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US–Dakota War of 1862

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Lithograph interpretation of the Battle of Birch Coulee, 1912.

Lithograph interpretation of the Battle of Birch Coulee, 1912.

Though the war that ranged across southwestern Minnesota in 1862 between settler-colonists and a faction of Dakota people lasted for six weeks, its causes were decades in the making. Its effects are still felt today.

In 1851, after the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux, the US government removed most of the Dakota people living in Minnesota Territory (their homeland, called Mni Sota Makoce in the Dakota language) to a reservation on either side of the Minnesota River. The Treaty of Washington (1858) confined them to a smaller area south of the river.

Being restricted to one place made it hard for Dakota people to practice their traditional lifeways, which involved hunting migratory game and moving their homes seasonally. The terms of the treaties and the work of missionaries focused on forcing them to abandon their culture—in effect, to stop being Dakota. To survive, some adopted European American farming methods, cut their hair, and converted to Christianity. Others resisted assimilation by, for example, continuing to hunt and practice ceremonies. Many assimilated in some ways while resisting in others.

Immigrants flooded into southwestern Minnesota Territory in the 1850s, especially eager to claim land near rivers like the Minnesota. The US government, however, failed to fulfill its treaty obligations to the Dakota. It built few schools, offered insufficient education in farming, and charged exorbitant prices for homesteading goods. Many Dakota people used what money they did receive to pay off inflated debts and fraudulent traders.

By the summer of 1862, Dakota people on the reservation were in desperate straits—many of them starving. Game was scarce. The corn crop of 1861 had been meager. Annuity payments, which would have covered the cost of food and goods, were late, but traders refused to extend credit. Lower Sioux Agency storekeeper Andrew Myrick told the hungry Dakota to “eat grass or their own dung.”

On August 17, the tense situation reached a climax when four Dakota hunters killed five settlers in Acton Township. In the middle of the night, a group of Mdewakanton men persuaded a reluctant Ta Oyate Duta (His Red Nation, also known as Little Crow) to continue the fight against the United States in an all-out war. In response, the Dakota divided into two main factions: the farmers, or “cut hairs,” who argued for peace, and others (particularly young Mdewakanton men) who supported violent resistance.

The following day, Ta Oyate Duta’s party attacked the Lower Sioux Agency and homesteads in Brown and Renville Counties. On August 19 it reached New Ulm, where the townspeople erected a defensive barricade after a protracted skirmish.

The state’s leaders hurried to organize an army from a population already depleted by recruitment for the Civil War. Governor Alexander Ramsey placed Henry Sibley in charge of US forces that engaged the Dakota in battles at Fort Ridgely (August 20 and 22), New Ulm (August 25), Birch Coulee (September 3–4), and Acton, Forest City, Hutchinson, and Fort Abercrombie (September 3–4).

During the six-week conflict, the Dakota participants who chose violent resistance killed more than 600 settlers, including women and children; the number of Dakota casualties is unrecorded. Fewer than 1,000 Dakota, out of a population of more than 7,000, participated. Many saved settlers’ lives; some, like Gabriel Renville, joined a lodge dedicated to peace.

At the war’s final engagement, the Battle of Wood Lake (September 23), Sibley’s forces defeated the Dakota. Ta Oyate Duta and other Mdewakanton fled to Dakota Territory or Canada. On September 26, settlers who had been held hostage or protected by different Dakota factions gathered at a site that came to be known as Camp Release.

After the war, the US government nullified its treaties with the Dakota, dissolved their reservation, and publicly executed thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato at the largest mass hanging in the nation’s history. Meanwhile, it removed about 1,600 Dakota non-combatants to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, where they remained imprisoned during the winter of 1862–1863. Though they had not participated in the war, nearly 2,000 Ho-Chunk people living at Blue Earth, along with the Dakota at the fort, were removed the following spring to a reservation in Dakota Territory and, later, Nebraska. The government allowed a few Dakota who had supported peace to stay, including the family of Wakinyanwaste (Good Thunder), who were close to Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Henry Benjamin Whipple.

The war devastated people throughout south-central Minnesota. Settlers mourned their dead and abandoned claims across southern and western Minnesota. For the Dakota, the grief was deepened by the prospect of exile from their homeland. It wasn’t until the 1880s that exiled families began to return to their relatives who had stayed in Mni Sota Makoce. Together, they built communities at Prairie Island, Shakopee, and the sites of the Upper and Lower Sioux Agencies.

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Anderson, Gary Clayton. “Myrick’s Insult: A Fresh Look At Myth and Reality.” Minnesota History 48, no. 5 (Spring 1983): 198–206.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/48/v48i05p198-206.pdf

–––––– . Massacre in Minnesota: The Dakota War of 1862, the Most Violent Ethnic Conflict in American History. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.

Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.

Canku, Clifford, and Michael Simon. The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters: Dakota Kaskapi Okicize Wowapi. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013.

Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862. 2nd ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Clodfelter, Michael. The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862–1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.

DeCarlo, Peter. Fort Snelling at Bdote: A Brief History. 2nd edition. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2020.

Gilman, Rhoda R. Henry Hastings Sibley: Divided Heart. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.

Little Crow (Ta Oyate Duta) to Henry Sibley, September 7, 1862. Quoted in Nathaniel West, The Ancestry, Life, and Times of Hon. Henry Hastings Sibley, LL.D (St. Paul: Pioneer Press Publishing, 1889), 262.
https://archive.org/details/cu31924012533695/page/262/mode/2up

Minnesota Historical Society. The US–Dakota War of 1862.
http://www.usdakotawar.org

Monjeau-Marz, Corinne. The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862–1864. St. Paul: Prairie Smoke Press, 2006.

Westerman, Gwen, and Bruce M. White. Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012.

Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Related Video

Related Images

Lithograph interpretation of the Battle of Birch Coulee, 1912.
Lithograph interpretation of the Battle of Birch Coulee, 1912.
Color image of the Lower Sioux Agency Warehouse, 2012
Color image of the Lower Sioux Agency Warehouse, 2012
People escaping from the US–Dakota War of 1862
People escaping from the US–Dakota War of 1862
Black and white photograph of Gabriel Renville, ca. 1880–1881.
Black and white photograph of Gabriel Renville, ca. 1880–1881.
Big Eagle, leader in the U.S.- Dakota War.
Big Eagle, leader in the U.S.- Dakota War.
Ta Oyate Duta (Little Crow)
Ta Oyate Duta (Little Crow)
Black and white photograph of Henry Sibley wearing the uniform of a brigadier general, 1862.
Black and white photograph of Henry Sibley wearing the uniform of a brigadier general, 1862.
Alexander Ramsey
Alexander Ramsey
Battle of Wood Lake
Battle of Wood Lake
Anpetu Tokeca
Anpetu Tokeca
Camp Release
Camp Release
Black and white photograph of the the Dakota concentration camp on the river flats below Fort Snelling, c.1862–1863.
Black and white photograph of the the Dakota concentration camp on the river flats below Fort Snelling, c.1862–1863.
Black and white photograph of two Dakota women at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Joel Emmons Whitney.
Black and white photograph of two Dakota women at the Fort Snelling concentration camp, c.1862–1863. Photograph by Joel Emmons Whitney.
Black and white photograph of a Dakota boy at the concentration camp below Fort Snelling, 1863. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Black and white photograph of a Dakota boy at the concentration camp below Fort Snelling, 1863. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery.
Muslin skirt with bullet holes
Muslin skirt with bullet holes
Double-barrel percussion rifle
Double-barrel percussion rifle
Wood bow
Wood bow

Turning Point

Mdewakanton men assemble at a soldiers’ lodge on August 17. Later that night, they visit Ta Oyate Duta (His Red Nation, also known as Little Crow) at his home and convince him to lead them in armed resistance against settler-colonists.

Chronology

1851

The Treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota transfer millions of acres of land from the Sisseton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute, and Mdewakanton bands of Dakota to the United States in exchange for reservations and annual annuity payments.

1858

The Treaty of Washington confines the Dakota to a smaller area of land than originally promised, on the south bank of the Minnesota River.

Summer 1862

The US government fails to deliver annuity payments to the Dakota, continuing a years-long trend of broken treaty promises. Many Dakota people starve.

August 17, 1862

Four young Mdewakanton Dakota men kill five settler-colonists in Meeker County, outside Acton Township.

August 18

Mdewakanton Dakota men attack the Lower Sioux Agency and settlements throughout Brown and Renville Counties. They kill more than fifty residents in Milford Township alone.

August 19

In the biggest engagement of the war to date, a party of Dakota attacks New Ulm.

August 20–22

Dakota and US forces confront each other in two battles at Fort Ridgely.

August 22

Sisseton and Wahpeton Dakota men gather in a soldiers’ lodge opposed to the war. They form a camp at Pejutazi Okapi (the place where they dig the yellow medicine, also known as the Upper Sioux Reservation).

September 2–3

About 200 Dakota defeat US soldiers in the Battle of Birch Coulee.

September 3–4

The US army engages the Dakota in fighting at Acton, Forest City, Hutchinson, and Fort Abercrombie.

September 23

A second battle unfolds at New Ulm. On the same day, Henry Sibley defeats forces led by Ta Oyate Duta in a confrontation at Wood Lake that ends the war.

September 24

Ta Oyate Duta and other Mdewakanton Dakota flee to Canada and Dakota Territory.

September 26

Dakota warriors surrender settlers taken as hostages at a site that becomes known as Camp Release.

November 5

After a series of rushed and unauthorized trials, a military commission sentences 303 Dakota men to death by hanging for their alleged participation in the war. President Abraham Lincoln eventually pardoned all but thirty-eight.

December 26

The US government executes thirty-eight Dakota men in Mankato. It is the largest mass hanging in American history