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James Calvin Schaap

The Dakota War of 1862

Part 1: "There is no one righteous."

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]."

And then he said a most amazing thing: "Little Crow is not a coward: he will die with you."

Little Crow, the leader of the Dakota, took up the fight, confident it would end in defeat and death. But to him, a warrior, bravery meant more than life.

It was August 18, 1862. Only five white people had as yet been killed. Soon, the numbers would rise. The Dakota plan was simple—surprise the settlers and drive all the white people off Indian land.

Just a day before, on Sunday, Little Crow sat in church and listened to a white man preach a sermon about Jesus. But Little Crow loved his people. And he wanted their freedom. Does a white man like me call Little Crow a savage or a freedom fighter?

The Attack on the Redwood Agency

The Dakota offensive began when armed warriors rode into the Redwood Agency and began killing indiscriminately. Some of those who were killed had been friends of the Dakota; many were known to their killers, and known well. When the carnage ended that morning, 20 more white people were dead, ten were captured, 47 were missing.

A great many members of the other bands were like my men; they took no part in the first movements, but afterward did. The next morning, when the force started down to attack the agency, I went along. I did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a friend that he did not want killed.

After the war, both whites and Dakotas testified concerning the terrible events that began on August 18. This account, by Big Eagle, is typical. But was Big Eagle telling the whole truth, or was he spinning the tale to save himself from hanging? No one will ever know.

Here's what he recounted: Andrew Myrick, a trader with an Indian wife, had refused some hungry Indians credit a short time before when they asked him for some provisions. He said to them: "Go and eat grass." Now he was lying on the ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the Indians were saying tauntingly: "Myrick is eating grass himself."

Big Eagle said that the Dakota were thrilled once they began to understand they could take their fate into their own hands, once they'd killed the people who'd taken their land, once they'd warmed to the cause:

When I returned to my village that day, many of my band had changed their minds about the war, and wanted to go into it. All the other villages were the same. I was still of the belief that it was not best, but I thought I must go with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I would lead them into the war, and we would all act like brave Dakotas and do the best we could.

In the American South there was one Civil War; in Minnesota, only recently become a state, there was another.

Death at Redwood Ferry

My home for most of my life has been in Sioux Center, Iowa, right in the middle of Sioux County, bordered by the Big Sioux River and but an hour's drive from Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Even here, where the word Sioux is constant in the vocabulary, very few know anything about them, the Sioux, and maybe especially the Dakota Sioux, whose war began the bloody conflicts that would dominate the region until Wounded Knee in 1890.

In 1862, the only military garrison in the region was foolishly placed atop a knoll above the Minnesota River, a scattering of buildings with no fortification named Fort Ridgely, home to a robust 76 fighting men who were, quite frankly, neither robust nor fighting men. In 1862, the region's robust fighting men were in Tennessee losing to the Rebels. What men were left behind comprised ragtag local militias.

Ft. Ridgely was under the command of Colonel John Marsh, a veteran of Battle of Bull Run, who knew absolutely nothing about the Dakota people, even less about fighting them. When he heard the news of the attack at the Lower Sioux Agency, he determined to put the rebellion to rest and took 46 enlisted men on an expedition to do so. On the rutty path down to the river, haggard locals met him, including a missionary and preacher named Samuel D. Hinman, who had preached to Little Crow just two days earlier. Hinman told Col. Marsh that his column of Ft. Ridgely recruits would be vastly outnumbered by the Dakota once they got to the river.

Marsh suffered from a species of racial prejudice that made it impossible for him to imagine that his troops could not handle a bunch of crazy Indians.

To get to the river, they marched single file through tall marsh grass, wonderful cover for the Dakota, who were waiting for them to arrive. When they got to the water, a flatbed boat was conveniently awaiting them, and a Dakota man some of them knew, a man named White Dog, yelled across, asking them to come over for a council.

When a single shot was fired, Dakota warriors, in full battle regalia, came up from the grass all around them and began killing. Colonel Marsh himself drowned in the river, and 24 of his men died. Only one Dakota. It was a glorious victory for the insurgents, an unimaginable defeat for the military.

The fight at Redwood Ferry was a precursor to what would happen 14 years later, 600 miles west at Little Big Horn, where an equally amazing Native American victory did little more than assure that hundreds, even thousands more soldiers, more white men, would come to exact revenge.

In 1862, there was no town where I'm sitting today. What was all around was prairie grassland frontier, but already, here too, in the domain of the Sioux, there were more white faces than red, and thousands more were on their way in just a few decades.

Death and Horror

Bands of warriors roamed widely throughout the territory, killing white people—often literally butchering them. In their effort to get the white people out of land that was once their own, the insurgents showed little mercy. To this day, among white people, stories of horrifying mutilation may well be the most memorable aspect of the war's legacy, the only stories that can't be forgotten.

Early on Thursday morning, August 21, four Dakota men rode up to the home of Lars and Gure Anderson, fifty miles north of the Lower Sioux Agency. The Dakota were dressed in white man's clothes, their hair cut in white man's fashion. They carried shotguns, but white folks in rural Minnesota would not have found it unusual to host armed Indian men on their way to hunting grounds.

The Andersons treated the Dakota kindly, but after Lars gave them fresh milk, they killed him, then went out to the garden where a son was digging potatoes and shot him dead too. When yet another son ran into the doorway of the cabin, he too was shot. Mrs. Anderson grabbed her three-year-old daughter and hid in the cellar, but two other daughters, ten and fifteen years old, ran into the long prairie grass, where they were soon caught and raped.

Mrs. Anderson's daughters were screaming, her sons and husband were dead or dying, and there in the cellar, she had hold of her only unhurt child. She stayed in hiding and horror all day long, waiting until nightfall before coming up into a nakedly bloody world.

Dazed, in shock, holding her three-year-old, she walked blindly all night long, ending up the next morning right back at what was left of her home. Deathly afraid, she decided that if she was going to die anyway, she might as well do so in her own house; she reentered the cabin and found the son who'd been shot in the doorway, badly wounded and nearly out of his senses but still alive. The Dakota were gone.

Mrs. Anderson hitched two oxen to a sled, put her wounded son and her three-year-old daughter on it, and set out for her son-in-law's cabin, hoping for safety. Before she left, she cried over the torn bodies of her husband and the son who'd been murdered in the garden.

Her son-in-law's cabin had also been attacked. Dead bodies were lying all around, but she also found two survivors, loaded them on her makeshift wagon, and left for Forest City.

Somehow, her two daughters had miraculously escaped their captors and also found their way to Forest City, passing the naked corpses of friendly neighbors, their heads severed, skin stripped from their bodies.

Multiply that story a hundred times, because even more horrifying things happened, more brutal killing let loose all around a region that had only recently, by flimsy treaty, become the Dakota reservation.

But there is another side. Transgressions against the Dakota people were brazen. The treaty promised annuities that were not delivered. Many white agents were notoriously crooked. The Dakota way of life was being destroyed by white settlers, people the Dakota might well have called "illegal immigrants." In 1850, 6,000 whites lived in the whole territory; by 1856, there were 200,000, all of them coming for free homestead land that once belonged to the Dakota.

Little Crow understood that, for even a slim hope of victory, he'd have to fight a white man's war: attack the agencies, the fort, the towns. He himself wanted no part of the butchery, the rape and murder that slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children during the next six or seven days. But Little Crow had little say in what went on in the name of war.

Fort Ridgely

Almost as soon as the killing began, survivors, runaways, and walking wounded began taking refuge at the fort, even though there were no tall log walls or impenetrable gates.

