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James Calvin Schaap

The Dakota War of 1862

Part 1: "There is no one righteous."

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In August of 1862, four young Wahpeton men return, empty-handed, from a hunting party, when they discover a nest of chicken eggs along a fence not far from a white man's house, a man named Robinson Jones. The Wahpetons are hungry, but one of them says they better be careful because if they eat the eggs they're going to risk getting Mr. Jones angry.

Another says that being afraid of the white man is something he's sick and tired of because life hasn't been all that great with all those white people moving into and onto their land, treaty or no treaty.

Big talk, another one says. What are you going to do about it?

You think I'm scared? If you think I'm scared, then let's go over to that house right now and kill them—Robinson Jones and all those white people.

Let's just shoot them down.

So they do. Brown Wing, Breaking Up, Killing Ghost, and Runs Against Something When Crawling—four Dakota men. They didn't murder the people directly, even went with Jones to another homestead altogether; but they eventually shot and killed Robinson Jones, Howard Baker, and Baken Viranus Webster, dropped them dead in cold blood, then turned on Mrs. Jones and Clara Wilson, an adopted daughter: men, women, and children, dead.

It was August 19, 1862, not quite noon, 40 miles south of Acton, Minnesota, on the frontier of America, at a time when the nation was deeply at war with itself. That horrific incident filled the Minnesota River valley with blood, created a month of sheer horror. When word reached my own hometown in Wisconsin, five hundred miles east, immigrant Dutch folks rushed into town from their farms and, armed with pitchforks, readied themselves for an imminent Indian attack that never came.

Robinson Jones didn't ask to be murdered, nor did his adopted daughter. They were victims of what was to them totally unforeseen Dakota lawlessness and brutality.

Or were they? Who of the Dakota had asked white people to take over their land? Who of the Dakota had written up treaties that were sheer lies? Who of the Dakota had asked Europeans to come in and destroy their culture?

The violent opening foray of the Dakota War of 1862 was the vicious, cold-blooded murder of three white men, a white woman, and a white child.

Now, 150 years later, telling the story remains immensely painful, not simply because of hundreds of deaths, but because what happened that August afternoon was the opening round of the Sioux Indian wars across the Upper Midwest, a story of which it can be said that there is no one righteous, no not one. All have sinned.

Perhaps the story should simply be forgotten, like some of the old war monuments one can still find throughout the Minnesota River valley. Perhaps some history is better left to crumble into dust, as the bodies of the dead, red and white.

But the 1862 Dakota War is our story—all of ours, and not remembering simply means forgetting.

Little Crow's Decision

Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool! When did he run away from his enemies? When did he leave his braves behind him on the warpath and turn back to his tepee? When he ran away from your enemies, he walked behind on your trail with his face to the Ojibways and covered your backs as a she-bear covers her cubs! Is Taoyateduta without scalps? Look at his war feathers! Behold the scalp locks of your enemies hanging there on his lodgepoles! Do they call him a coward? Taoyateduta is not a coward, and he is not a fool. Braves, you are like little children: you know not what you are doing.

The young men called Little Crow a coward because, as a veteran warrior, he didn't like the idea of taking on the white settlers. In a rapidly convened council the day after the first killings, the young men said the old chief was scared of whites. Not so, he told them.

You are full of the white man's devil water. You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows. We are only little herds of buffalo left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. See!—the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one—two—ten; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one—two—ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.

Little Crow knew war with whites was madness. He'd been to Washington, D.C. He had seen many thousands of white faces, more than could be imagined. He knew his people would soon be unthinkably outnumbered.

"You are fools," he told the war council. "You cannot see the face of your chief; your eyes are full of smoke. You cannot hear his voice; your ears are full of roaring waters …. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon [January]."

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