white encroachments. 

Prelude to War

On 4 August 1862, representatives of the northern Santee Sioux met at the Upper Sioux Agency in the northwestern part of the reservation and successfully negotiated their right to obtain food.  However, when two other Dakota bands made the same attempt with the Lower Sioux Agency on 15 August, requesting much-needed supplies, Indian Agent (and state Senator) Thomas Galbraith[4] rejected the Indian’s request.  When the Sioux argued that their people were starving, Andrew Myrick (as a representative of white traders) reportedly told them to eat grass or their own dung —he didn’t care which.  There is another version of this story, but it is hardly an improvement.

On 16 August, treaty payments arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and promptly taken the next day to Fort Ridgely.  But on that day, four young Dakota braves were hunting near Acton Township.  When white settlers discovered that one of the Indians was stealing eggs from their henhouse, and tried to capture him, the Dakota brave ended up killing five whites.  Later in the day, the Dakotas convened a war council, and Chief Little Crow reluctantly agreed to a plan designed to drive out the white settlements.  Not every Sioux band agreed to this course of action; four-thousand members of the northern tribes refused any participation.

The Dakota Offensive

On 18 August, Little Crow led a war party that attacked the Redwood Agency, and Andrew Myrick was one of the first killed in the assault.  When state militia later discovered Myrick’s body, his mouth was full of grass.  The war party destroyed all settlement buildings, which gave the settlers time to escape across the river at Redwood Ferry.  State authorities sent militia Company B to quell the uprising, but Little Crow soon defeated them.  Captain John Marsh and twenty-four troopers lost their lives.  Throughout the day, Little Crow’s war party attacked and killed white settlers at Milton, Leavenworth, and Sacred Heart —nearly wiping out all whites in the area.

Confident with their initial successes, Little Crow continued his offensive with assaults on New Ulm, Minnesota, on 19 and 23 August.  Little Crow decided not to attack heavily armed Fort Ridgely but did attack the adjacent town, again killing many whites.  Initially, the settlers at New Ulm successfully defended their village, but eventually, the Dakota breached the town’s defenses and burned it to the ground.

On 20 and 22 August, the Dakota attacked Fort Ridgeley.  They could not breach the fort’s defenses, but they successfully ambushed and destroyed a relief party sent to reinforce New Ulm.  It was a creative strategy to attack the fort because, in doing so, Little Crow prevented militia from supporting local settlements.  State milia initiated a series of counter-attacks but met with defeat at the Battle of Birch Coulee on 2 September 1862.  In this confrontation, two Dakota warriors died, while the state militia lost thirteen killed and 47 wounded.

Further north, Dakota warriors attacked stagecoach rest areas and river crossings adjacent to Red River Trails, a well-used trade route between Fort Garry (Canada) and St. Paul.  Indians made additional attacks against Fort Abercrombie between late-August and late-September, but white defenders repelled each assault.  Meanwhile, the Dakota War had the effect of stopping all steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River.  Mail carriers, stage drivers, and military couriers died while attempting to reach outlying settlements.

In a letter written to former Minnesota governor Henry H. Sibley[5] on 7 September 1862, Little Crow (apparently with some help) said, “… for the reason we have commenced this war, I will tell you it is on account of Major Galbrait[sic] we made a treaty with the government a big for what little we do get and then cant[sic] get it til[sic] our children was dieing[sic] with hunger.” What the Chief’s letter lacked in grammatical correctness, it made up for in its eloquence.

Army Reinforcements

Due to the Civil War demands, Abraham Lincoln was slow to respond to the Minnesotan’s pleas for help.  It wasn’t until 6 September when Lincoln directed General Pope to squash the Indian uprising.  Pope took command of six Minnesota infantry militia regiments (3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th, and 10th), augmented by mounted dragoons, light artillery, Iowa rangers, and elements of the 5th and 6th Iowa State Militia.