Little Crow's plan was to secure the whole valley, take hundreds of prisoners, and then negotiate an end to the violence from a position of power. He had no dreams of ridding Minnesota of every last white face; he knew that would never happen. But if the Dakota were to hold a thousand captives as bargaining chips, he assumed they could begin to talk about significant change. Little Crow knew every bloody story white people told about Indians would make negotiation—and victory—more difficult. He wanted military gains, not more scalps, not more wives.

Early Tuesday morning, a Ft. Ridgely lookout spotted a sprawling band of Indians to the west. They were painted in battle colors, their wagons behind them, ready to fight.

Little Crow had to convince his warriors that taking Ft. Ridgely was strategic, but the truly bloodthirsty determined that any victory at the fort would get them little more than a couple of dozen dead soldiers. Many preferred the easy raids on isolated white homesteads. That morning, Little Crow reached for every bit of eloquence he could muster at yet another council meeting no more than two miles from Ft. Ridgely. He tried to convince his warriors—some of whom had never been his warriors, really—that taking the fort was the path to victory. And the Dakota needed to act quickly: reinforcements were already on their way to the undermanned outpost. Had Little Crow's strategy won the day, had those 400 braves overwhelmed the twenty-odd fighting men at the fort, taken the artillery, the ammunition and horses and supplies, the whole war might have ended differently.

But when all was said and done, Little Crow, whose war, in some ways, it never was, lost yet again. To many Dakota warriors, New Ulm—a German immigrant community—was too promising a target. After all, the Germans weren't armed, there was much more to pillage, and, as some argued, there'd be women, younger women, pretty wives. Within days, just as Little Crow had said, the Dakota had lost the battle and the war.

The Attack on New Ulm

The rural Midwest is littered with New Ulms—New Berlin, New Holland, New Prague. If European immigrants were going to be in a wilderness, who knows what joy it must have brought to somehow, fancifully, call the wilderness home.

New Ulm was a community of folks who'd come to the New Land en masse, almost a thousand strong. Before August 1862, few of their neighbors liked them—whites or Indians—because, like immigrant groups before and after, they cared primarily for each other and very little for the foreign world scrambling around them. The people of New Ulm were not well-armed, and their town was laid out perfectly for an attack; but they were hearty and smart, as the Dakota would soon discover.

The first attack came on Tuesday afternoon, a day after the settlers had swarmed into the village to band together for safety. By then, lines of defense had been erected, the streets strewn with wagons and whatever else might impede a Dakota attack. Lines of fire were created around the perimeter of the village, and, almost comically, a third wave of fighting homesteaders, within the fortified town, brandished pitchforks in lieu of rifles. Of the 100 men in New Ulm that day, only thirty had guns.

Casualties occurred on both sides in that first attack, but when the fighting began, at three in the afternoon, the Dakota attack—carried out by roughly 100 well-armed men—lacked precision and power. They were not a fighting force; they were headstrong warriors acting on their own, and their ragged assault made little headway against the Germans behind the barricades.

The Dakota stopped firing that night when a thunderstorm came through. Nothing in the battle that day had fallen their way. The attack on New Ulm was, in fact, a defeat, their first. Taking an entire community wasn't at all like the cold slaying of families on isolated homesteads.

The Dakota were still free to raid and pillage, to rape and murder; but what Little Crow had told them was clearly prophetic: the Dakota were not going to win the war.

The Reverend Stephen R. Riggs

By 1862, The Rev. Stephen R. Riggs, Presbyterian missionary to the Dakota, had worked among Native people in the Minnesota River valley for almost 25 years. In his memoir Mary and I: Forty Years with the Sioux (1880), Riggs confesses wondering, in August of that year, whether, amid the horrible carnage, all his devoted mission work was in vain. "But often the thought came to us," he says, "what will become of our quarter-century's work among the Dakota? It seemed to be lost."

No single cultural force was so intensely destructive of the Dakota way of life as the work of Christian missionaries. Confessing Jesus Christ as savior changed most everything about the Dakota, altered passions and behavior, and prompted those who did convert to renounce sinful ways they often simply equated with their own Dakota culture. Rev. Riggs, like his fellow missionaries to the Native people, wished more than anything to bring all God's children home to his love. But that soul-change was tangled up with other changes.

