The U.S.-Dakota War Remembered by Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church (Part II)

Westminster Presbyterian Church

Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church at its October 7, 2012, worship service remembered the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.[1] This post will review the central part of this very moving service–Listening for the Word.[2]

The Scripture reading for the day was Numbers 15: 37-41 from the Hebrew Bible:

  • “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

This reading was followed by a solo rendition of a traditional Ojibwe “Song of Love” honoring the gift of love among all people.

REv. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen, Westminster’s Senior Pastor, presented the first sermon –“What Is the Role of the Church: To Remember.” This sermon started with the previous Biblical text. Hart-Andersen said:

  • “The Hebrew people were born of memory. Each generation was taught the stories of those who had gone before. Parents told children how their ancestors had been enslaved in Egypt, how Moses led them out of bondage, how God saved them. Over the ages they told their stories – and they remembered themselves into being. As we learn in the text from Numbers this morning the fringe that men wear even today serves as a reminder of their past, lest the people forget. Judaism clings to its stories because they are the lifeblood of the people.”
  • “The Christian Church is not all that different. The Church is the place where the Jesus story is told, where we hear the story of God’s people. That story can be full of light and hope, of goodness and grace, but sometimes it’s hard to hear, sometimes full of pain and sorrow. Sometimes it doesn’t seem as if it will ever come out right.”
  • “The church ceases to be the church when it loses its memory. That may be one of the problems facing the church in America today. We don’t remember why we need God, why we need redemption, why we need each other. We have fed ourselves so long on the myth of self-sufficiency that we no longer need the power of religious tradition to sustain us. The story doesn’t matter much anymore.”
  • “Today we remember the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. It started when the U.S. reneged on yet another treaty promise, leaving the native people destitute. A group of Dakota warriors killed several white settlers, leading to a declaration of war by Chief Little Crow. After six weeks the Dakota were defeated. Thousands were held in disease-riddled camps, including women and children; over 300 warriors were sentenced to die – some in trials lasting a mere five minutes. President Lincoln commuted most of the sentences, but in December, 1862, the largest mass execution in U.S. history took place in Mankato, when 38 Dakota men were hung. The Dakota were expelled from Minnesota and hundreds more died on the march to reservations in the west.”
  • “Presbyterian missionaries played a key role in 19th century Minnesota. The first Christian congregation in the Territory was established by Presbyterian brothers Gideon and Samuel Pond on the shores of Lake Calhoun. They put the Lord’s Prayer into Dakota . . . . Presbyterian missionary Stephen Riggs wrote the first Dakota dictionary. Presbyterian doctor Thomas Williamson oversaw the first translation of the Bible into Dakota. Presbyterian missionaries went with the Dakota when they were banished from their homes.”
  • “But however enlightened our forebears in the church may have been, they – and that means we – were part of ending the Dakota way of life.”
  • “In the 1840’s the native congregation in Lac Qui Parle wrote the Dakota hymn, Many and Great, O God, Are Thy Things, No. 271 in our hymnal. The 38 Dakota men – Presbyterians, many of them – sang the hymn as they mounted the gallows in Mankato on December 26, 1862. We will close our worship this morning singing that same hymn. Listen, especially, to the words of the last verse and imagine the Dakota preparing to die.”
  • “The church is in the memory business. We’re a community formed by the story of God and the stories of God’s people. Sometimes the memories are hard to hear, the stories painful to share. Sometimes they seem unresolved.”
  • “Black Elk, a Lakota Holy Man born in 1863, described the people of the earth as being a ‘hoop,’ an unbroken circle bound together in a sacred way. Toward the end of his life, Black Elk said, ‘The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.’ (Black Elk Speaks, John Neihardt, ed. [Albany: SUNY Press, 2008], p. 218)”[3]
  • “Our call as the church is to repair the hoop, to join the work of God in making whole the peoples of the earth, and it starts right here at home.”
Jim Bear Jacobs

The second of the day’s sermons was delivered by Jim Bear Jacobs, a member of the Turtle Clan of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation. The following are excerpts from his sermon:

  • “It is good for us to speak today about memory. For today we have much to remember. It is with memory that we can recall the stories that are released into any given space. You see memory is integral to the art of storytelling. And my friends today we are surrounded by story.”
  • “It ought not escape our attention that tomorrow [October 8th] many all over this nation of ours will celebrate Columbus Day. This is part of the story that is released upon this land. . . . [This] year let us commit to active engagement with the story that has disseminated its way down into every aspect of American Indian life. When words like ‘discovery’ and ‘new world’ are thoughtlessly used, it is a reminder that the epicenter for knowledge has been and is still White Euro-America. And every year [when] we again celebrate Columbus the discoverer we reinforce in the spirit of American Indian children that unless a white man knows that you exist, you in fact do not yet exist.”
  • “This year in the State of Minnesota we engage the story of the US-Dakota war. 150 years ago in 1862 on the brink of starvation a small group of Dakota warriors had reached a devastating breaking point. Given the choice between fighting for the stores of food that were literally rotting away in the warehouse of the reservation agent, or watching their loved ones slowly decline into death, they made what they thought was the more honorable choice. What followed was six weeks of violent fighting that left around 800 dead and decimated the towns of western Minnesota.”
  • “After the fighting what followed for the Dakota were forced marches, concentration camps, bounties and mass executions. The Dakota creation narrative is centered around the convergence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers [near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport], and in 1863 with one stroke of a pen in Washington D.C. it became illegal to be Dakota in the State of Minnesota. As a result of that legislation, there are now far more Dakota living in exile outside of Minnesota than live within the borders of their homeland.”
  • “Likewise as we move toward the season of Thanksgiving, we are surrounded by the story of American colonization and settlement. The history books of our childhood tell us of the amicable relationship between the tribal nations of the east coast and the newly arrived seekers of religious freedom. If only it were that simple. You see, for the American Indians this small struggling group of new neighbors signaled the beginning of a wave of change that would sweep over this entire country and leave a devastating scar upon this land and her people. And it pains me to have to admit that because the church was swept up in the power and imperialism of the day, a lion’s share of the culpability lies at our doorstep.”
  • “This morning I greeted you not in the Mohican language but in the Lenape language. So why does a proud Mohican greet you in Lenape and not Mohican. It is because in the wake of Christian missionary work the Mohican language lies dormant in the graveyard of a Lutheran boarding school. We as members of Christ’s body inherit a generational history that is blemished with devastating atrocities committed in the name of our beloved Savior.”
  • “We have all heard it said that time heals all wounds. If this were true for the Native American we would not have the highest suicide rate, the highest high-school dropout rate, or the highest substance abuse rate. In the western way of thinking time may heal wounds if the wound is superficial. But these wounds are not superficial, they are deep, they are fresh and they bleed anew every time a bottle is picked up, or one of our own seeing no hope for a better future puts an end to his or her own life. Because these stories affect every American Indian, the resulting wounds also affect every American Indian. Time cannot heal these wounds because American Indians have little concern for time. For us these stories do not exist in time, they exist in space. As long as we walk upon this land and in this space our chronological distance from these events and stories is irrelevant. It is a heavy burden that every American Indian carries. We must forgive that which is unforgiveable in order to heal and ensure our own survival.”
  • “This morning we gather in another space and engage in a different story. Today we gather around the Lord’s Table and partake in the story of His sacrificial death. In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul warns us against abuses of the Lord’s Table. Within the context that we, the church, are the body of Christ, he tells [us] that when we come together to partake, we are to discern the body lest we drink judgment upon ourselves.”
  • “The “Lord’s Table is a universal table, and we eat and drink as one part of a global body. Today we partake with affluent aristocracy, and we partake with sweatshop laborers. This morning we partake with presidents and kings, and we partake with a small group of Dakota ministers. . . . I said earlier that the American Indian carries the heavy burden of having to forgive the unforgiveable. Likewise the church also carries a heavy burden. Lest we drink judgment upon ourselves, we must discern what is justice for the entirety of this body.”
  • “In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus states that before one is to bring any offering before God, he must go to his brother and be reconciled. With this statement Jesus establishes reconciliation as the first step in the act of worship. Without reconciliation there can be no legitimate worship. Reconciliation is a difficult word for the American Indian. It seems to imply that there is a point in history when there was conciliation. That point in American or church history simply does not exist. So if we as a church speak of reconciliation, let us do so in the context that we desire to go back to the way [the] Creator intended humanity to live. And let us commit to come together and forge new stories that will also be released into this space so that future generations when speaking of reconciliation can remember well the good works that began here.”

[1] Prior posts set forth a summary of the War, a contemporary white settler’s comments on the War and this year’s commemoration of the War.

[2]. A prior post reviewed the initial part of the service–Preparing for the Word. A subsequent post will discuss the last part of that service– Responding to the Word. The following materials about this service are available online: a video, the bulletin and the texts of the sermons. The theological underpinnings for Westminster’s order of worship were reviewed in a prior post.

[3] Earlier that day in an adult education class, Jim Bear Jacobs said that in Indian culture life is lived in a circle or a Sacred Hoop and that death is seen as a return to the Creator/Spirit.

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.