Brief History of The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862
The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is a significant event in the history and development of the state of Minnesota and in the long and complex history of the Dakota people and the United States.
Between 1805 and 1858, treaties made between the U.S. government and the Dakota nation reduced Dakota lands and significantly altered Minnesota's physical, cultural and political landscape. These treaties had serious implications for the future of Dakota-U.S. government relations throughout the first half of the 1800s, and many historians agree that major factors in the lead-up to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 lie in those treaties. The treaties established that the Dakota would be paid for their land in yearly installments called “annuities,” but in many cases, traders received a portion of these annuities directly from the U.S. government because of claims of debts owed to them by the Dakota.
By the summer of 1862, the situation for many Dakota families had grown desperate: annuity payments were late due to the U.S. government’s priority in financing the Civil War, some traders at the Indian Agencies refused to extend credit for food and other goods until the Dakota had cash to pay their debts, and finally, recent droughts had contributed to poor harvests which left many Dakota families hungry. Due to these and other factors, tensions within Dakota communities reached a breaking point.
On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota men killed five people living at the farms of Robinson Jones and Howard Baker near Acton, Minnesota. When word of the killings spread to people at the Lower Sioux Reservation, a group of Dakota men argued that it was time to go to war with Minnesota's European-American settler population to reclaim their ancestral land. Without consensus within the Dakota community at large, these men went directly to Taoyateduta (Little Crow), an influential Dakota leader, to convince him to lead a military effort. After intense debate, Taoyateduta reluctantly agreed to lead them, even though he feared the war may end disastrously for their nation. “You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon,” he is quoted as having said, but added “Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”
The following day a group of Dakota, under the command of Taoyateduta, attacked the Lower Sioux Agency, killing many of the civilians there. Over the next several weeks, groups of Dakota soldiers attacked settler communities throughout the Minnesota River Valley, including New Ulm, and also launched attacks on U.S. military posts. The war lasted nearly six weeks. During that time, between four and six hundred settlers and U.S. soldiers, as well as an unknown number of Dakota, lost their lives.
The war fractured Minnesota's Dakota community. The war was fought primarily by a relatively small group of Dakota who lived on the Lower Sioux Reservation, and there was not universal support for the war within the Dakota community at large. Throughout the war, many Dakota as well as people of both Dakota and European ancestry (called "mixed-bloods" at the time) protected prisoners captured during the war and worked to secure their release to U.S. soldiers. For a tense period of time, it seemed as though a civil war might erupt between various Dakota communities.
Soldiers and local militia were organized at Fort Snelling under Col. Henry H. Sibley for a military response to the Dakota. After the Battle of Wood Lake (Sept. 23, 1862), the last major battle of the war in Minnesota, many Dakota left the state, while others surrendered to U.S. military forces at Camp Release (near present-day Montevideo).
Sibley established a military commission to try Dakota men suspected of killing or assaulting civilians. By the end of the process, 303 men were convicted and sentenced to death. However, after reviewing the evidence, President Abraham Lincoln reduced the number to 39 by distinguishing between Dakota men who had only fought in battles with U.S. armed forces and those accused of killing and assaulting civilians. Just prior to the execution, a man named Tatemina (Round Wind) was reprieved because his conviction had been based on questionable testimony.
The remaining 38 men were hanged in Mankato on Dec. 26, 1862, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The rest of the approximately 1,600 Dakota and "mixed-bloods" who surrendered at Camp Release (mostly women, children and the elderly) were forced to march to Fort Snelling where they spent the winter of 1862-63 in an internment camp, sometimes called a concentration camp, below the fort (located in the present-day Fort Snelling State Park) to await forced relocation to western reservations.
According to reports in local newspapers and Dakota oral histories, the prisoners endured assaults and violence at the hands of soldiers and local civilians. "Amid all this sickness and these great tribulations," remembered Tiwakan (Gabriel Renville), a Sisseton Dakota man held in the camp, "it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning." It is estimated that 130 to 300 people died, due mostly to malnutrition and disease resulting from the conditions inside the camp.
In May 1863, those remaining were taken to western reservations by steamboat. By the summer of 1863, the vast majority of Dakota had left Minnesota, heading into the western territories or north into Canada, where many of their descendants live today. As a result of the war, approximately 6,000 Dakota and "mixed-blood" people were displaced from their Minnesota homes. The geographical displacement of the Dakota nation resulting from the war has lasted until today, with Dakota communities remaining spread throughout Minnesota, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Canada.
After the war, many Dakota military leaders were captured and imprisoned by the U.S. military, among them Sakpedan (Little Six) and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle). The two men fled to Canada after the war, but in January 1864, they were apprehended by British agents, taken to U.S.authorities and subsequently imprisoned at Fort Snelling. In August, a military tribunal convicted the two men of killing civilians and sentenced them to death. They were executed at Fort Snelling on Nov. 11,1865, in the presence of the fort’s garrison and numerous civilians. Tradition says that as they climbed the scaffold, a steam train whistle blew in the distance, prompting Sakpedan to say, “As the white man comes in, the Indian goes out.”
During the summer of 1863, Brig. Gen. Sibley along with Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, mounted a joint military operation called the “Punitive Expeditions” against those Dakota who had left Minnesota and headed into the western territories. Throughout the summer, Sibley’s troops pushed past Devil’s Lake and towards the Missouri River, fighting three major battles against combined Dakota and Lakota forces: the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake (July 26); the Battle of Stony Lake (July 28); and the Battle of Whitestone Hill (Sept. 3).
In 1864, Sibley received permission to remain in Minnesota while a second military expedition was launched against the Dakota. Brig. Gen. Sully was given overall command of the operation, and defeated a large, combined group of Dakota, Lakota and Yanktonai at the Battle of Tahchakuty, or Killdeer Mountain (July 28). Eventually, the U.S. military forcibly removed many Dakota to reservations in North and South Dakota. Although these expeditions effectively ended the war between the Dakota and the U.S. government, conflict continued with their western kinsmen, the Lakota, in bloody battles at Fort Phil Kearney, the Little Big Horn, and finally, in 1890, at Wounded Knee
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Anderson, Gary Clayton and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.
Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
Clodfelter, Michael. The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1998.
Manjeau-Marz, Corinne. The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-64. St. Paul, MN: Prairie Smoke Press, 2006.
Millikan, William. “The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp,” Minnesota History Quarterly 62, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 4- 17.
Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Brief History of The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862