By the late summer of 1862, the Civil War was still raging. But all was not quiet on the frontier, and a battle was brewing in Minnesota that would draw money and resources from the major conflict. One after another, treaties with the Dakota had been broken. The tribe was pushed onto smaller and smaller allotments of land. Hunting became less sustainable as more white settlers moved into the area. A poor harvest in 1861 was followed by a harsh winter. By the next summer, the Dakota were on the verge of starving. But government gold was in short supply because of the war, and annuities to the Dakota were late. Traders refused to sell on credit. When told that the Dakota were starving, one trader responded, “Let them eat grass.” The Indian agent refused to release food from the warehouse until the annuities arrived. The Dakota were desperate.
It only took a small spark to set off the blaze. On August 17, 1862, four young Santee were returning from an unsuccessful hunting trip. When they came to a settler’s cabin, one of the young men took eggs from a hen’s nest. An argument ensued, and five settlers were killed. The young men returned to their village and told their families what they had done.
Conflict had been simmering just under the surface. The Dakota knew that this incident would cause serious trouble. Sissetons and Wahpetons felt that a conflict could only have bad results for them, and stayed out of the fighting. Mdewakantons and Wahpakutes believed that they would be held responsible no matter what they did, and some factions chose war. They also knew that a majority of soldiers from Minnesota had been deployed to fight the Civil War, and felt this was the time to strike. The influential leader Little Crow (Taoyateduta) argued against the fight. He felt the United States would meet such a conflict with overwhelming force, and warned the warriors, “You will die like rabbits.” But there was no holding back the warriors, and in the end, Little Crow agreed to lead them.
They attacked the Lower Sioux Agency the following day, killing 31 and capturing 10. Authorities and settlers alike were completely taken by surprise. The Dakota ambushed a small military force at Redwood Ferry, where they killed 23. Two attacks on Fort Ridgely were successfully fended off, and the town of New Ulm was able to defend itself.
On September 1, 170 soldiers were sent out from Fort Ridgely to bury settlers who had been killed in the fighting. That evening, they camped near Birch Coulee Creek. The ground was poorly chosen. It was open, flat, and exposed, near woods that provided cover for attackers. The Dakota surrounded the encampment during the night and attacked the following morning. Furious fighting continued for 36 hours, and the Dakota were on the verge of victory when a detachment from Fort Ridgely arrived and drove them off. The original force suffered severe casualties: 13 men were killed, 47 were wounded, and all the horses and mules were killed. It demonstrated just how serious the Dakota were.
The Dakota offensive slowed after the defeat at Birch Coulee, and Colonel Henry Hastings Sibley reached out to Little Crow. Little Crow explained the causes of the war and hinted he might be willing to negotiate. Sibley refused to negotiate and demanded that the Dakota surrender. Little Crow refused.
Sibley arrived at Fort Ridgely with 1,400 men. His advance was delayed by lack of supplies. Settlers grew impatient with the delay, wanting the Dakota driven out of Minnesota. A St. Cloud newspaper editor wrote, “For God’s sake put some live man in command of the force against the Sioux…” Supplies finally reached Sibley, and he set out on September 19.
Little Crow was aware of the advance, and planned to ambush the soldiers when they were marching. He knew the troops would be strung out along the road. But some of the wagons were not on the road and were being driven towards where Little Crow’s warriors were hidden in the brush. They fired at the wagons, and the Battle of Wood Lake was on. The Dakota found themselves facing seasoned troops who had been fighting the Confederates. The battle lasted about two hours, and at the end of it, the Dakota Uprising was over. The Dakota suffered high casualties, and the arguments of the peace faction won out.
Most of the Dakota surrendered after Wood Lake at a place called Camp Release. It was called that because it was the site where the Dakota released the captives they had taken prisoner during the fighting. About 270 captives were turned over to Sibley. Little Crow did not surrender. He was killed on July 3, 1863, by a settler.
The warriors who surrendered were given military trials in November 1862. 498 were tried and 303 were sentenced to hang. President Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38. On December 26, 1862, the 38 Dakota were hanged at Mankato, Minnesota, in what remains the largest mass execution in American history.
For more information:
- Check out these amazing digital resources about the 1862 Dakota Uprising: Minnesota History Center, The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and University Archives and Southern Minnesota Historical Center
- For an audio podcast of Little War on the Prairie with This American Life, click here