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Six Weeks In Autumn: 150 Years Ago

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While most of Americans focused on the news of recent battles at Baton Rouge, La., and Cedar Mountain, Va., in early August 1862, Minnesotans delved into a month-long period of terror and armed conflict that tore the state apart. What began as a State-driven effort to quell unrest with local native residents, culminated in the deployment of Federal troops and the largest mass execution in United States history.

Today, it is usually referred to as the “Dakota Conflict” or the “U.S-Dakota War of 1862,” but to people living in the four-year-old State of Minnesota in 1862 (and for generations after), the events of August and September 1862, was known as the “Sioux Uprising.” Like so much in history, it is easy to list events in a chronological order with the hope that it explains participants’ motives, but the events leading up to the slaughter of hundreds of Minnesotans—both native and recent immigrants—don’t provide a tight, concise explanation.

I can already feel the hairs starting to bristle on the back of my own Minnesota-born neck as I typed the words, “both native and recent immigrants,” but it is true, most non-native Americans living in Minnesota in 1862 had only been there for less than 10 years. With a population of about 4,800 non-native settlers, the Territory of Minnesota was incorporated in March 1849. Native population in the Territory was estimated at 25,000 people at that time

Two years later, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey led a commission that negotiated two treaties with four bands of Dakota Sioux living in the Territory. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851 gave all of the Wahpeton and Sisseton Sioux (upper Sioux) lands west of the Mississippi River to the U.S. government. The Treaty of Mendota, signed that same year, ceded the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute Sioux (lower Sioux) lands in southern Minnesota, requiring relocation to an area near modern Morton, Minn. Both treaties, however, were amended during the ratification process to eliminate any explicit guarantees of lands retained by the tribes. The natives were not happy with the change, but after assurances that these lands would still be reserved for them, they reluctantly agreed. The government was now free to issue land grants and patents to stimulate settlement throughout the southern portions of the Territory.

Within two years, non-native population in the Territory soared to 40,000. In less than 800 days, the number of people occupying the territory had doubled. Watching new settlers move into their former homeland and seeing the population shift from a once-powerful majority to a fast-shrinking minority was probably very difficult for the natives. Fueling their growing dissatisfaction with the agreement, moreover, was much of the promised payments for the land were never delivered!

Native populations had been moved to designated reservations with the promise of annual payment for saying they gave up any right to other lands outside of the reservation. This became more complicated because the U.S. Government maintained agency houses on the reservations. As part of the agency complex, there was a government-appointed trader who had a great variety of goods to sell to the local native population. In most cases, the customers didn’t have the money to buy the liquor, tobacco, trinkets, tools or housewares, so made their purchase on credit against their annuity payment.

By 1857, the population of Minnesota Territory had swelled to more than 150,000 non-native settlers. It didn’t take long for the sense of being “squeezed out” to combine with frustrations over continued treaty violations and increased impoverishment to swell to a breaking point.

That spring, Wahpekute Dakota Chief Inkpaduta led a small band of warriors in an attack on the community of Spirit Lake, Iowa (near the Minnesota border), killing between 35 and 40 non-native settlers. The rampage continued when they attacked Springfield, Minn., (modern Jackson) where they killed seven more settlers before being turned back. The unrest had boiled up but seemed to have been quelled—for the time.

In retrospect, it is easy to see where all of this would lead. A single business setting prices with no competition is going to be able to profit from the situation, especially when they are part of the system that distributes the annual annuity payment. The traders knew just how much their customers could afford, so it was easy to maximize his sales and keep their customers indebted.

Independent traders had demanded—and received—the annuity payments made directly to the traders who would then deduct any amount owed them before distributing any remaining amount to the natives. By mid-1862, the Dakota demanded the annuities directly from their agent, Thomas J. Galbraith, rather than giving it the traders. The traders refused to provide any more goods on credit under those conditions. Any negotiations between the agent, the traders and the natives had reached an impasse. The natives’ anger began to simmer.


The simmer reached full boil on Aug. 17, 1862, when four young Dakota Sioux men (who had been hunting) killed five people living at the farms of Robinson Jones and Howard Baker near Acton, Minn. When word of the killings spread to people at the Lower Sioux Reservation, a group of Dakota men argued that it was time to go to war with Minnesota's settler population to reclaim their ancestral land. One of the reasons voiced in the council with Taoyateduta (Little Crow), an influential Dakota leader, was that many of the settler men had gone South to fight for the Union, leaving Minnesota virtually unprotected.

Taoyateduta reluctantly agreed to lead them, even though he feared the war may end disastrously for all of his people. “You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon,” he is quoted as having said, but added “Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”

The next day, Taoyateduta led an attack on the Lower Sioux Agency on the Minnesota River, killing many of the settlers. In the ensuing weeks, several groups of Dakota Sioux attacked settler communities throughout the Minnesota River Valley, including New Ulm and the Federal garrison at Fort Ridgely. The war—or “uprising” as it was locally known—lasted nearly six weeks. During that time, it is estimated that as many as 600 hundred settlers and U.S. soldiers, as well as an unknown number of Dakota, lost their lives.

Whereas a relatively small group of Dakota who lived on or near the Lower Sioux Reservation were the principal native combatants, Minnesota’s reaction was directed at the native population as a whole. Soldiers and local militia organized at Fort Snelling under Col. Henry H. Sibley for a decisive military response. Following the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 23, 1862, many of the Dakota natives fled the state. Many others surrendered to U.S. troops at Camp Release near present-day Montevideo.


Though the war had drawn to a close, a dark chapter in Minnesota’s history opened. In addition to the natives who surrendered at Camp Release, Federal troops spent the next few weeks gathering any dislocated natives they could find. Under Sibley’s direction, these prisoners (as many as 1,600) were marched to Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers (near present day St. Paul) and placed into a stockaded holding pen. There, they would remain through the winter of 1862-1863, awaiting deportation to out-of-state reservations. It is estimated as many as 300 people died, due mostly to malnutrition and disease.

Those remaining in the camp were taken to western reservations by steamboat in May 1863. Most of the Dakota who still lived freely in Minnesota fled, heading into the western territories or north into Canada.

In the meantime, Colonel Sibley established a military commission to try Dakota men suspected of killing or assaulting civilians. The military tribunal convicted 303 men who they sentenced to death.

After reviewing the evidence, however, President Abraham Lincoln reduced the number to be hanged to just 39. His reasoning was based on distinguishing between Dakota men who had only fought in battles with U.S. armed forces and those accused of killing and assaulting civilians. Just prior to the execution, a man named Tatemina (Round Wind) received a reprieve because his conviction had been based on questionable testimony. On the day after Christmas in 1862, U.S. soldiers, acting on orders, hanged the remaining 38 men in Mankato, Minn. It was—and remains—the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Even though the six-week war resulted in approximately 6,000 Dakota people being permanently displaced from their Minnesota homes, descendents of natives and settlers can still be found living where their ancestors fought 150 years earlier. And similar to sentiments held by northerners and southerners regarding the great Civil War fought between 1861 and 1865, Minnesotans—both of native and non-native descent—struggle with how the conflict influences their lives 150 years later.

All seem to agree, however, the six weeks in the autumn of 1862 should not be marginalized. Even though Minnesota’s war could not compete for the headlines coming out of the east or south where Southern and Northern soldiers contested America’s Civil War, it would shape the geographic displacement of the Dakota nation and European settlers 150 years later. The predominantly German, Scandinavian and French settlers who chose to move into the newly formed State of Minnesota planted roots that can be found throughout the state to this day. Likewise, Dakota communities spread throughout Minnesota, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Canada, all of which trace their roots to the Minnesota Valley where their ancestors had lived until the War of 1862.

Honor those who fought for their way of life,

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine

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