After the arrival of Pope’s forces, large scale fighting took place at the Battle of Wood Lake on 23 September.  After brief fighting along a skirmish line, the Dakota withdrew into a ravine where the militia charged and killed many braves.  In Iowa, meanwhile, citizens became alarmed by Little Crow’s aggressive assaults.  State officials embarked on a fort construction project that extended from Sioux City to Iowa Lake.  Iowans clearly remembered the Spirit Lake Massacre of 1857.  No sooner had the Dakota war party devastated Redwood Ferry, Iowa officials called up their militia and distributed them along the frontier.  There were no Indian attacks in Iowa, however.

 Dakota Surrender and Trials

 Most of the Dakota warriors surrendered shortly after the Battle of Wood Lake near Camp Release on 26 September 1862.  Camp Release was so-named because it was at this site where the Dakota released 269 of their captives to (then) Colonel Shelby.  The prisoners included 162 mixed-blood persons who were likely the offspring of Dakota women who had lived among white frontiersmen.  One-hundred-seven captives were white women and children.  The militia arrested and confined Dakota warriors before Colonel Shelby arrived to supervise the surrender.  The militia detained the Dakota warriors until court-martialed in November.  Of the 498 trials, 300 men received capital sentences (death).  President Lincoln commuted all such punishments except for 38, who the militia put to death.

Little Crow withdrew into Canada in September 1862 and remained there for several months before returning to Minnesota.  On 3 July 1863, while Little Crow and his teenage son picked berries near the farm of Nathan Lamson, Lamson, upon discovering Indians on his property, shot at them.  Little Crow died from his wounds, but his son escaped.  Lamson turned Little Crow’s body over to state authorities for a bounty.  State officials increased Lamson’s reward when they realized that the dead Indian was Little Crow.  Later arrested, little Crow’s son received a death sentence for his role in the uprising, but President Lincoln commuted the sentence to a term in prison.  Little Crow’s head went on display in St. Paul, Minnesota, until 1971[6].

There was nothing proper about the conduct of the military tribunals.  First, military officers who participated in the battles also presided over the tribunals, which made them emotionally subjective.  Trial officers largely ignored military law procedures.  Some of the trials lasted for less than five minutes; on one day, 42 Indians appeared before the tribunal and received a death sentence.  The Indians had no legal representation because the tribunals were military commissions.  The tribunals did not convict the Indians for murder, but rather for committing warfare against the United States.  President Lincoln conducted a formal review of each trial; no appellate court ever saw the tribunal’s records of proceedings.  The Dakota trials were the only instance in history where Indians stood before a tribunal for their uprising.

The Dakota Indians were not without a few allies, however.  One of these was an Episcopal bishop of Minnesota named Henry Whipple.  Whipple was a reformer of U.S. Indian policy.  When he learned of these death sentences, he published an open letter condemning the white response to the uprising and correctly concluding that the problem was not so much with the Indians as with Indian policy and abuses by Indian agents.  Whipple also traveled to Washington to ask Lincoln for leniency.  General Pope and U.S. Senator Morton S. Wilkinson warned Lincoln that Minnesota’s people were in no mood for leniency.  As predicted, white Minnesotans loudly protested Lincoln’s final determination until offered “compensation,” which they happily accepted.

The Executions

On 26 December 1862, at Mankato, Minnesota, the Army executed, by hanging, 38 Dakota braves[7].  It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.  The hanging was a public performance on a single scaffold platform.  Once a medical officer pronounced the Indians dead, white soldiers shoved them into a large trench in the riverbank sand.  Later, medical doctors asked for the human remains of these Indians so that they could teach medical students about the human body.


On the surface (and, perhaps, even below it), the Dakota War may seem to illustrate the ugliness of frontier settlers toward the Sioux Indians in Minnesota.  Rational men, particularly those directly affected by the conflict, might agree that the Indians got what they deserved.  But in evaluating what happened, with the advantage of hindsight, intelligent men must also consider the opposite (Indian) point of view.  For instance, we might ask ourselves, in placing ourselves in the shoes of those Indian braves, how would we react to starving wives and children and broken treaties?  We don’t know why an Indian would kill five men for a few eggs, but neither do we know the event’s circumstances.  Did the settlers corner the Indian?  Was the brave threatened?  Was he scared?  Was he fighting in self-defense?

