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James Calvin Schaap

The Dakota War of 1862

Part 2: The use of memory.

I want to speak to you now of what is in my own heart. Give me all these white captives. I will deliver them up to their friends. You Dakotas are numerous—you can afford to give these captives to me, and I will go with them to the white people. Then, if you want to fight, when you see the white soldiers coming to fight, fight with them, but don't fight with women and children. Or stop fighting.

So said Little Paul, Paul Mazakutemani, a Christian Indian from the Sioux of the Upper Agency, to Little Crow and his warriors, a couple thousand of them, plus hundreds of white prisoners. Having suffered defeat, Little Crow had headed northwest to the Upper Agency to draft the Native people from other bands into the cause, by force if necessary. The only way to win, he'd determined, was by increasing his manpower.

But the Upper Sioux Agency Dakota wanted no part of the war, nor had they from the beginning. When they saw the hundreds of white women and children, as well as mixed bloods, held captive—and saw for themselves those captives' wretched condition—they were appalled.

"The Americans are a great people," Little Paul told the warriors from Little Crow's encampment. "They have much lead, powder, guns, and provisions. Stop fighting, and now gather up all the captives and give them to me. No one who fights with the white people ever becomes rich, or remains two days in one place, but is always fleeing and starving."

When Little Crow's people turned around and went back east, the Dakota from Upper Sioux painted their bodies and readied themselves for war—not against the whites, but against their fellow Dakota. For a time, a war between the Indians seemed imminent.

Then Little Paul fearlessly lined up his warriors in the middle of Little Crow's camp and made an incredible offer. "I will go over to the white people. If they wish it, they may kill me," he said. "If they don't wish to kill me, I shall live. So all of you who do not want to fight with the white people, come over to me. I have now one hundred men. We are going over to the white people. Deliver up to me the captives. And as many of you as don't wish to fight with the whites, gather yourselves together today and come with me."

Some of the bloodied warriors did cross over and join with the Upper Sioux farmers, but Little Crow swore to fight on. He told those who sided with Little Paul that, should the whites capture him, they would surely put him in a cage like an animal. He wasn't wrong about that. He much preferred death.

Little Paul and his Christian Indians were peacemakers, but they were also pragmatic. After all, they'd long ago thrown in their lot with the very palefaces who'd robbed the Sioux of their land, their heritage, and their culture. To Little Crow and his warriors, they were already traitors.

To the whites in 1862 Minnesota, Little Paul's "Christian Indians" were ministers of peace. To Little Crow, they were not driven by their being Dakota, but by expediency, by compromise, by giving in and giving up. They'd cut their hair and worn shirts and pants as if they were white men.

No one saved more human beings during the Dakota War than the Christian Indians.

On a hill above Morton, Minnesota, a pair of huge monuments stand, but you'll be lucky to find them. They are not well-marked. On a trip through the country a few years ago, I asked a retired man who was working in the local museum where they were. He didn't appear to know what I was talking about. One of those huge monuments is dedicated to Little Paul and the other "faithful Indians."

In calling those Indians "faithful," the monument is, today, painfully politically incorrect. Some, I'm sure—white and Dakota alike—would rather have those monuments lost forever. They'd rather no one ever saw them. Those monuments, placed there in 1899, weren't hard to erect for the children of the white settlers who'd suffered so horribly. But today, their presence likely irritates the children of at least some of the Dakota.

Perhaps no one should talk about what happened 150 years ago, just up the road from where I live. Maybe the whole story is too full of sin in every beating heart, no matter what the color of the chest.

The Battle of Birch Coulee

Major Joseph R. Brown had a personal stake in entering hostile area because his own wife and children had been taken captive. He'd been sent on a burial detail to the river crossing where so many soldiers had died, but ever since leaving General Henry Sibley's command, he and his men hadn't seen an Indian anywhere. All day long they'd been burying rotting corpses.

