1862: A year of bloodshed and turmoil for central Minnesota

Accounts from the time state negotiations between tribal leaders and U.S. government officials got tense enough that everything was a sneeze away from a gunfight.

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Don Wedll, a historian with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, gives a presentation Tuesday, Sept. 24, on the 1862 Dakota-Ojibwe conflicts that unraveled the Brainerd lakes area during a decade of upheaval for the region, the state of Minnesota and the United States at large. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

PILLAGER — The Brainerd lakes area was at the crossroads of history, violence and social unrest just over 150 years ago.

Don Wedll, a historian of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, served as the speaker Tuesday, Sept. 24, for the fifth installment in a series of six presentations titled “History In Our Back Yard,” at the Sylvan Town Hall on 12956 24th Ave., Pillager. The series is billed as an opportunity for area residents to learn and engage with local history free of charge.

The year was 1862 and the subject was a period of turmoil and open conflict between the various major players in the lakes area at that time — a murky era of shifting borders, rapid social change and questionable allegiances that characterized Minnesota’s transformation from territory to full-fledged state.


Crow Wing County — or, at least, the lakes area that existed before the county was formed — found itself caught up in social forces that were transforming the nation at various junctures. Whether that was open hostilities between the Ojibwe and Dakota peoples, poor relations between government authorities and Native Americans, or the ongoing Civil War between the Union and Confederacy out east.

After decades of, at best, tense relations between Native American tribes and white settlers in the area, Wedll said, the situation continued to deteriorate as the nation entered the 1860s — a decade characterized by land seizures, starvation, kidnappings, delayed payments from the U.S. government to tribal authorities and, at times, outright violence.

Wedll noted Confederate operatives in the region were keen on agitating an already delicate peace, as opening up a second front against the Union would bolster their chances for succession. These “border ruffians” as they were known were quite active in pitting the various groups against each other.

“Both the Dakota and Ojibwe attacked settlers in this area at the same time despite being supposedly enemies,” said Wedll, who noted it’s been a matter of debate just how much the two rival nations were talking. “So how did they communicate and decide on a date? I think (Confederate) agitators decided on a time and said, ‘This is when you should attack.’”

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Area residents pack into Sylvan Town Hall for the fifth installment in a series of six presentations titled “History In Our Back Yard." The series is billed as an opportunity for local residents to learn and engage with local history free of charge. Historian Don Wedll spoke on the turbulent events of 1862, a year of violence and upheaval that shaped the lakes area for centuries to come. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

Wedll noted there were moments when both sides considered joining up and “driving out all the white people from Minnesota” — various pushes proposed by the likes of Chief Hole-in-the-Day the Younger of the Ojibwe and Chief Little Crow of the Dakota, but these efforts were ignored and often ridiculed.

These pushes for unification were further complicated because Hole-in-the-Day, despite ambitions to be the main leader of the Minnesota Ojibwe, faced criticism and even armed opposition from the Mille Lacs Ojibwe.


Soldiers of Camp Ripley and Camp Ridgley — sometimes attacked while ferrying supplies and money through the area — were also involved. Many of the conflicts were characterized by negotiations and standoffs between Hole-in-the-Day and government authorities, with figures like Gov. Alexander Ramsey and the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole observing developments anxiously.

“It was so tense,” Wedll said of one particular meeting between Hole-in-the-Day and Dole. “Some people later said that if somebody sneezed everyone would have started shooting.”

The conclusion of 1862 marked the beginning of the end of an era — even if violence was to spring up again and again in the following years. Little Crow was killed during a raid in Meeker County in 1863, while Hole-in-the-Day would find his own end during a famous assassination near Sylvan Township in 1868 — a murder initiated, Wedll said, by growing unrest among the Ojibwe as they continued to lose land and were moved onto the White Earth Reservation.

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