It was 1862, one year into one of the most tragic incidents in the history of the United States, the American Civil War. In Minnesota, many of the local men were fighting, either for the Union or Confederate Army, and their wives and children remained at home, and if possible they were protected by elderly family members, or in Texas by the Texas Rangers. However, some of the ranchers and farmers remained in the area, continuing to work on their land.
The women worked as well, either alongside their husbands on the farms, or as teachers and missionaries to the Santees, an eastern branch of the Sioux Nation. (The Santee are also known as the Eastern Dakota. The Western Dakota are now known as the Lakota.) The teachers and missionaries were actually working with the U.S. government in their attempts to "ease Indians into white society."
The white traders provided supplies to the Dakota on credit, then collected the annuities for the Dakota from the government as payment for these goods. The annuities became smaller and smaller and sometimes never even arrived at the reservation. When a particularly hard winter hit the land in 1862 and what little was left of the annuities was delayed in arriving, the Dakota nearly reached a point of starvation. They resumed their hunting practices, but their hearts were filled with anger and resentment. They demanded that all future annuities be delivered to them directly through their Indian Agent, Thomas J. Galbraith. The traders were "offended," and refused to deliver any further supplies to the Dakota under this arrangement. It was a deadly impasse.
The younger generation of the Dakota felt as if their elders had betrayed their ancestors and lost their birthright through the sale of the land. The Dakota were fighting a generation gap within their tribe and fighting with the government for the survival of their people. It was a difficult time for the leaders of the Sioux who struggled to keep the peace.
One of the braves spotted a nest filled with chicken eggs on the land near the home of Robinson Jones, a farmer. As the young brave gathered the eggs, another young man in the hunting party warned him that the eggs did not belong to him and taking the eggs could cause trouble between the white people and the Dakota. "I am not afraid of the whites," the young brave replied, and to prove his point, he mounted his horse, road to the nearby home and murdered the farmer, his wife and daughter, and two neighbors, then stole the horses of the farmer and his neighbor and raced back to the reservation.
Thus began the Minnesota Massacre of 1862, also known as the Dakota War of 1862; the Sioux Uprising; the Dakota Uprising; the Sioux Outbreak; and Little Crow's War.
When the young braves entered the camp on horseback their family members immediately understood the implications--the horses were stolen, and a stolen horse in the Old West meant a hanging without trial. Then the tribal elders learned the rest of the story, and realized the young braves would be shot on sight. When they confessed to the murders, the elders called a council and the chiefs argued long into the night--should they turn the four braves over to the military, or start a war? If they did not turn the braves in for murder, the declaration of war would be automatically understood. They chose to fight. Chief Little Crow, the only chief who argued against a battle, realized he had lost the argument and ordered an attack on the nearby Redwood Falls government agency the following morning.
Surprisingly, the warriors met little resistance. The farmers, missionaries, and settlers were taken by surprise. They believed they had treated the Dakota kindly and with fairness and did not expect the attack. Most of the settlers were killed where they were found, working in their homes and fields. One young woman was tied to a table and her legs were slashed open while her mother looked on in horror. Another young woman, Julia Smith, stood in front of her mother to protect her from the attack. Both women were killed by the same bullet. Eleven-year-old Merton Eastlick watched as his father and two brothers were executed. When his mother was shot and lay dying at his feet she begged him to save his baby brother. Merton bundled the child into his arms and carried the infant 50 miles to the next town seeking help. Remarkably, Merton, his brother, and his mother survived and the three were reunited when the battle ended.
Most of the victims, according to many historians, had never participated in any act to deliberately provoke the Dakota. It was a matter of timing--they were white, and they were there. However, those who had provoked the Dakota did not stand a chance of escaping. They were deliberately tracked down and murdered. Storekeeper Andrew Myrick, who refused credit to the Dakota and was often overheard commenting in public that "they can eat grass," was found dead in a field with his mouth stuffed full of grass. He had been captured and killed while trying to escape from the second floor window of the Redwood Agency on the second day of the fighting.
On August 19 the Dakota attacked the New Ulm settlement. They started toward Fort Ridgely, killing many settlers in between, then decided the heavily-guarded fort was too much of a risk, so they turned back toward New Ulm, but the settlers of New Ulm were alerted in advance and organized in the center of town. The Dakota warriors started the town on fire, but a sudden thunderstorm saved many of the buildings. When the Dakota left, militia from nearby towns and volunteer infantry from Fort Ridgely arrived to build barricades. Instead of returning to New Ulm, the warriors ambushed a relief party headed for the town, then decided to take their chances with Fort Ridgely, attacking on August 20 and 22. They were unsuccessful with their attempt to take the fort, but the soldiers were also unable to leave the fort to protect outlying settlements and small bands of Dakota continued to attack the settlers throughout the day.
On September 2, 1862, the Dakota attacked again, this time at Birch Coulee where 150 soldiers were camped. The soldiers were trying to help survivors from the first attacks and to bury the dead. After three hours of fighting, 13 soldiers had died and 47 were wounded, but only two Dakota were killed and the Dakota believed this was a victory and a sign that they should continue. Later that afternoon, however, 240 additional soldiers arrived from Fort Ridgely and the Dakota moved on to the north.
As they moved northward, the warriors attacked the settlers and workers at stagecoach stops and river crossings in the Red River Valley. According to an article on Wikipedia, employees of the Hudson's Bay Company sought refuge in the nearby Fort Abercrombie near Fargo, North Dakota. Fort Abercrombie was also attacked, but it was well-defended and the warriors eventually left when a relief company arrived from Fort Snelling. Those who sought refuge at Fort Abercrombie were move to St. Cloud.
The attacks continued. In addition to the rising number of murdered settlers, Minnesota was also facing an economic crisis as its steamboat and flatboat trade ended, mail carriers, stagecoach drivers, and military couriers were dying alongside the settlers, and the surviving settlers were deserting the area in large numbers. The local governments repeatedly begged for help from President Lincoln, but his troops were fighting the Civil War battles.
Lincoln finally agreed to assist on September 6, 1862 by sending General John Pope to command the 3rd, 4th, 9th and 10th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Divisions who were sent into battle with the Dakota as quickly as they were formed. The Governor of Minnesota, Alexander Ramsey, called on the previous governor, Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley, to help, as well. On September 23, at the Battle of Wood Lake, the 6th and 7th Minnesota Infantry Divisions managed an overwhelming defeat of the Dakota warriors, bringing the Minnesota Massacre to a bloody end.
When it was over, 2000 Dakota men, women and children surrendered to the U.S. military, though most of them were believed to be innocent and sent back to their homes. Only 392 were sent to trial, and 307 were sentenced to death. Bishop Whipple of Minnesota traveled to Washington, D.C. to plead for clemency for the Dakota, arguing that the fault lay with the U.S. Government and their numerous broken treaties, but Colonel Sibley insisted on a quick execution. On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hanged simultaneously in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest one-day execution in American History. (Although I have received a comment from a reader that there were more men executed at Goliad, Goliad was part of Mexico at the time of the Goliad Massacre.)
Three Dakota Chiefs managed to escape the initial trial and execution. Shakopee and Medicine Bottle crossed the border into Canada, but they were recognized, drugged, roped to dog sleds and returned to Fort Snelling where they also faced the gallows. The photographs of the two men awaiting trial are heart-wrenching. Chief Little Crow also managed to escape. It is his story that intrigues me most as he was blamed by both his own people and the U.S. Government. I could not find information on where he was hiding, but he eventually returned to Minnesota. He was searching for food and stopped in a field to pick berries when he was recognized and shot to death by a local farmer.
There are no accurate records regarding the exact number of settlers killed during the Minnesota Massacre, but estimates from various sources place the number at around 800. The acts of torture and murder were captured by a local artist, John Stevens, and his quickly-sketched paintings later toured the country. In spite of the crudeness of his artistic renderings, the visual display of torture and murder fueled the prejudice against Indians for many years to come, while the hangings of the 38 warriors created even more tension between the Sioux and the American government. The Minnesota Massacre was therefore one of the most influential events in Indian relations. Although it is believed that the majority of the Dakota helped protect the settlers and even hid them from the warriors during the month-long massacre, when the event was over, the U.S. government forced many of the remaining Eastern Dakota to leave Minnesota forever.