By 1862, there were already hundreds of Christian Dakota, some of them—maybe many of them—the children of mixed-race marriages, "mixed-bloods." Christian believers frequently distinguished themselves by wearing the white man's clothes, cutting their hair, and becoming "farmer Indians." Those Dakota who hadn't converted often hated "farmer Indians" and mixed-bloods just as deeply as they did the white people who'd taken their land.

And yet that August, more than a few Christian Dakota became as angry and even savage as any, as if their conversions had amounted to nothing more than a haircut.

On Monday night, when word of the attacks reached Riggs' mission compound, a Christian Indian named Paul came to Riggs and his wife and begged for blue cloth, because he knew that only if he shed his white man's clothes and returned to a breechcloth could he escape death at the hands of his own people. Such a request must have been mystifying to the Riggs—and very scary.

That evening, Mary Riggs put her children to bed; but as more and more refugees, some of them hurt, came into the mission compound and told their stories, as more and more of the Christian Dakota let Riggs know that what was happening was not just some angry spat, he knew they had to act.

First, Riggs led his people in prayer and sang hymns. Then, after midnight, they left the compound, unarmed, bound for an island in the river, where they hoped they might escape the ugliness. But when Riggs himself heard the latest reports the next morning, he knew they had to leave their island hideaway.

When they did, they met other men and women and children—some deeply traumatized, in shock. Rain began to fall hard that afternoon and didn't quit until the next day. "The first night we were out, some of smaller children called for home," Riggs wrote of that time. "The next night some of the older children would have cried had it been any use."

By Thursday morning, the refugees were out of food. They gathered wood from a grove, killed one of their cows, and roasted it over the fire. They had no utensils or pots and pans. And at that moment, a photographer escaping with them took a picture, one of the few photographs from the entire 1862 Dakota war.

On Friday, they made their way to Ft. Ridgely, but when one of their number approached close enough, he found burning buildings and frantic homesteaders. This refuge offered no comfort.

Along the way, they discovered burning homes, dead and burned and mutilated corpses. On the Sabbath, they came to a crossroads, where many other white people were congregated. For the first time, they felt somewhat safe.

There are far more horrible stories than the story of the Riggs party's escape, but Riggs is a central character. He'd studied the Dakota language and written a primer, a book you can still order, Dakota Grammar with Texts and Ethnography, a book that not only describes the Dakota language, but provides the texts of traditional stories and myths from Dakota life. He preached the gospel of Christ that transformed new believers in ways that sometimes angered those who wouldn't turn to the white man's religion. He was not brutal or a bigot. He was a 19th-century American evangelical missionary, subject to all the prejudices we might expect; but there can be little doubt he loved the people he served. We will hear from him again.

The Second Attack on New Ulm

On Saturday morning, the Dakota, led by Little Crow, decided once more to try to take New Ulm. But the village was now full of homesteaders from throughout the countryside who'd come to the town to escape the rampage all around. Adding to their numbers were volunteer militia groups from nearby towns.

Neverthless, when, mid-morning, the Dakota advanced with a cavalcade of shrieking, the battle that ensued was, by any measure, horrifying. Sixty settlers dropped in the first hour: ten dead, fifty wounded.

When the fighting lulled, Little Crow attempted another charge, this one from the south, where hand-to-hand fighting took place, but defenses held. When evening threatened, Little Crow assembled sixty of his men to make another charge at the Main Street barricades, but New Ulm's makeshift forces decided to charge the Dakota first, and when they did, the settlers warded off the very best that Little Crow could throw at them. Thirty-two settlers died, 60 were wounded, and most of New Ulm, Minnesota was burning. Almost 200 houses had been torched.

But the village hadn't been taken, and the assault was costly for the attackers.—This is part 1 of a two-part article. Part 2 will be posted on August 20.

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