Joseph Coursolle, a member of the mixed-blood community at the Redwood Agency, a man whose father was French-Canadian, whose mother was Sioux, and whose wife was white, remembered that burial detail well:

The things we saw that day were too terrible to describe. Scattered along the road and at burned cabins we found the bodies of settlers, mostly men and boys. Fifty we buried before reaching the ferry. There the most gruesome sight of all awaited us. One the road lay the bodies of 33 young men, most of them in two files where they fell when the Sioux fired from almost point-blank range—killed in their tracks without returning a shot. All had been scalped and the uniforms had been stripped from their bodies. We dug at a furious pace in our haste to conceal the fearful sight.

When Major Brown and his men camped that night at a precarious spot on the top of the river bluffs, they were trailed by Dakota who determined to take them, a few dozen troops. Brown must have assumed that Little Crow's warriors, having suffered defeat at both Ft. Ridgely and New Ulm, had high-tailed for the empty spaces of the Dakota Territory, straight west.

They hadn't.

Birch Coulee looks much the same today as it did 150 years ago—a field of prairie grass surrounded on two sides by wooded ravines, so ordinary and peaceful it's hard to believe one of the most costly battles of this short and bloody war took place here. But people died at Birch Coulee: 13 cavalry and a few Dakota. Dozens were wounded, many severely.

The attack came at dawn, the Dakota surrounding the camp on every side. To them, the action must have seemed, for a time, like shooting fish in a barrel. At least 30 men were wounded in just a few minutes; 90 horses—tethered to the wagons that surrounded the tents—were shot and killed. The soldiers who survived used the horses' bodies—and even their dead comrades—as cover to keep the Dakota at bay.

The sound of gunfire that day ran up the Minnesota River valley, all the way to Ft. Ridgely, where Gen. Henry Sibley himself led a relief detail. By the time they got to Birch Coulee, on September 3, the Dakota had fled. Even though the cavalry had suffered through the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, there was no question about the outcome.

The Battle at Wood Lake

After Birch Coulee, the government's attitude toward the Dakota Indians was simple: chase them out of the state forever, or kill them all. Extermination. Ethnic cleansing. Mass murder.

When the commander of the government forces, Gen. Sibley, determined to move his forces to the Upper Agency, they were 1700 strong. It was September 19 before Sibley left Ft. Ridgely for the Upper Sioux Agency in pursuit of the Dakota, a month after those first deaths on a farm near Acton.

Gen. Sibley and Chief Little Crow had actually been friends before the war, hunting buddies. But even Gen. Sibley wanted to rid the territory of its first nations; and Little Crow had never really been a general; he'd never had complete control of his warriors.

The last battle of the war, The Battle of Wood Lake, was a ragtag affair that began when undisciplined soldiers ran their wagon right through advancing Dakota warriors and ended two hours later when the Dakota simply withdrew, leaving fourteen of their own dead in the grass, some of which were scalped by the cavalry.

"The bodies of the dead," Sibley pronounced after hearing what happened, "even of a savage enemy, shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized & christian men."

The Battle of Wood Lake marked the end of Dakota War of 1862—at least the end of military conflict.

We could only wish it was really over.

Camp Release

When General Henry Sibley came into the Indian village at the Upper Sioux Agency, he marched his troops in parade because he wanted to swagger, to make a statement—not only to the Dakota people, but also to his own troops. But the Dakota from the Upper Sioux area had already defined their position when they simply took over guardianship of 200 or more white prisoners, most of whom were women and children.

Little Crow thought of the prisoners as gold, the worthiest bargaining chip he had. He'd never thought the Dakota could win a war with the whites; what he'd assumed was that white folks wanted the lives of prisoners even more than they wanted the death of the Dakotas.

Life among the prisoners in what came to be called Camp Release was sometimes horrific and sometimes not, Dakota women often protecting them from harm—after all, many had been friends, even good friends. Even so, most prisoners, most of the time, suffered terribly. Many were not fed, and almost all were stripped of their clothes and dressed out as if they were Dakota themselves. In the earliest days of the war, after frontier raids that netted them horses and guns and food and more prisoners, some Dakota warriors drank far too much alcohol, and unspeakable things happened.

Nancy McClure was born in 1836 to a Dakota mother; her father was a white soldier. In 1851, she married David Fairbault, and together they farmed on the south bank of the Minnesota River, just a couple miles from the Lower Sioux Agency. When the war began, she and her husband—also mixed blood—and their son were all captured, their farm burned. Here's just a snippet of what she remembers as a prisoner of the Dakota:

I cannot tell all the scenes I saw while I was a captive. Some were very painful …. The night before the troops came to Camp Release, twenty or thirty Indians came in with a young white girl of sixteen or seventeen. She was nearly heartbroken, and quite in despair. When the half-breed men saw her they determined to rescue her, and we women encouraged them. Joe Laframboise and nine other mixed bloods went boldly up and took the girl from her brutal captors. The Indians threatened to shoot her if she was taken from them; but Joe was very brave, and said, "We are going to have her if we have to fight for her; and if you harm her it will be the worse for you. Remember, we are not your prisoners anymore." So they took her, and she was rescued at Camp Release.

The stories abound—some of them true, some probably not, some deftly spun. After the war, there were reasons for everyone to hate, and then to lie.


"They must be exterminated," said one newspaper editorial, "and now is a good time to commence doing it."

Some Dakota warriors, including Little Crow, had left north to Canada or west to the Dakota Territories, but once four hundred Dakota men were rounded up and their wives and children brought into camp, the war-like drum beat by white folks still bleeding from horrific attacks began to communicate the new gospel: that no longer could whites live in peace with savages who'd often simply walked up to their doors and murdered their loved ones in cold blood. There were only two possible answers to the problem: outright banishment or—even better—total extermination. Some of the leaders of the settlers—in the pages of their newspapers—preached ethnic cleansing.

"There will be no peace in this region by virtue of treaties and Indian faith," wrote Gen. John Pope, the military commander appointed by President Lincoln to quell the uprising. "It is my purpose to utterly exterminate the Sioux … destroy everything belonging to them. They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts."

The end of shooting and the killing did not mean the end of suffering. The Dakota had every right to believe they would be treated as enemy soldiers—many were told, in fact, that in exchange for their surrender under a flag of truce, they'd be treated as prisoners of war. They were not. White Minnesotans wanted peace, but they were in no mood for reconciliation.

Almost immediately, military trials began, one after another. The pastor, Stephen R. Riggs, was appointed as a kind of grand jury, since his knowledge of the Dakota language enabled him to talk to and with the Native people. He brought charges, once he'd determined, rightly or wrongly, what had gone on, who had done what, who had been where, and what degree of culpability each enemy combatant had in the war.

The political atmosphere was thick with vengeance. Gen. Sibley understood that prolonged inaction would only breed more hate—for everyone, including him.

Sometimes makeshift judicial hearings for individual Dakota warriors lasted no more than five minutes. If a warrior said he was at the battle of New Ulm or Ft. Ridgely or Birch Coulee, that admission was grounds for a death sentence. Eventually, the hearings sentenced 307 Native Minnesotans to death by hanging and 16 more to jail, while it exonerated 69 others.

In 1862, anywhere other than war-torn Minnesota, the idea of hanging 307 human beings at one time was obscene or heathenish. In Washington, pressure soon arose for President Lincoln himself to intervene, so the administration asked for, and received, a list of those condemned to hang, along with the individual charges.

Meanwhile, 4,000 Dakota men, women, and children were marched east and away from the reservation, through the very fields where people had been killed and property burned; the cavalry at times had to draw swords and affix bayonets to keep white folks from willful murder. Still, atrocities occurred.

President Lincoln, during the week in which he freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, commuted the sentences of all but 39 of those Dakota prisoners. In a three-page letter he wrote in his own hand, Lincoln condemned to death those he believed to be clearly guilty of rape and murder, sentencing the others to prison.

One of those Dakota had his sentence commuted, but on December 26, the day after Christmas, 1862, on an enormous scaffold in Mankato, Minnesota, created specifically for the purpose, 38 Dakota men refused the hoods that traditionally accompanied hanging and chose instead to have their faces visible. They sang their death songs and were hung in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

William R. Duley was among the very first white settlers in Murray County, Minnesota, one of a group of pioneers who had built cabins around Lake Shetek, in the southwest corner of the state. Even though they had been a considerable distance from the Lower Sioux Agency when the killing began, Duley and the other settlers became its victims nonetheless, when 200 Dakota made their way south and west to the white settlement, where they began to kill settlers.

When others heard about the deaths of some of their friends, they got together in an effort to fend off more death. Deception followed, and soon they left that cabin bound for New Ulm. When the Dakota attacked them, they took refuge in a slough, still to this day called Slaughter Slough, where, sadly, many of them were killed, several of those shot in the back while begging for mercy. Among the dead were two of William Duley's children, ages six and ten. Mrs. Duley reportedly had gotten down on her knees to beg for her children's lives. The Dakota promised her that her children would not be hurt, then simply murdered William, Jr., who was ten, right before her eyes.

Her husband, shot in the wrist, lived through the attack by escaping from the slough in another direction. It was that man, William R. Duley, who played executioner and pulled the single rope connected to 38 gallows that day in Mankato, a man who'd lost a wife and two children in the uprising, a man whose reputation was hardly unsullied itself. He had escaped, after all, while his wife and kids died.

Today, in downtown Mankato, a sculpted buffalo stands just across the street from the city library in "Reconciliation Park," as it's called. Almost everyone passing by—residents and travelers alike—will miss it. There, on an indistinguishable street corner, it serves as an icon of an immensely sad story in the history of the region, the state, and the country, a story we would all rather forget.

The Lingering Questions

Of the 300 or so Dakota men who were not hung—reprieved by President Lincoln—120 died in the next three years, some of them while imprisoned at Camp McClellan, in Iowa. Of the 1,600 Dakota men, women, and children locked up at Ft. Snelling, many guilty of no crime, 300 were dead in just a few months.

Hate was as poisonous as it was overwhelming. When contrary voices were heard—the voices of clergymen who publically deplored the horrid prison conditions in which the Dakota were suffering—they were roundly criticized. Preachers were physically attacked simply for ministering to the imprisoned Indians. Revs. Stephen Riggs and Thomas Williamson and Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, who had intervened personally with President Lincoln, regularly kept religious services with the Dakota, and were scorched by newspaper editorials. "Holiest rites of the church given to red-handed murderers," one journalist wrote. "God was mocked."

The war created such venomous hate that the white settlers of Minnesota wanted nothing less than to be rid of all its first residents—including Native peoples like the Ojibwa, who'd played no part in the war.

Hundreds of Dakota were crammed aboard steamboats for a long trip down the Mississippi to St. Louis, then brought across the state to St. Joseph to be jammed into yet another boat that took them up the Missouri to Crow Creek, in the Dakota Territories.

Rev. Williamson protested: "When 1,300 Indians were crowded on the boiler and hurricane decks of a single boat, and fed on musty hardtack and briny pork, which had not half a chance to cook, diseases were bred which made fearful havoc."

When they finally reached the Crow Creek Reservation, they were so weakened by starvation and disease that 150 died in just a few weeks, 300 by the end of the summer.

That's justice, many white folks said. The only solution, said others. For what they did, vengeance maintained, hundreds had to die. And they did. An eye for an eye, a life for a life.

The Rev. Riggs found some hope in the incredible spiritual turnabout he witnessed with eyes and heart—by his own persistence in ministering to the needs of the Native people throughout their horrifying tribulation after the war, even though he'd been the one to recommend the deaths of so many of the Dakota. When the attacks began at the Lower Sioux Agency back in August, Riggs had to be convinced to abandon the mission station he'd built himself a quarter century earlier. It was Riggs who admitted, in his memoir, that looking back that day, he couldn't help but wonder whether all of that work had been in vain.

But when he ministered to those who were imprisoned that winter, he was shocked by how many Native people were suddenly voraciously hungry to hear about this man Jesus Christ:

Some of these men, in their younger days, had heard Mr. Ponds [another missionary pastor] talk of the white man's religion. They were desirous now, in their trouble, to hear from their old friends, whose counsel they had so long rejected. To this request, Mr. G. H. Pond responded, and spent some days in the prison assisting Dr. Williamson. Rev. Mr. Hicks, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mankato, was also taken into their counsels and gave them aid. For several weeks previous, many men had been wishing to be baptized, and thus recognized as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. This number increased from day to day, until about three hundred—just how many could not afterward be ascertained—stood up and were baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The circumstances were peculiar, the whole movement was marvelous, it was like a "nation born in a day." The brethren desired to be divinely guided; and after many years of testing have elapsed, we all say that was a genuine work of God's Holy Spirit.

That phenomenal procession to grace was, to Riggs, an answer to prayer—and the answer to the riddle so many of us face so often in life—why so great suffering if a loving God is in control?

This first communion in the prison made a deep impression upon myself. It began to throw light upon the perplexing questions that had started in my own mind, as to the moral meaning of the outbreak. God's thought of it was not my thought. As the heavens were higher than the earth, so his thoughts were higher than mine. I accepted the present interpretation of the events, and thanked God and took courage. The Indians had not meant it so. In their thought and determination, the outbreak was the culmination of their hatred of Christianity. But God, who sits on the throne, had made it result in their submission to him. This was marvelous in our eyes.

I'm not so sure as Riggs is of God's specific plan—for the Dakota or the settlers—although it is impossible to doubt the salvation of those, like the thief on the cross, who truly sought the Lord. Riggs was a fine man, a courageous Christian, someone who didn't abandon his people, the Dakota, when every other white person did. His need for comfort and grace had to be immense amid all the suffering he'd witnessed—on both sides.

Amid the darkness of the awful bloodletting in what some call "Minnesota's other Civil War," there were, in fact, a hundred points of light, small yet bravely defiant acts by many on both sides, acts of mercy and of grace.

There are many reasons, I suppose, why so few of us know much at all about the opening bloody act of the Great Sioux Wars, even here where I live, among those who really should. One of those reasons, certainly, is that at the time a far bigger story was being written south of Mason-Dixon. In 1862, the Civil War was not going well for the Union.

But I wonder sometimes if many of us, even here in the neighborhood, would simply rather not know what happened along the Minnesota River in 1862. After all, those hundreds of points of light are there only because the sky itself is unceasingly black. If there is a moral to this story, it is, after all, something right out of the Apostle Paul: we all have sinned, we all have gone astray.

I've tried to live in the story as best I can from the distance of time and place. I've tried to tell it as fairly as I could, not an easy job. But even as it echoes in my heart, I can't help wondering if, in fact, we would all be better off simply to forget.

This terrible chapter in American history has done this, at least—it has humbled me. I can feel in my bones the anger and resentment of the Dakota at scurrilous agents, empty promises, and a legacy of broken treaties. But I also know I could come to hate the red man for the murders of babies yet to be born, of children, of women and men. I can feel those emotional tremors in me, rising, rising. And with that realization, my soul weeps.

And this I know too from the emptiness in me, even as I tell the story—Lord knows, I need a savior.—This is the second part of a two-part essay. Part 1 was posted on August 17.

James Calvin Schaap is emeritus professor of English at Dordt College, where he taught from 1976 to 2012. He is the author of more than twenty books.

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