White Settler’s Contemporaneous Reaction to U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

In 1862 Rev. Charles E. Brown,my maternal second great-grandfather, had been a Baptist missionary to the Iowa Territory and State since 1842, and he and his family lived in the village of Vernon Springs in Howard County in northern Iowa. This was not far from the U.S.-Dakota War in neighboring Minnesota.[1] (In the map to the left, Howard County is the third from the right in the northern tier of Iowa.)

About 31 years after the War Rev. Brown used his diaries to start writing his memoirs, including comments on that War.[2]

He said, “In August 1862, the Sioux Indians in Minnesota raided the homes and villages of settlers, murdering–and mutilating–men, women and children, and burning–and destroying– a large amount of property.”

The Indians, he added, were “[e]ncouraged by and taking advantage of the [Civil War], and incited by agents of the Confederacy, unscrupulous and possibly unauthorized.” The Indians were “brooding–over real and fancied wrong’s [sic] suffered in dealing–with the Government and its agents.” The Indians “took the war path and spread terror, death and destruction through the southwestern part of the State [of Minnesota].”

Because the U.S.-Dakota War was so close to northern Iowa, “thousands of people abandoned their [Minnesota] homes and fled for their lives into Northern Iowa.” By September of 1862, “the panic of the Minnesota settlers was at its height and the town [of Vernon Springs] and roads [were] filled with refugees.”

Into this commotion came Rev. Brown’s son, Charles P. Brown, a Second Sergeant of Company D, Third Regiment of the Iowa Infantry, on a furlough leave from the Civil War. The “blue coat and brass buttons of [his] . . . uniform [were]. . .  inspiring. . . . [The uniform] represented the war power of the government, and was looked on as the advance guard of military protection.”

The proximity of the U.S.-Dakota War also prompted “some families in our immediate neighborhood [to engage in] . . .  hastily packing . . . a few thing’s [sic] and leaving.”

In addition, The Iowa county where the Browns lived (Howard County) organized and mounted a  “company . . .  for home defense, armed with such weapons, rifles and shot guns as were available, and set out to meet the savages.” However, this “company of home guards did not meet any Indians.”

This undoubtedly was due, according to Rev. Brown, to the “prompt action by Governor Ramsey of Minnesota, and General Sibley with militia and volunteers, speedily overpowered the Indians, defeating, capturing and punishing them.”

Brown continued, “About twelve hundred Sioux Indians were engaged in the raid. Governor Ramsey estimated the loss of life among settlers at eight hundred.” In addition, between twenty and thirty thousand people had abandoned their homes, and the loss of property was estimated from two and one-half to three million dollars.”

“Five hundred Indians were captured, tried by a Military Court, and three hundred sentenced to suffer death by hanging. Of this number thirty-eight were executed December 26, 1862.”

The sources of Brown’s information about the War are not stated, but the essence of his account is consistent with what historians today have to say.

I, however, am disappointed that he did not see any of the reasons for the Dakota’s initiating the War (other than his acknowledging that they had suffered real wrongs in dealing with the Government and its agents). Nor does he seem to be aware of the due process problems of the military commission’s prosecution and conviction of the Indians. Most seriously, as a Christian pastor he does not cope with the obvious religious issues associated with Governor Ramsey’s demand for extermination of the Dakota Indians or with the execution of the 38 Indians on the day after Christmas.


[1] A summary of the War was provided in a prior post. Subsequent posts will explore 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]  Charles E. Brown, Personal Recollections of Rev. Charles E. Brown with Sketches of His Wife and Children and Extracts from an Autobiography of Rev. Phillip Perry Brown 1790-1862 with Sketches of His Children and the Family Record 1797-1907 at 82-85 (Ottumwa, IA 1907).

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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.

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