James Calvin Schaap

The Dakota War of 1862

Part 1: "There is no one righteous."

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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.

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