"Like a destructive storm, the war struck suddenly and spread rapidly. Everything was confusion. It was difficult to know who was friend and who was foe."
Mahipiyatowin, or Esther Wakeman, a Mdewakanton relative of Little Crow and witness to the war, as told to her daughter Elizabeth.
The war was fought primarily by Mdewakanton and Wahpekute men. Of the estimated 6,500 Dakota people living on Minnesota reservation land in 1862, historians think no more than 1,000 actually fought, including some who were coerced into the battles.
Before the war broke out, a group of Mdewakantons had formed a soldiers’ lodge. Traditionally, the soldiers’ lodge regulated hunting efforts within a village. Increasingly, though, this lodge attracted young men who resisted U.S. assimilation policies. Dakota farmers were not allowed to join.
Timeline of War:
August 17: Four young Dakota men murder five white settlers near Acton Township, Meeker County. Fleeing to their village, they beg for protection. Leaders of the soldiers’ lodge appeal to Little Crow (Taoyateduta) to lead them in war on the whites. Reluctantly, he agrees.
August 18: Mdewakanton warriors open fire on white traders and government employees at the Lower Agency and defeat a relief force sent from Fort Ridgely. Dakota warriors attack isolated farms and settlements in Renville and Brown counties.
There are an estimated 1,200 settlers in Renville County in 1862. On the 18th and 19th, more than 160 residents are killed; more than 100 more are taken captive. With few exceptions, the bodies of those who died are in unmarked graves, where they fell.
Milford Township also suffers many losses. Located just west of New Ulm in Brown County, Milford Township is populated by mostly German immigrants. More that 50 residents are killed, making it one of the hardest-hit communities during the war.
In all, more than 200 settlers are killed in these raids, and more than 200 women, children, and mixed-race civilians are taken hostage.
August 19: The Upper Agency is evacuated and its white inhabitants are led to safety by Aƞpetutokec̣a (John Other Day). News of events at the Lower Agency reaches St. Paul; Gov. Alexander Ramsey commissions Henry H. Sibley, a former trader, congressman, and governor, to lead a force of volunteer state militia against the Dakota. As thousands of refugees begin arriving in eastern Minnesota towns, bearing tales of atrocities real and imagined, panic sweeps the state.
New Ulm comes under seige by a relatively small group of Dakota warriors. This skirmish lasts several hours and leaves five settlers dead. The following day the people of New Ulm elect Judge Charles Flandreau, a prominent citizen from St. Peter, as their military commander. Over the next few days more than 1,000 refugees balloon New Ulm's population to 2,000 people, while only 300 are equipped to fight.
August 20-22: The Dakota make two attacks on Fort Ridgely and are turned back. The Lake Shetek settlement is attacked, and the women and children taken hostage are carried into Dakota Territory. An attack at West Lake (Norway Lake or present-day Monson Lake) occurs, killing 13 people.
August 23: The second battle of New Ulm. This time, more than 600 Dakota soldiers fight under the guidance of Chiefs Waŋbdí Tháŋka, Wabaṡa, and Makato. This is the largest battle over a US town since 1776. After holding off the attack, Charles Flandreau leads the evacuation of new Ulm on August 25, leaving much of the city in ashes. Little Crow’s camp retreats to the upper reservation.
August 25: Missionaries fleeing from the vicinity of the Upper Agency reach Henderson safely.
August 26: Upper Dakota men form a soldiers’ lodge to oppose the war, crystallizing the Dakota Peace Party.
August 28: The force led by Sibley reaches Fort Ridgely, where some 350 refugees who have been under siege for ten days are gathered.
September 2: A burial party sent out by Sibley is attacked at Birch Coulee. The Peace Party opens negotiations with Sibley.
September 3-4: A Dakota force led by Little Crow fights a skirmish at Acton and attacks barricaded settlements at Forest City and Hutchinson. Fort Abercrombie on the Red River is attacked and surrounded. Sibley learns that the Dakota hold more than 250 hostages; he begins negotiating for their release.
September 18: Sibley’s forces leave Fort Ridgely and advance up the Minnesota River Valley.
September 23: Sibley defeats a Dakota force led by Little Crow at Wood Lake near the Yellow Medicine River. A relief force sent from Fort Snelling by way of St. Cloud reaches Fort Abercrombie.
September 24: Little Crow and his followers flee westward.
September 26: The Dakota Peace Party surrenders hostages at Camp Release.
County-by-county breakdown of events: