The beginning of the war is usually attributed to the killing of five immigrants on August 17, 1862, in Acton Township by four Dakota warriors from the Rice Creek village. Although this was the act that sparked the full-blown war, it occurred only after decades of conflict that could no longer be contained.
Minisota Makoce, or Land Where the Waters Reflect the Skies, is the ancient homeland of the Dakota people. By the early nineteenth century, the U.S. government was seeking access to those lands and fraudulently achieved its first Dakota land cession in the Treaty of 1805. Despite the fact that only two Dakota signatures were obtained on this treaty to represent the entire Sioux nation, once ratified it allowed the construction in 1819 of Fort Snelling. Protection of the fort allowed an influx of traders, soldiers, missionaries, and other immigrants, resulting in severe threats to the Dakota way of life. Dakota lands became increasingly desirable to immigrants; the U.S. government catered to that desire by securing further land cessions in the treaties of 1837, 1851, and 1858, eventually confining the Dakota to two small reservations (each approximately ten miles wide and seventy miles long), bordering the Minnesota River. The Sisitunwan and Wahpetunwan occupied the tract bordering the upper portion of the river, and the Bdewakantunwan and Wahpekute occupied the lower portion.
Not only were the Dakotas prevented from practicing their seasonal subsistence lifestyle, but, along with European-Americans came unceasing incursions on remaining Dakota lands and the accompanying depletion of game and other food sources. Cultural pressures also ensued from the invasion; missionaries worked incessantly with government agents and traders to eradicate Dakota cultural traditions and replace them with Western notions of civilization. Evidence of the deep factionalism resulting from decades of their colonizing efforts was apparent in the split between the Dakota cut-hair or farmer Indians, who yielded to those pressures, and the blanket Dakotas, who resisted them and attempted to maintain their former way of life.
Regardless of which path the Dakota chose, the winter of 1861–1862 was a time of starvation. The cut-hairs suffered a major crop failure the previous fall and fared no better than the blanket Dakotas attempting to survive on a meager game supply. The treaty payments expected in the summer of 1862 offered the only hope for fending off starvation for the eastern Dakotas and, when the payment of gold did not arrive, desperation set in. The tension was compounded when the Dakotas learned that Agent Thomas Galbraith held the treaty food supplies in a warehouse while he was awaiting the payment of gold so that he could distribute them together. When 5,000 Dakotas gathered at the Upper Agency on July 14 demanding what was rightfully theirs, Galbraith was forced to issue some provisions under threat of violence, but he kept the bulk of food beyond their reach. At the same time, traders with stores of food also refused to distribute food to the Dakotas. The callousness of white Minnesotans to Dakota starvation was captured in the statement made by trader Andrew Myrick, "If they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung!" By mid-August the Dakotas were in a life-and-death struggle and their level of tolerance had been breached. After the Acton killings, driving out the invaders seemed the only remaining solution for the Bdewakantunwan Dakotas.
Realizing that their actions would not go unnoticed or unpunished, the Dakota men responsible for the Acton killings returned to their village leader, Shakpe, and they gathered together a council of Bdewakantunwan warriors, including leaders such as Wabasha, Traveling Hail, Big Eagle, and Little Crow, to determine what course of action should be taken. Although many proclaimed the futility of a military action against an organized military force with tremendous firepower, Little Crow eventually agreed to lead the military struggle against the invading whites, and war was declared.
Their first act of war was waged at the Lower Sioux Agency on August 18, 1862. Myrick was one of the first casualties of the war and when he was found later his mouth was stuffed with grass. Word of the violence quickly spread among the white settlers, and many of them fled to nearby towns for safety or to Fort Ridgley, the only military post in the southwestern region of Minnesota. When news of the war reached Governor Alexander Ramsey in St. Paul the next day, he immediately commissioned Henry Hastings Sibley as a colonel and sent him with 1,400 troops to lead an expedition against the Dakotas. While the Dakotas initially had the element of surprise working in their favor, killing hundreds of immigrants and taking many European-Americans and mixed-bloods as prisoners, their offensive was short-lived. With European-American defenses quickly solidified and the arrival of Sibley's Sixth Minnesota Regiment, the Dakotas quickly shifted to a defensive position. When the Dakotas were unable to take the strongholds of Fort Ridgley and the town of New Ulm, Minnesota, it was clear that their war effort could not be sustained. The final battle was fought at Wood Lake on September 23, 1862, and the subsequent surrender of the Dakotas and release of the 269 prisoners at Camp Release three days later marked the European-Americans' victory in the United States–Dakota War of 1862. It also marked the beginning of a war of extermination against the Sioux and their forced removal.
In September 1862, Governor Ramsey had declared, "The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State." Once the war was quashed, Ramsey was free to implement his plan with the support of his angry citizenry, who were well aware that unhindered access to Dakota lands would be their final reward.
When the war ended, the Dakota could either flee or surrender. Those who fled made their way into Dakota Territory or northward into Canada. The 2,000 who eventually surrendered did so believing they would be treated humanely as prisoners of war, but they were wrong. The men were immediately separated from the women and children, shackled, and tried for war crimes. In a makeshift military tribunal, as many as forty-two cases were tried in a single day, some taking as few as five minutes. When the tribunal finished conducting the 392 trials on November 5, 307 Dakota men were sentenced to hanging and sixteen were sentenced to prison. In spite of their rulings, Sibley realized an executive order would be required before the sentences could be carried out and so the trial records were sent to Washington for President Abraham Lincoln's review. At 10 a.m, on December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Those with commuted death sentences were sent the following spring to Davenport, Iowa, where they were imprisoned for three years. By the time they were released in 1886, 120 men, or one-third of their population, had died.
The women and children who surrendered were treated similarly. On November 7, 1862, they were force-marched in a four-mile-long procession over 150 miles to a concentration camp erected at Fort Snelling. An unrecorded number of Dakotas died along the way and hundreds more during the winter of 1862–1863 at Fort Snelling. While roughly 1,600 arrived at the fort on November 13, by the time they left the concentration camp the following spring, only 1,300 were counted. They boarded boats that were sent down the Mississippi River to St. Louis, then up the Missouri River to the newly created Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota. In spite of these already harsh actions, to be certain the Dakota population would be eradicated from the state, Governor Ramsey instituted a bounty on Dakota scalps. Beginning at $25 and eventually reaching $200, the bounties offered enough, at the time, for a European-American immigrant to establish a small farm. Within this context, Little Crow, the leader of Dakota resistance in 1862, was killed while picking raspberries with his son in the summer of 1863 near Hutchinson, Minnesota. At the close of the war, Little Crow had fled with other members of his family, but he returned briefly in 1863 and was shot by an immigrant father and his son. The younger Chauncey Lamson received the bounty for Little Crow's scalp, and his father, Nathan Lamson, received a $500 reward for killing the Dakota leader of the war.
Ironically, the delayed gold payment that contributed to the start of the war was sent back to Washington and then redistributed later to European-American immigrants for depredations suffered during the war (totaling $1,370,374 in 1863–1864). After the war, the eastern Dakota treaties were unilaterally abrogated by the U.S. government, the Dakota people were exiled from their homeland, and their lands were opened for immigration. Approximately twenty-five years later, small numbers of Dakota began returning to Minnesota and eventually resettled on four tiny southern Minnesota reservations. The majority of Dakota remain in exile as the devastating consequences of the war have carried into the twenty-first century. While the war remains a painful topic for some non-Natives in Minnesota, they continue to benefit from the Dakota expulsion. On a broader scale, the United States– Dakota War of 1862 epitomizes the process of invasion, conquest, and colonization that characterizes the American government's actions against much of its indigenous population.
Waziyatawin Angela Wilson
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970; Weeks, Philip. 1990. Farewell, My Nation: The American Indian and the United States, 1820–1890. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson.