Dakota Conflict

Dakota War of 1862

The Dakota War of 1862 (also known as the Sioux Uprising, Sioux Outbreak of 1862, the Dakota Conflict, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, or Little Crow's War) was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of the eastern Sioux or Dakota which began on August 17, 1862, along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota and ended with a mass execution of 38 Dakota on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, Minnesota.

Throughout the late 1850s, treaty violations by the United States and late or unfair annuity payments by Indian agents caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota. Traders with the Dakota previously had demanded that annuity payments be given to them directly (introducing the possibility of unfair dealing between the agents and the traders), but in mid-1862, the Dakota demanded the annuities directly from their agent, Thomas J. Galbraith. The traders refused to provide any more supplies on credit. Thus negotiations reached an impasse as a result of the bellicosity of the traders' representative, Andrew Myrick. On August 17, 1862, five American settlers were killed by four Dakota on a hunting expedition. That night, a council of Dakota decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley in an effort to drive whites out of the area. Continued battles between the Dakota against settlers and later, the United States Army, ended with the surrender of most of the Dakota forces. There has never been an official report on the number of settlers killed, but estimates range from 300 to 800. Historian Don Heinrich Tolzmann says until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was the highest civilian wartime toll in U.S. history. By late December, more than a thousand Dakota were interned in jails in Minnesota, and 38 Dakota were hanged in the largest one-day execution in American history on December 26, 1862. In April 1863, the rest of the Dakota were expelled from Minnesota to Nebraska and South Dakota, and their reservations were abolished by the United States Congress.


Previous treaties

The United States and Dakota leaders negotiated the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux on July 23, 1851 and Treaty of Mendota on August 5, 1851 which ceded large tracts of land in Minnesota Territory to the United States. In exchange for money and goods, the Dakota agreed to live on a twenty mile (32  km) wide Indian reservation centered on a 150 mile (240 km) stretch of the upper Minnesota River.

However, the United States Senate deleted Article 3 of each treaty during the ratification process. Much of the promised compensation never arrived, was lost or was effectively stolen due to corruption in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, annuity payments guaranteed to the Dakota often were provided directly to traders instead (to pay off debts that the Dakota incurred with the traders).

Encroachments on Dakota lands

When Minnesota became a state on May 11, 1858, representatives of several Dakota bands led by Little Crow traveled to Washington, D.C. to make negotiations about the enforcement of the treaties. However, the northern half of the reservation along the Minnesota River was lost, and rights to the quarry at Pipestone, Minnesota, were also ceded by the Dakota. This was a major blow to the standing of Little Crow in the Dakota community.

The ceded land was divided into townships and plots for settlement. Logging and agriculture on these plots eliminated surrounding forests and prairies, which interrupted the Dakota yearly cycle of farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering wild rice. Hunting by settlers also extensively reduced wild game such as bison, elk, whitetail deer, and bear. The Dakota in southern and western Minnesota not only used the game for food, but also relied on the sale of furs to traders to purchase supplies.

Payments guaranteed by the treaties were not made, due to Federal preoccupation with the American Civil War. Most land in the river valley was not arable, and hunting could no longer support the Dakota community. Losing land to new white settlers, non-payment, past broken treaties, plus food shortages and famine following crop failure led to great discontent among the Dakota people. Tension increased through the summer of 1862.

Breakdown of negotiations

On August 4, 1862, representatives of the northern Sissetowan and Wahpeton Dakota bands met at the Upper Sioux Agency in the northwestern part of the reservation and successfully negotiated to obtain food. However, when two other bands of the Dakota, the southern Mdewakanton and the Wahpekute, turned to the Lower Sioux Agency for supplies on August 15, 1862, they were rejected. Indian Agent (and Minnesota State Senator) Thomas Galbraith managed the area and would not distribute food without payment to these bands.

At a meeting of the Dakota, the United States government, and local traders, the Dakota representatives asked the representative for the traders, Andrew Myrick, to support their cause. His response was blunt: "So far as I'm concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung." The meeting quickly deteriorated into shouting, and negotiations failed.


Early fighting

On August 16, 1862, the treaty payments to the Dakota arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and were brought to Fort Ridgely the next day. However, it came too late to prevent violence. On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota men were on a hunting trip in Acton Township, Minnesota, where they stole food and killed five white settlers. Soon after, a Dakota war council was convened, and their leader, Little Crow, agreed to continue the attacks on the settlements in an effort to drive them out.

On August 18, 1862, Little Crow led a group that attacked the Lower Sioux (or Redwood) Agency. Andrew Myrick was among the first that was killed as he was discovered trying to escape through a second-floor window of a building at the agency. Myrick's body later was found with grass stuffed into his mouth. Buildings at the Lower Sioux Agency were taken and burned by the warriors; however, the time spent burning the buildings provided enough delay for many people to escape across the river at Redwood Ferry. Minnesota militia forces and B Company of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment sent to quell the uprising were defeated at the Battle of Redwood Ferry. Twenty-four soldiers, including the party's commander (Captain John Marsh), were killed in the battle. Throughout the day, Dakota war parties swept the Minnesota River Vally and near vicinity, killing a large number of settlers. Numerous settlements, including the Townships of Milford, Leavenworth, and Sacred Heart, were surrounded, burned, and nearly exterminated.

Early Dakota Offensives

Confident with their initial success, the Dakota continued their offensive and attacked the settlement of New Ulm, Minnesota on August 19, 1862, and again on August 23, 1862. Dakota warriors initially decided not to attack the heavily-defended Fort Ridgely along the river and instead turned toward the town, killing settlers along the way. By the time New Ulm itself was attacked, residents had organized defenses in the town center and were able to keep the Dakota at bay during the brief siege. However, Dakota warriors were able to penetrate parts of the defenses, and much of the town were burned. By that evening, a thunderstorm prevented further Dakota attacks and New Ulm was reinforced by regular soldiers and militia from nearby towns (including two companies of the 5th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry then stationed at Fort Ridgely), while the population continued to build barricades around the town.

During this period, Fort Ridgely was attacked by the Dakota on August 20 and 22, 1862. Although the Dakota were not able to take the fort, their ambush of a relief party from the fort to New Ulm on August 21 and the manpower expended in defense at the Battle of Fort Ridgely greatly reduced the strength of the American forces. The Dakota also undertook raids on farms and small settlements throughout south-central Minnesota and what was then eastern Dakota Territory.

Counterattacks by Minnesota militia against these raiding parties again resulted in a major defeat of American forces at the Battle of Birch Coulee on September 2, 1862. The battle began when the Dakota attacked a detachment of 150 American soldiers at Birch Coulee, from Fort Ridgely. The detachment had been sent out to find survivors, bury the American dead, and report on the location of Dakota fighters. A three-hour firefight began with an early morning assault. Thirteen soldiers were killed and 47 were wounded, while two Dakota were killed. A column of 240 soldiers from Fort Ridgely relieved the detachment at Birch Coulee the same afternoon.

Attacks in northern Minnesota

Further north, the Dakota attacked several unfortified stagecoach stops and river crossings along the Red River Trails, a settled trade route between Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) and Saint Paul, Minnesota in the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota and eastern Dakota Territory. Many settlers and employees of the Hudson's Bay Company and other local enterprises in this sparsely populated country took refuge in Fort Abercrombie, located in a bend of the Red River of the North about south of present day Fargo, North Dakota. Between late August and late September, the Dakota launched several attacks on Fort Abercrombie which were repelled by its defenders.

In the meantime, steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River came to a halt, and mail carriers, stage drivers and military couriers were killed while attempting to reach settlements such as Pembina, North Dakota, Fort Garry, St. Cloud, Minnesota and Fort Snelling. Eventually the garrison at Fort Abercrombie was relieved by a United States Army company from Fort Snelling and the civilian refugees were removed to St. Cloud.

Army reinforcements

Due to the demands of the Civil War, repeated appeals for assistance were necessary before President Abraham Lincoln appointed General John Pope to lead troops from the 3rd Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 4th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment to quell the violence. Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey also enlisted the help of Col. Henry Hastings Sibley (the previous governor) to aid in the effort.

After the arrival of a larger army force, the final large-scale fighting took place at the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept 23, 1862. According to the official report of Lt. Col. William R. Marshall of the 7th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, elements of the 7th Minnesota and the 6th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment (and a six-pounder cannon) were deployed equally in dugouts and in a skirmish line. After brief fighting, the forces in the skirmish line charged against the Dakota (then in a ravine) and defeated them overwhelmingly.

Among the Citizen Soldiers units in Sibley expeditions:

  • Captain Joseph F. Bean's Company "The Eureka Squad"
  • Captain David D. Lloyd's Company
  • Captain Calvin Potter's Company of Mounted Men
  • Captain Mark Hendrick's Battery of Light Artillery

Surrender of the Dakota

Most Dakota fighters surrendered shortly after the Battle of Wood Lake at Camp Release on September 26, 1862. The place was so-named because it was the site where 269 captives of the Dakota were released to the troops commanded by Col. Henry Sibley. The captives included 162 "mixed-bloods" and 107 whites, mostly women and children. Most of the Dakotas guilty of war crimes, however, left before Sibley arrived at Camp Release. The surrendered Dakota warriors were held until military trials took place in November 1862.

Little Crow was forced to retreat sometime in September 1862. He stayed briefly in Canada but soon returned to the Minnesota area. He was killed on July 3, 1863 near Hutchinson, Minnesota while gathering raspberries with his teenage son. The pair had wandered onto the land of white settler Nathan Lamson, who shot at them to collect bounties. Once it was discovered that the body was of Little Crow, his skull and scalp were put on display in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they remained until 1971. For killing Little Crow, Lamson was granted an additional $500 bounty, while Little Crow's son received a death sentence that was commuted to a prison term.


In early December, 303 Sioux prisoners were convicted of murder and rape by military tribunals and sentenced to death. Some trials lasted less than 5 minutes, and the proceedings neither were explained to the defendants, nor were the Sioux represented in court. President Abraham Lincoln personally reviewed the trial records, and he attempted to distinguish between those who had engaged in warfare against the United States versus those who had committed the crimes of rape and murder against civilians.

Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota and a reformer of U.S. policies towards Native Americans, urged Lincoln to proceed with leniency. Lincoln commuted the death sentences of 264 prisoners and allowed the execution of 39 others. One of the 39 condemned prisoners was granted a reprieve. The 38 remaining prisoners were executed by hanging on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, in what remains the largest mass execution in American history.


The mass execution was performed publicly on a single scaffold platform. Regimental surgeons pronounced the prisoners dead, and they then were buried en masse in a trench in the sand of the riverbank. Before they were buried, however, an unknown person nicknamed “Dr. Sheardown” possibly removed some of the prisoners' skin. Small boxes purportedly containing the skin later were sold in Mankato.

Medical Aftermath

Because of high demand for cadavers for anatomical study, several doctors requested the bodies after the execution. The grave was re-opened and the bodies were distributed among local doctors. The doctor who received the body of Mahpiya Okinajin (He Who Stands in Clouds) was William Worrall Mayo.

Years later, Mayo brought the body of Mahpiya Okinajin to Le Sueur, Minnesota, where Mayo dissected it in the presence of medical colleagues. Afterward, the skeleton was cleaned, dried and varnished, and Mayo kept it in an iron kettle in his home office. The identifiable remains of Mahpiya Okinajin and other Native Americans later were returned by the Mayo Clinic to a Dakota tribe for reburial per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.


The remaining convicted Indians stayed in prison that winter. The following spring, they were transferred to Rock Island, Illinois where they were held in prison for almost four years. By the time of their release, one third of the prisoners had died of disease. The survivors were sent with their families to Nebraska, who already had been expelled from Minnesota.

Pike Island Internment

During this time, more than 1600 Dakota women, children, and old men were held in an internment camp on Pike Island, near Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Living conditions were poor, and disease struck the camp, killing more than three hundred. In April 1863, the United States Congress abolished the reservation, declared all previous treaties with the Dakota null and void, and undertook proceedings to expel the Dakota people entirely from Minnesota. To this end, a bounty of $25 per scalp was placed on any Dakota found free within the boundaries of the state. The only exception to this legislation applied to 208 Mdewakanton who remained neutral or assisted white settlers in the conflict. In May of 1863, the survivors were forced aboard steamboats and relocated to Crow Creek, in the southeastern Dakota Territory, a place stricken by drought at the time. The survivors of Crow Creek were moved three years later to the Santee Reservation in Nebraska.

Firsthand accounts

Accounts by white participants, observers, and victims of the war often included eyewitness accounts. For example, the compilation by Charles Bryant titled "Indian Massacre in Minnesota" included these graphic descriptions of events, taken from an interview of Mrs. Justina Krieger, who witnessed these events and survived:

"Mr. Massipost had two daughters, young ladies, intelligent and accomplished. These the savages murdered most brutally. The head of one of them was afterward found, severed from the body, attached to a fish-hook, and hung upon a nail. His son, a young man of twenty-four years, was also killed. Mr. Massipost and a son of eight years escaped to New Ulm.

"The daughter of Mr. Schwandt, enceinte, was cut open, as was learned afterward, the child taken alive from the mother, and nailed to a tree. The son of Mr. Schwandt, aged thirteen years, who had been beaten by the Indians, until dead, as was supposed, was present, and saw the entire tragedy. He saw the child taken alive from the body of his sister, Mrs. Waltz, and nailed to a tree in the yard. It struggled some time after the nails were driven through it! This occurred in the forenoon of Monday, 18th of August, 1862.

Continued conflict

After the expulsion of the Dakota, some refugees and warriors made their way to Lakota lands. Battles continued between Minnesota regiments and combined Lakota and Dakota forces through 1864, as Col. Henry Sibley pursued the Sioux into Dakota Territory. Sibley's army defeated the Lakota and Dakota in three major battles in 1863: the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26, 1863, the Battle of Stony Lake on July 28, 1863, and the Battle of Whitestone Hill on September 3, 1863. The Sioux retreated further, but again faced an American army in 1864; this time, Gen. Alfred Sully led a force from near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and decisively defeated the Sioux at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864.

However, this would not be the last of the conflict between the United States and the Sioux. Within two years, encroachment on Lakota land would spark Red Cloud's War, and a desire for control of the Black Hills in South Dakota would prompt the American military to launch an offensive in 1876 in what would be known as the Black Hills War. By 1881, the majority of the Sioux had surrendered to American military forces, and in 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre ended all effective Sioux resistance and was the last major armed engagement between the United States and the Sioux.

Minnesota after the war

The Minnesota River valley and surrounding upland prairie areas were abandoned by most settlers during the war. Many of the families who fled their farms and homes as refugees never returned. Following the American Civil War, however, the area had been resettled and returned to an agricultural area by the mid-1870s.

The Lower Sioux Indian Reservation was reestablished at the site of the Lower Sioux Agency near Morton, and in the 1930s the even smaller Upper Sioux Indian Reservation was established near Granite Falls. Although some Dakota opposed the war, most were also expelled from Minnesota, including those who attempted to assist settlers. The Yankton Sioux chief Struck by the Ree deployed some of his warriors to this effect, but was not judged friendly enough to be allowed to remain in the state immediately after the war. However, by the 1880s a number of Dakota had moved back to the Minnesota River valley, notably the Goodthunder, Wabasha, Bluestone, and Lawrence families. They were joined by Dakota families who had been living under the protection of bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple and the trader Alexander Faribault.

By the late 1920s, the conflict began to pass into the realm of oral tradition in Minnesota. Eyewitness accounts were communicated first-hand to individuals who survived into the 1970s and early 1980s. The images of innocent individuals and families of struggling pioneer farmers being killed by Dakota have remained in the consciousness of the prairie communities of south-central Minnesota.

Monuments and memorials

A number of local monuments exist as reminders of white civilians killed during the war, including the Acton, Minnesota monument to those killed in the initial attack on the Howard Baker farm, the Guri Endreson monument in the Vikor Lutheran Cemetery near Willmar, Minnesota, and the Brownton, Minnesota monument to the White family. Members of the military killed in action are commemorated by a large stone monument in the parade ground of Fort Ridgely.

A monument in Reconciliation Park in Mankato, Minnesota commemorates the 38 Dakota hanged there, and two annual pow-wows are also held in remembrance. The Mankato Pow-wow, held each year in September, commemorates the lives of the condemned men, but also seeks to reconcile the white and Dakota communities. The Birch Coulee Pow-wow, held on Labor Day weekend, honors the lives of those who were hanged in the largest mass execution in United States history. There are also several stone statues near the site of the hanging in Mankato.

See also


  • Anderson, Gary and Alan Woolworth, editors. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862, Minnesota Historical Society Press (1988). ISBN 0-87351-216-2
  • Beck, Paul N., Soldier Settler and Sioux: Fort Ridgely and the Minnesota River Valley 1853–1867, Pine Hill Press, Inc. (2000). ISBN 0-931170-75-3
  • Bryant, Charles S., and Murch, Abel B., A History of the Great Massacre by the Sioux Indians in Minnesota (Chicago:O.C.Gibbs, 1864), reprinted 2001, ISBN 1-58218-411-1
  • Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862, Minnesota Historical Society (2001), second edition. ISBN 0-87351-392-4
  • Carley, Kenneth. The Sioux Uprising of 1862, Minnesota Historical Society (1976), second edition, ISBN 0-87351-103-4
  • Collins, Loren Warren. The Story of a Minnesotan, (private printing) (1912) [NO ISBN].
  • Cox, Hank. Lincoln And The Sioux Uprising of 1862, Cumberland House Publishing (2005). ISBN 1-58182-457-2
  • Folwell, William W., A History of Minnesota, Vol. 2, pages 102-302, Minnesota Historical Society (1924). [ISBN unknown]
  • Johnson, Roy P. The Siege at Fort Abercrombie, State Historical Society of North Dakota (1957).
  • Nix, Jacob. The Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, 1862: Jacob Nix's Eyewitness History, Max Kade German-American Center (1994). ISBN 1-880788-02-0
  • Schultz, Duane. Over the Earth I Come: The Great Sioux Uprising of 1862, St. Martin's Press (1992). ISBN 0-312-07051-9
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, German Pioneer Accounts of the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862, Little Miami Pub. Co. (April 2002). ISBN 978-0971365766.
  • Mark Steil and Tim Post. m/index.shtml Minnesota's Uncivil War. Minnesota Public Radio (September 26, 2002).
  • Douglas Linder. The Dakota Conflict Trials of 1862 (1999).
  • Yenne, Bill. Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West, Westholme (2005). ISBN 1-59416-016-3


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