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Tribal Historical Overview - The Dakota Conflict

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The Dakota Conflict

Causes of the Great Dakota Conflict

Originally known as the Great Sioux Massacre, Minnesota or Sioux Uprising, a conflict arose which involved the Dakota and settlers in the Minnesota Valley. Under pressure from government agents and missionaries, many Dakotas were giving up traditional ways and adopting the ways of white men. Many cut their long hair, wore white man’s clothing, plowed the land and worshiped the white man’s God. A conflict was developing between the Dakota who clung to the old ways, and those who were adopting the new. Tensions were heightened by the policy of the government agents who would give food and supplies to the “Cut-Hairs” (Indians’ who had taken up farming) while denying them to those Indians who refused to become like the whites. Warriors, on the other hand, were resisting the pressure to change Dakota ways, and organized a soldier’s lodge and other secret societies to preserve Dakota tribal traditions.

From the Dakota standpoint, the causes of the outbreak of 1862 were many. Big Eagle, a Mdewakanton, gave this account:

There was great dissatisfaction among the Indians
over many things the whites did. The whites would
not let them go to war against their enemies. This
was right, but the Indians did not then know it. Then
the whites were always trying to make the Indians
give up their life and live like white men —go to
farming, work hard and do as they did —and the
Indians did not know how to do that, and did not
want to anyway. It seemed too sudden to make such
a change. If the Indians had tried to make the whites
live like them, the whites would have resisted, and it
was the same way with many Indians. The Indians
wanted to live as they did before the treaty of
Traverse Des Sioux —go where they pleased and
when they pleased; hunt game wherever they could
find it, sell their furs to the traders and live as
they could.

Then the Indians did not think the traders had
done right. The Indians bought goods from them
on credit, and when the government payments came,
the traders were on hand with their books, which
showed that the Indians owed so much, and as the
Indians kept no books they could not deny their
accounts, but had to pay them, and sometimes the
traders got all their money. I do not say that the
traders always cheated and lied about these accounts.
I know many of them were honest men and kind and
accommodating, but since I have been a citizen I
know that many white men, when they go to pay
their accounts, often think them too large and refuse
to pay them, and they go to law about them and
there is much bad feeling.

Big Eagle went on…

Then many of the white men often abused the
Indians and treated them unkindly. Perhaps they
had excuse, but the Indians did not think so. Many
of the whites always seemed to say by their manner
when they saw an Indian, “I am better than you, and
the Indians did not like this. There was an excuse
for this, but the Dakotas did not believe there were
better men in the world than they.
(Narrative Source:
Jerome Big Eagle, “A Sioux Story of the War,”
Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society 6
(1894): p. 312–400:) in Anderson & Woolworth,
1988, pp. 23, 24)

In 1862, there was a long, harsh winter, and crop failure among the Dakotas had been severe the previous year. As a result the Dakotas were starving. Rumors that the government was financially strapped (due to the Civil War) and might not make the promised treaty payment caused great unrest among the Dakotas. Amounting to $10 per person, the money was due the Dakota in late June, but had not arrived by mid-August. No one knew when the treaty payments might come. Adding to this hardship, the traders closed their stores and cut off credit to the Dakota until the treaty cash arrived.

In early August 1862, 5,000 hungry Dakotas gathered near Yellow Medicine (Pajutzee) River at the upper agency, to demand the food and supplies due them. After being refused by government agents, they stormed the agency warehouse and took 100 sacks of flour.

Sioux at Pajutzee
Sioux at Pajutzee. Sioux assembled in front of the Missionary’s house, taken just
before the Dakota Conflict of 1862. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

In order to calm the disturbance, a military detachment was called and soldiers pointed a cannon at the Dakota and the warehouse and threatened to blow it up. Little Crow, traditional Chief of the Dakota, intervened and urged that supplies be given, saying that the traders could be reimbursed by the government when the proper authorizations came through. (Coleman & Camp, 1988, p. 9) Little Crow said, “When men are hungry, they help themselves.” A trader named Andrew J. Myrick, refusing Little Crow’s compromise said, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” The Indians sat in silence while Myrick’s remark was translated for them. When they heard it in their own language, they were outraged. Tensions were eased and fighting was averted when an agent sent for soldiers from nearby Fort Ridgely. Food was given to the Dakota to ease the growing tensions at the Upper Agency.

As the situation worsened, the influence of hereditary chiefs such as Wabasha and Little Crow declined, and the influence of more militant warriors became stronger. Many Dakotas blamed Little Crow for the 1858 Treaty that had resulted in the loss of half of the reservation that lay on the north side of the Minnesota River. This area was now filling with settlers. Although the million-acre parcel was worth at least $5 an acre, the Dakota received 30 cents an acre, most of which went to the traders.

The incident which started the Dakota Conflict began when four Dakota warriors Killing Ghost, Breaking Up, Brown Wing, and Runs Against Something While Crawling, hunting near Acton, Minnesota, took some eggs from a farmer. Although he was starving, the warrior was urged to return the eggs. Unwilling to do so, he was chided as a coward. Hearing this, the warrior smashed the eggs. The warriors moved onto the farm encountering the postmaster and engaged him in a shooting match. The postmaster, his wife, her son, and adopted daughter, and some new settlers were killed. The Dakotas, believing that the tide of events could not be reversed, became committed to win the return of their lands. From August 17 to August 25, 1862, under the leadership of Chief Little Crow, traditional chief, the Dakota took over trading posts and attacked settlers. When the conflict ended, 450 settlers and soldiers had been killed. While most of the attacks occurred in scattered settlements, the Dakota raided Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, hoping to clear the Minnesota Valley of its most important settlements. The Dakotas had failed to take either Fort Ridgely or New Ulm. Convinced from the beginning that the war could not be won, Little Crow and a number of followers retreated to the plains. (Coleman & Camp, p. 33)

On October 12, 1862, the Army under General Henry H. Sibley moved against the Dakotas, disarmed and put into chains all of the men. All together, they numbered 400. From October 25 to November 5, 1862, 392 cases were heard and death sentences were handed out to 307 Dakota warriors, that number was later reduced to 303. (Coleman & Camp, p. 33) On December 6, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln approved the execution of 39 Dakota warriors, later reduced to 38. On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hung in a mass execution at Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in this nation’s history.

Early sources termed the outbreak as one of the worst of American history because it sparked a series of Indian wars on the northern plains. It was not until the middle 1960s that researchers were able to sort out the causes of the conflict, and tell the Dakota’s side of the events. As a result, in 1987, one-hundred years after the Dakota Conflict, the Governor of Minnesota declared a “Year of Reconciliation” between the Dakota and the state of Minnesota.

Dakota Removal

Dakota Removal map
Dakota Removal. 771 Dakota men,
women, and children were
shipped by river boat to the
Crow Creek Reservation, and 547
were transported to Hannibal,
Missouri. (Map by Cassie
Theurer, adapted from original
by Alan Ominsky)

On November 7, 1862, 1,700 Dakota women, children, and a few old men, were taken to an internment camp at Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Between April and May 1863, two boats carrying 1,700 people were shipped from Fort Snelling to St. Louis and Hannibal, Missouri, and then transferred by train and boat to what is now the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota.

In the spring of 1866, the federal government realizing that Crow Creek was unfit for habitation, moved the surviving 1,000 Dakota down the Missouri River, near the Niobrara River, to what is now known as the Santee Reservation. Other Sisseton and Wahpeton continued to hunt buffalo throughout the territory, but eventually settled near Devils Lake, which they called Spirit Lake, “Mni Wakan,” in the northern section of the region. These residents continuously occupied the Spirit Lake Reservation. Descendants of the Dakotas who fled to Canada remain today and many Dakotas travel there to participate in ceremonies with their relatives who reside on reserves.

Continue to the Creation of the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation...