CROSBY — The U.S. Dakota War of 1862 was a defining event for the state of Minnesota and one the nation as a whole didn’t pay much attention to as the American Civil War was being fought.
David Gray, a history instructor at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, spoke Tuesday, Jan. 14, to a full room at Heartwood Senior Living in Crosby during a Lakes Area Unlimited Learning event about the war and how it impacted the way the state is shaped today.
“The Dakota War was a defining moment because Minnesota, at that time, was a land with three primary peoples: Americans — understood as U.S. citizens — the Ojibwe and Dakota,” Gray said. “Because of the war one of those peoples was severed from Minnesota. Minnesota with a continuous Dakota presence, similar to that of the Ojibwe, would have been a different and better place. The killing of over 600 settlers with their children and the ethnic cleansing of 6,000 Dakota makes it difficult for society to come to terms with understanding how to characterize what happened, even now.”
The Dakota War in 1862 was the single largest mass killing of American citizens prior to 9/11, culminating in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The consequences for the sovereign Dakota nation were irreparable and are often buried by the events of the ongoing Civil War, Gray said.
Gray, who previously taught civics at Crosby-Ironton High School, spent two hours presenting information of the war he has researched thoroughly. Gray said the war continues to be a controversial topic and Minnesota residents should do their best to gain knowledge of the war.
“The Dakota War was a tragedy,” Gray said.
During the 1860s there were four Dakota bands who at one time possessed nearly all of Minnesota. The bands were divided into two portions of the state. The first was the Redwood Agency in the lower part of the state, whose people were called the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute. The second portion was the Yellow Medicine Agency in the upper part of the state, whose people were called the Sisseton and Wahpeton.
The Dakota had lost half of the state to the Ojibwe by the time the U.S. government came on the scene and purchased land to build Fort Snelling in 1805. By the beginning of 1862, they had lost most of the other half of Minnesota and at the end of that year, lost the state in its entirety.
There were 7,000 Dakota living on the reservations in 1860. For comparison, there was a population in Minnesota of 170,000 and 31,400,000 in the United States.
In 1825, the Prairie Du Chien Treaty — between the Dakota and Ojibwe — was created. Gray said this was not a land acquisition treaty. It created a border between the Dakota and Ojibwe but did not bring a cessation of hostilities or stop further Ojibwe conquest of Dakota land.
The Dakota War began when four young Dakota men shot and killed five white settlers — three men and two women — on Aug. 17, 1862, in Meeker County. These Dakota men then fled back to their land, asking for protection and appealing to Chief Little Crow, chief of a band of the Mdewakanton Dakota people, to lead them.
Fort Snelling played a role in the war and its aftermath, according to the Minnesota Historical Society — one source where Gray gathered information on the war. In early August 1862, recruitment of the Sixth through Eleventh Infantry regiments intended to serve in the Civil War had commenced.
Gray said the Sisseton and Wahpeton didn’t formally support the war and a modest number of young men fought. Messages were sent inviting the Ojibwe to join the war, but some Ojibwe chiefs were non-committal. When news of Dakota attacks reached St. Paul, Gov. Alexander Ramsey appointed Henry Sibley, a colonel in the state's military forces, as commander of the army that would march against the Dakota. Sibley led four hastily armed companies of the Sixth Infantry Regiment from Fort Snelling to St. Peter. Over the next few days, a trickle of supplies and detachments from the other partially recruited infantry regiments and militia units left Fort Snelling to join Sibley.
Gray said Sibley was criticized for being slow and too measured in his actions, as he knew the strengths of the Dakota. His volunteers were extremely green and his force relieved Fort Ridgely on Aug. 28, 1862. Gray said the two primary Dakota targets were Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, the largest town ever assaulted by tribal peoples in U.S. history.
The state's military forces came under federal control on Sept. 16, 1862, when Maj. Gen. John Pope assumed command of the newly created Military Department of the Northwest. Sibley, just appointed a brigadier general of U.S. Army volunteers, directed the U.S. forces in the decisive Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 23, defeating the Dakota, the MHS stated.
“This battle broke the back of the Dakota resistance,” Gray said, then quoting Dakota Chief Big Eagle: “Soon after the battle, I, with many others who had taken part in the war, surrendered to General Sibley. Robinson and the other half breeds assured us that if we would do this we would only be held as prisoners of war for a short time, but as soon as I surrendered I was thrown into prison.”
Gray said while the war party fought the battle the peace party took control of most the hostages. The war party wanted to attack, but Little Crow said no.
Many of the Dakota combatants moved westward into Dakota Territory, while others went north to Canada, but many of the men who had fought stayed with their families, who could not move swiftly enough to escape. Numerous Dakota who had not participated in the war, as well as some who had, met Sibley's army at a place that came to be called Camp Release. When he arrived, Sibley took the Dakota into the custody of the U.S. military.
Over the course of three weeks, a military commission tried 392 Dakota men for their participation in the war and sentenced 303 of them to death. Some of the trials lasted no longer than five minutes. Gray said the charges in the trials were for battle participation and many Dakota admitted to it not realizing their confession would mean immediate conviction.
Gray said there is some reason to believe hearsay evidence was admissible, but played little role in most trials. There was no jury and no attorney provided. Gray said Gen. Pope, who was not a respected man, had a huge impact on how the trials were conducted. Gray said Pope viewed Sibley as soft and a recent discovered letter shows Pope threatening Sibley with charges of treason.
Gray said the Dakota, according to Pope, were “... to be regarded as treated as maniacs and wild beasts.”
In the Dakota treaty of 1837, the Dakota purchased land east of the Mississippi River. With the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota Treaties of 1851, all the remaining Dakota land was purchased. The Senate amended the treaty so no reservations could be created along the Minnesota River. The Dakota were permitted to stay on two 150-mile strips of land along the north and south banks of the Minnesota River for a time.
In 1857, a rogue group of Dakota, led by Inkpaduta, killed 32 civilians in northern Iowa near the Minnesota border, called the “Spirit Lake Massacre.” Little Crow led an expedition of Dakota and “mixed bloods,” who killed some members of Inkpaduta’s party.
With the final treaty in 1858, the Dakota had to depart the north bank of the river and were granted the permanent title for the south bank. This treaty damaged the standing of Little Crow, the chief of Mdewakanton, Gray said, as the Dakota lost a lot of land. Gray said the Dakota didn’t have enough land to maintain life for food.
Resident connection to war
Richard and Mary Lu Dietz of Crosslake attended the event as Richard Dietz’s family has a connection to the war and they wanted to learn more about it.
“My family was one of those where the Indians came and said to a relative we are going on the warpath, you better leave and go to New Ulm,” Richard Dietz said. “So they went to New Ulm and hid in the basement of a bar. They were saved.”
The Dakota attacked Milford Township, just west of New Ulm on Aug. 18 and more than 50 people were killed, making it one of the hardest-hit communities of the war, the MHS stated. The Dakota came back to New Ulm and left another five settlers dead. The following day the people of New Ulm elected a military commander and over the next few days more than 1,000 refugees went to New Ulm to bring the city’s population to 2,000, though only 300 of them were equipped to fight, the MHS stated. A second battle in New Ulm on Aug. 23 was the largest battle over a U.S. town since 1776, where there were 600 Dakota soldiers.
Andrew Hook, the chairperson for the events for Unlimited Learning, said the organization always strives to choose interesting and fun topics for its educational events. The events usually attract a crowd of 30-40 people and the more interesting events, which include topics on history, bring more than 100 people to Heartwood Senior Living, where the events are hosted.
“David offers a good perspective on the Dakota War and puts it into context,” Hook said. “He has a good understanding of the Dakota War and this war is important for Minnesota.”
Lakes Area Unlimited Learning has about 55 members and its mission is to provide quality and broad-based learning opportunities to lakes area residents with an emphasis on mature adults, it stated on its website.
Barb Marohn of Brainerd also attended Tuesday’s Unlimited Learning event, which was her first time. She has gone to smaller discussions similar to the event at The Center in Brainerd.
“Being retired this is an interesting addition to our life to be able to have access to these learning events,” Marohn said. “This is a topic of interest to us with the history in Minnesota.”