Denied Promised Food, Starving Sioux Rampage in Minnesota
The 400-year armed conflict between whites and Native Americans saw enough savagery and cruelty to shame both races, but even in this context it is hard to understand the butchery that marked the short-lived Dakota War that erupted in Minnesota on Aug. 17, 1862. During a fearsome six-week period white settlers in Minnesota were relentlessly pursued and killed by roving bands of Eastern Sioux (Dakota) Indians driven to rage by the government failing to honor treaties and deliver promised food, money and goods. The combatants in this conflict, Indian warriors versus army troops and militia, each suffered about 80 casualties—but estimates of the number of white settlers slaughtered vary from 450 to more than 800.
Accounts from this time emphasize the barbarity of the killing. There are reports of babies being nailed alive to barn doors before their parents’ horrified eyes, then the father dismembered and the mother gang-raped. The Dakota showed no mercy, indiscriminately killing men and women, boys and girls, of all ages, often horribly mutilating the bodies. However, this hatred and fury did not suddenly explode out of nowhere. There were plenty of injustices that fueled the Indians’ anger.
The Eastern Sioux were forced to sign two treaties in 1851 that stole their ancestral hunting grounds and ended their traditional way of life. They were herded onto two 20-mile strips of land along the Minnesota River and told to become farmers. The government promised to pay the Dakota annuities for their land, as well as food and goods. Unknown to the Dakota, the U.S. Senate stripped Article 3 out of the treaties during ratification, which had promised the two reservations would permanently be Indian land. Another significant change allowed white traders to make exaggerated or false claims that were paid directly out of the Dakota annuities before the Indians ever saw a dime of their money. What money was left over was begrudgingly paid to the Indians in annual payments that were increasingly late, a shortage that was exacerbated when the federal government undertook the expense of building up its military at the start of the Civil War in 1861.
The situation was dire in the summer of 1862. The annual payment was late, and a scorching summer had wiped out the Indians’ crops. With their starving children wailing in their camps, the Dakota demanded to know why the food bulging in the government warehouses on the Indian agencies was not distributed to feed their hungry families. Indian Agent Thomas J. Galbraith refused to distribute food until the government money arrived to pay for the supplies. When the Dakota bitterly complained that their children were starving, government representative Andrew J. Myrick coldly remarked “So far as I am concerned, let them eat grass.”
This tense atmosphere exploded into violence on Aug. 17 in Acton Township, Minnesota, when a small Dakota hunting party stole some eggs and then killed five white settlers. Knowing the whites would retaliate, the Dakota held a war council and their leader, Little Crow, agreed to lead them on a desperate campaign to push all the whites out of their ancestral hunting grounds.
The next day, Little Crow led the first war party in an attack on the Indian agency. Andrew Myrick was one of the first to be killed, and the vengeful Indians stuffed his mouth with grass. The war had begun, and killing spread like wildfire. Towns and individual farms were attacked, and the fierce warriors even made two assaults on the stronghold of Fort Ridgely. Eventually the U.S. Army freed up enough troops from the Civil War to aggressively put down the Dakota uprising, with the last major battle being the Battle of Wood Lake on Sept. 23, 1862. Little Crow retreated to Canada, and by December more than 1,000 Dakota warriors had been captured and were jailed.
During military trials that were a sham (the trials of some individuals lasted less than five minutes, and the Dakota were not allowed any representation in their defense), 303 Sioux warriors were sentenced to death for murder and rape. President Abraham Lincoln stepped in and commuted the sentences of all but 39 of the defendants. One was later granted a reprieve.
On Dec. 26, 1862, 38 Dakota warriors were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in United States history. In April 1863 the government expelled all Dakota from Minnesota, even the ones who did not participate in the uprising, and abolished their reservations on the Minnesota River. The Dakota leader, Little Crow, was shot by a white settler near Hutchinson, Minnesota, on July 3, 1863, when he was caught picking raspberries with his son. His skull and scalp were displayed as trophies in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The following four newspaper articles are about the Dakota War. Notice that the first article mentions that the government bears some responsibility for failing to pay the annuity on time, whereas the other three make no mention of this cause, choosing instead to emphasize the savagery of the Indian attacks.
This article was printed by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on the front page of its Aug. 22, 1862, issue:
Indian Outrages in Minnesota
St. Paul, Minn., Aug. 21.—The Indians in Meeker county, of this state, exasperated at the non-reception of the money due them by the Government, attacked the whites in the town of Acton, and killed several persons, including men, women and children. Several are also reported to have been massacred at the Lower Agency.
The settlers are alarmed and are coming down the Minnesota River. Four companies, under the command of ex-Governor Sibley, are ordered to the scene of the disturbance.
This article was printed by the Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on Aug. 22, 1862:
Indian Troubles in Minnesota
St. Paul, Aug. 22.—We can no longer shut our eyes to the fact that the Sioux Indians have commenced war upon settlements on our own frontier, and have massacred hundreds of men, women and children.
By letter from Fort Ridgely, 20th, 12 M. We learn that Mr. Wycoff, Acting Supt. on his way to Upper Sioux Agency, to make annual payment, met a messenger 6 miles from Fort Ridgely Monday morning announcing outbreak at Lower Sioux Agency, and murder of all the whites in the vicinity, except a few who had made their escape.
Capt. Marsh, with 45 men, immediately set out for the agency, leaving 20 men at this fort. In the evening 17 of the men returned. At the ferry opposite the agency, Capt. Marsh encountered a large body of warriors, who opened fire on him. After a few volleys a large party of Indians ambushed in his rear opened upon him, immediately killing a number of his men. A retreat was attempted, in which it was thought expedient to make a crossing of the river. While in the water a volley was fired upon Capt. Marsh, who immediately went down. Beside the Captain, three sergeants and four corporals are known to be killed, and a large number of his command.
Monday night was a night of anxiety at this garrison. Every precaution was taken to protect the fort. The lights of burning buildings and grain stacks lighted the entire horizon.
Escaped citizens came in during the night, giving accounts of horrors too terrible for the imagination to conceive or appreciate. Mothers came in rags, and barefooted, whose husbands and children had been slaughtered before their eyes. Children came who witnessed the murder of their parents, or their burning in their own houses. Every species of torture and barbarity the imagination can picture seems everywhere to have been resorted to.
The same letter states that recruits are constantly coming, and at the time of writing there were 250 armed men at the fort.
The roads between Fort Ridgely and the agency, and in the direction of New Ulm, are lined with murdered men, women and children.
From 300 to 400 women and children, escaped from their homes for miles around, are now in these barracks.
St. Paul, Aug. 22.—Mr. J. J. Porter, of Mankato, a member of the last Minnesota Legislature, arrived here last evening on a mission to the Governor from citizens of that place to procure arms for their defense. He gives us the following reliable news of the murders near New Ulm: On Monday morning the people of Mankato heard of the first murder and of the Indian outrages. Many disbelieved the reports, having been previously alarmed without cause. Mr. Porter was one of the committee appointed to go to New Ulm and learn the truth as to the reported murders. He arrived at New Ulm Tuesday morning, and found the people making preparations to bury five persons who had been murdered between the agency and the town. Others were being constantly brought in, their bodies most horribly mutilated. He went into a room and saw four wounded persons, horribly mutilated, in the agonies of death. They were cut with hatchets in the head, arms, &c. One little girl, cut across the face, breast and side; a little boy who was dreadfully cut up; also a middle-aged woman. In an adjoining room he saw a child with its head cut off and 16 other gashes upon its person, and eleven others similarly mutilated, most of whom were Americans. When Mr. P. left New Ulm, at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the people were fully aware of the danger, and had resolved to defend the town to the last. The women were taking care of the wounded, while all the men were in the street drilling with such arms as they possessed. Some had fowling pieces and rifles, while others were learning the bayonet exercise with pitchforks.
On the way to Mankato, Mr. P. was overtaken by a man who left New Ulm at a later hour, [who] reported that the Indians attacked the town at 5 the same p.m., and had burned several buildings. The Indians numbered about 200, mounted on ponies. While the firing was going on several citizens were seen to fall, but no Indians. The people all gathered in the thickest settled part of the village and had barricaded in the streets. This is the latest advices from New Ulm.
A letter received by Gov. Ramsey from Thos. G. Galbraith, U.S. agent, dated Fort Ridgely, Aug. 20, in which he says: “All Sioux are up in arms, indiscriminately murdering every white person and devastating the country. Neither age nor sex are spared. More than 100 persons are known to be killed and we believe at least 1,000 are.” He says he cannot go into the horrible details of this wholesale massacre. It is worse than the imagination can picture.
Gov. Ramsey yesterday issued a proclamation calling upon the militia of the Valley of the Minnesota, and counties adjoining the frontier, to take horses and arms, and equip themselves at once, and to report to the officer commanding the expedition, now moving up the Minnesota River to [the] scene of hostilities. The officer commanding the expedition has been clothed with full power to provide for all exigencies that may arise. He says this outbreak must be suppressed and in such manner as will forever prevent its repetition.
Mounted riflemen in great numbers are prepared to move at once from Ramsey and adjoining counties, and in a very few days the mark of extermination of the Sioux Indians will begin.
It is impossible to learn the names of the killed whites.
These extracts were taken from letters received by the Governor yesterday and contain the latest reliable information we have.
Alderman Daily, of St. Paul, writes from Fort Ridgely, 20th, in which he mentions the case of Dr. Humphrey and family, living at the Upper Agency or Yellow Medicine, who, fearing an outbreak, fled from their home, but were pursued and overtaken by the Indians at a house into which they all ran except a little boy, who ran into the bushes and escaped. He saw the Indians shoot his father before he got in at the door. They then attacked the house and burnt it to the ground, with all that were in it.
Several other letters received here yesterday show that an Indian war has been inaugurated which sinks into insignificance all other Indian wars which have occurred in this country for 30 years.
This article was printed by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on Aug. 23, 1862:
Indian Rebellion in Minnesota
We have lamentable news from Minnesota. The Sioux Indians, taking advantage of the war between the Government and the Rebels of the South, have risen against the white settlers and are spreading pillage and murder far and wide. The accounts that reach us are almost too horrid for belief. Entire neighborhoods have been overrun by these savage wretches, and the inhabitants indiscriminately slaughtered. Neither age nor sex were spared. The roads in all directions to New Ulm are described by an eyewitness as “lined with murdered men, women and children.”
The Government will, of course, make short work of this Rebellion. Doubtless some of the regiments now being raised West will be hurried to the new “seat of war.” A blow so terrible and decisive must be struck, that every wigwam in the wide West shall hear it and tremble over it.
This article was printed by the Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on Aug. 23, 1862:
Further Particulars of Indian Massacre in Minnesota
St. Paul, Aug. 23.—Parties from Minnesota River reached here last night; they state that scouts estimate the number of whites already killed by Sioux at five hundred. This opinion is based on the number of bodies found along the roads and trails. It is believed that all missionaries are killed. The civilized Indians exceeded their savage brethren in atrocities.
…In St. Paul and adjoining country all available horses are being gathered up, and all sorts of weapons will be used by willing hands for the immediate and summary punishment of these audacious and rascally Indians.