From the “white man’s” perspective, what happened in 1862 had life-changing consequences.  In Brown County, Indians killed 122 settlers, including fifty in Milford Town.  New Ulm gave up 30 settlers.  These were not merely random numbers or statistics; they were fathers, husbands, brothers, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, grandparents.  How does anyone remain objective when they’ve had to give up a loved one?

In 1987, the State of Minnesota declared a year of reconciliation with the Dakota Sioux.  People remembered that in 1962, Minnesotans had parades and celebrations of the war one-hundred years earlier.  Twenty-five years later, people living in Minnesota began to consider how the war impacted the Dakota Indians, particularly those who never lifted a hand against the white settlers.  State historical societies are attempting to present the history of the Dakota War in another light.  There were plenty of wrongs committed on both sides, and the lingering hate over 125 years did nothing to repair any of the damage or assuage anyone’s sense of outrage.  Do good people let their neighbors starve, even if they have a different color of skin, a different language, or another religious foundation?

What are our children learning in school?  They are told that America’s history proves that white society is a plague upon the earth.  There are plenty of classroom discussions about Indian conflicts, but few can approach the debate from an objective/rational perspective.  There are plenty of opportunities for American society to advance, but not until good men are willing to sit down and learn from the tragic past.  Today, the poorest group of people in the entire country are the American Indians.  What about that, America?  We may not have participated in the Indian Wars; we never knew anyone in our family who died from a tomahawk or warclub, yet today we’ve long-removed the American Indian from plain sight.  Hiding American Indians is not a mistake—it’s by design.  What is the right thing to do?  Ignore the past, or learn from it?  More importantly, assuming we’ve learned something from the past, shouldn’t good people also act on it?


  1. Anderson, G., and Alan Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862.  Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.
  2. Beck, P. N. Soldier, Settler, and Sioux: Fort Ridgeley and the Minnesota River Valley, 1853-1867.  South Dakota: Pine Hill Press, 2000.
  3. Beck, P. N. Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
  4. Berg, S. W. 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End.  New York: Pantheon Press, 2012.
  5. Haymond, J. A. The Infamous Dakota War Trials of 1862: Revenge, Military Law, and the Judgment of History.  Jefferson: McFarland Press, 2016.
  6. Schultz, D.  Over The Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.


[1] Most entering high school freshmen read/comprehend at the fifth-grade level.  All high school texts require 8th-grade level vocabulary and comprehension.

[2] None of the American Indians were capitalists; they had a limited understanding of debt.  After 1860, due to the United States’ involvement in the civil war, the federal government did not have sufficient monetary resources to make good on promised compensation to the Dakota people.

[3]  Little Crow (also, Thaóyate Dúta) (1810-1863) was a chief of the Mdewakanton band.  Little Crow was one of the Indian negotiators in 1851.

[4] Likely, Thomas Galbraith was temperamentally the last person who should ever serve as an Indian Agent.  His rude treatment of the Dakota led directly to Sioux hostilities.  During these negotiations, both he and Andrew Myrick made derogatory comments about the Dakota—insults that the Indians could not let pass.

[5] Governor Sibley served from 1858-1860.  He served as a general officer of volunteers in the Union army during the civil war (1862-1866).  During the Dakota War, he served as a brigadier general of Minnesota volunteers.  Henry Hastings Sibley was a distant cousin of Confederate officer Henry Hopkins Sibley.

[6] Minnesota eventually returned Little Crow’s head and scalp to his descendants for proper burial in 1971.

[7] Two additional Dakota braves, one named Little Six and the other Medicine Bottle, managed to escape into Canada.  Minnesota bounty hunters later tracked them down, captured them, drugged them, and returned to Fort Snelling, where officials hanged them in 1865.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, History, Justice, Minnesota, Pioneers, Sioux Indians, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Dakota war

  1. kidme37 says:

    A story that will never get any better.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.