The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

In August 1862 war broke out between the United States and the Dakota Indians along the Minnesota River Valley in the southwestern part of the new State of Minnesota.[1]

The war was sparked by years of broken promises to the Indians, insults by the traders and starving Indian children and by an encounter on August 17th near the village of Acton. Four young Indian hunters, returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip, stopped at the village to see if they could get food from the settlers. An argument erupted, and the Indians killed five settlers.

Chief Little Crow

Early the next day the Dakota Indians at their nearby village deliberated and concluded that they had to go to war under the leadership of Chief Little Crow. That day they attacked and killed 20 traders and white settlers at the Lower Sioux Agency as well as 24 soldiers from nearby Fort Ridgely (20 miles west of the town of New Ulm).

Battle of New Ulm, Minnesota
Map of U.S.-Dakota War, 1862

This war lasted for the next six weeks with six key battles at New Ulm, Fort Ridgely, Birch Coulee and Wood Lake, Minnesota. In all 100 Indians and over 600 settlers and soldiers were killed.[2]

An estimated 20,000 settlers in this area fled to Mankato and St. Paul, Minnesota to escape the fighting. In addition, some went south to the adjoining State of Iowa.

Governor Alexander Ramsey

About half way through the War, on September 9, 1862, Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey called a special session of the Minnesota Legislature to address the State’s dire situation. Over 1,000 people had been killed or wounded. Destruction spread out over the western frontier, which had been depopulated with people fleeing for safety. Agricultural losses were unknown. Transportation of supplies to all points west and north was almost impossible.[3

Governor Ramsey’s lengthy address that day to the Legislature contained twelve sections describing the situation and making a demand for action. The description of the situation before the outbreak of war included the following:[4]

  • Our “frontier settlements [have been] suddenly attacked and desolated by a treacherous foe, living unsuspected in our midst, whose first warning of hostility [came in the] indiscriminate massacre of men, women and children.” Further, the “circumstances of this outburst give it an aspect of wanton malignity and perfidy scarcely paralleled, if at all, in the tragic annals of Indian crime.”
  • Previously “the Sioux, or Dakota Indians of Minnesota had, as a tribe, lived in terms of unbroken amity and confidence with the citizens of this State, a friendship running back for more than a generation of traders and trappers. The depredations often committed by [Indian] individuals, even the murderous raids of [a band of Indians] . . . at Spirit Lake, in 1857 . . . did not disturb this general feeling of confidence in our Indian neighbors.”
  • “In return for their lands, . . . which they had voluntarily relinquished to the [U.S.] . . . by treaty, a home had been given them in the western part of the State, and munificent provisions made for their comfort, education, and reclamation to civilized pursuits.”

The Governor’s speech then set forth a detailed account of the war up to September 9th before he made the following chilling Demand or call for action:

  • “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.”
  • “The public safety imperiously requires it. Justice calls for it. Humanity itself, outraged by their unutterable atrocities, demands it. The blood of the murdered cries to heaven for vengeance on these assassins of women and children. They have themselves made their annihilation an imperative social necessity. Faithless to solemn treaty obligations, to old friendships, to the ties of blood, regardless even of self-interest when it conflicts with their savage passions, incapable of honor, or of truth or gratitude; amenable to no law; bound by no moral or social restraint;–they have already destroyed in one monstrous act of perfidy, every pledge on which it was possible to found a hope of ultimate reconciliation.”
  • They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”
After the end of the war, the U.S. speedily tried 392 Dakota Indians before a military commission in Minnesota. Of these, 319 were convicted, and all but 16 were sentenced to be hanged.[5]
Bishop Henry Whipple
President    Abraham Lincoln

Minnesota Episcopal Bishop Henry Whipple was offended by what he thought were injustices in the trials and sentences. He, therefore, went to Washington, D.C. to plead for mercy from President Abraham Lincoln. The President was moved by this plea and after reviewing all the cases reduced the number of death sentences from 303 to 38 with the remaining 265 to be imprisoned.

Hanging the 38               Dakota Indians

On December 26, 1862 (the day after Christmas), the 38 were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This is still the largest mass execution on U.S. soil in U.S. history.[6]

Early the next year (1863) the U.S. Congress revoked all of the treaties with the Dakota Indians and passed a law banning all Dakota Indians from Minnesota.

Dakota Camp @                    Fort Snelling

In the meantime, in the Fall of 1862 the U.S. Army detained hundreds of Indian women and children and placed them in a stockade or concentration camp near the confluence of the Mississippi and  Minnesota Rivers and under the guard of Fort Snelling high on the adjacent bluff. An outbreak of measles killed 160 to 300 of those in the camp during the winter of 1862-1863.


[1] This post is based upon a six-part series in the StarTribune by Curt Brown, August 12-18, 2012. The series is available for only $2.99 as a downloadable e-book, In the Footsteps of Little Crow: 150 Years After the U.S.-Dakota War. There also is a Minnesota History Center website devoted to the War. Subsequent posts will discuss a contemporary settler’s comments on the War, this year’s sesquicentennial commemoration of the War and Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s October 7th worship service devoted to remembering the War and its consequences.

[2]  After the second battle of New Ulm, the wounded settlers and soldiers were treated by Dr. William Mayo, the subsequent co-founder of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

[3] Monjeau-Marz, Alexander Ramsey’s Words of War, 1 Minnesota’s Heritage 63 (Jan. 2010).

[4] Transcript of Governor Ramsey’s Address, 1 Minnesota’s Heritage 82 (Jan. 2010).

[5] There was little due process of law in the proceedings of this military commission, (Chomsky, The United States-Dakota War Trials: A Study in Military Injustice, 43 Stanford L. Rev. 13 (1990).)

[6] The 38 bodies were buried in a common grave near Mankato, but many of the cadavers were exhumed to be used for medical education. Dr. William Mayo had at least one such cadaver that he kept in his home for anatomy lessons for his sons.

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

12 thoughts on “The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862”

  1. Thank you for your research and joy in recounting this history! I too appreciate the freedom blogging gives in one’s approach to the past. I long to see an historical model that teaches the current generation that they are no better, or worse, than previous generations. To humbly absorb the lessons of the past so we can pass blessings, not curses, forward.

  2. Additional Resource on U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and Mass Execution of 38 Dakota Indians on December 26, 1862

    John Bessler has provided an interesting account of the mistreatment of the Dakota Indians by the U.S. Indian Service, circa 1862; the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862; the U.S. military commissions’ judgments for death by hanging for 303 Dakota for their alleged involvement in that war; Bishop Whipple’s advocating for commutation of many of these death sentences; President Lincoln’s review of the military commission’s judgments and commutation of many of death sentences; the demands for execution of all those found guilty from Minnesota officials and people; and the December 26, 1862, mass execution of 38 of the Dakota in Mankato, Minnesota.
    ========================================================

    Bessler, “On Lincoln’s Orders: Mankato’s Mass Hanging,” Chapter 2 in Legacy of Violence (Univ. Minnesota Press, 2003).

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