This year is the 150th anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War. Haven’t heard of it? Chances are very good you’re not alone. One of the things the U.S. is very bad at is recognizing the actions by which it became a single nation instead of several scattered across the continent.
We of the dominant culture teach that there were people here when our ancestors arrived. What we don’t teach is the specifics of how they were displaced and, frequently, killed. Part of the reason we don’t do this is that we live alongside the people whose land we took, and we treat history in part as a matter of tourism. This can lead to continued conflict.
A 150-year-old loop of rope, knotted into a hangman’s noose, sits in a climate-controlled case in the underground archives of the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
Some say it should be burned, buried or returned to the hands of the Dakota people.
Others argue it should be displayed, like piles of shoes at Holocaust museums, as a powerful artifact to help people confront the grim story of the U.S.-Dakota War, which erupted in Minnesota in 1862 and ended with the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
The noose, and just what to make of it, is one sign of the historical reckoning looming this year as Minnesotans wrestle with how to mark the 150th anniversary of one its ugliest, yet often overlooked, episodes.
The noose won’t be displayed this year, but there are no plans to return it yet, either. If it were part of history we had learned and come to terms with, maybe that would be less of an issue.
Still, while the conflict over how best to handle the presentation of history goes on, there are resources you can use to find out more about the war. I recommend starting with Douglas Linder’s collection of resources on the trials. It includes a summary of events of the war from which the title of this post is taken.
Annuity payments for the Dakota were late in the summer of 1862. An August 4, 1862 confrontation between soldiers and braves at the Upper Agency at Yellow Medicine led to a decision to distribute provisions on credit to avoid violence. At the Lower Agency at Redwood, however, things were handled differently. At an August 15, 1862 meeting attended by Dakota representatives, Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith, and representatives of the traders, the traders resisted pleas to distribute provisions held in agency warehouses to starving Dakota until the annuity payments finally arrived. Trader Andrew Myrick summarized his position in the bluntest possible manner: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass.” Unbeknownst to those gathered at the Lower Agency, the long delayed 1862 annuity payments were already on their way to the Minnesota frontier. On August 16, a keg with $71,000 worth of gold coins reached St. Paul. The next day the keg was sent to Fort Ridgely for distribution to the Dakota. It arrived a few hours too late to prevent an unprecedented outbreak of violence.
This site also contains numerous speeches and letters of the time, as well as contemporary news coverage and the account of the recorder for the trials. Because much of this material is contemporary, it does reflect the prejudices of the day. However, the words of both the Dakota and the settlers and military are included.
One contemporary account of the conflict (also known as Little Crow’s War), written by the son of Mankato leader, is available here.
As a young man, Little Crow was always ready to serve his people as a messenger to other tribes, a duty involving much danger and hardship. He was also known as one of the best hunters in his band. Although still young, he had already a war record when he became chief of the Kaposias, at a time when the Sioux were facing the greatest and most far-reaching changes that had ever come to them.
At this juncture in the history of the northwest and its native inhabitants, the various fur companies had paramount influence. They did not hesitate to impress the Indians with the idea that they were the authorized representatives of the white races or peoples, and they were quick to realize the desirability of controlling the natives through their most influential chiefs. Little Crow became quite popular with post traders and factors. He was an orator as well as a diplomat, and one of the first of his nation to indulge in politics and promote unstable schemes to the detriment of his people.
When the United States Government went into the business of acquiring territory from the Indians so that the flood of western settlement might not be checked, commissions were sent out to negotiate treaties, and in case of failure it often happened that a delegation of leading men of the tribe were invited to Washington. At that period, these visiting chiefs, attired in all the splendor of their costumes of ceremony, were treated like ambassadors from foreign countries.
Fort Snelling, where the Dakota prisoners were held in an interment camp over the winter after the trials and executions, also has information about its role.
The rest of the approximately 1,600 Dakota and “mixed-bloods” who surrendered at Camp Release (mostly women, children and the elderly) were removed to Fort Snelling where they spent the winter of 1862-63 in an internment camp, sometimes referred to as a concentration camp, below the fort (located in the present-day Fort Snelling State Park) to await forced relocation to western reservations. According to reports in local newspapers and Dakota oral histories the prisoners endured assaults and violence at the hands of soldiers and local civilians. “Amid all this sickness and these great tribulations,” remembered Tiwakan (Gabriel Renville), a Sisseton Dakota man held in the camp, “it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning.”
Many detainees sold personal possessions in order to purchase food to supplement the military-issue rations they were given. Some of the “mixed-blood” people owned land vouchers that had been granted them in treaties with the U.S. government. These vouchers granted each head-of-household up to 640 acres of any unsurveyed, non-federal land in exchange for giving up claim to land in Minnesota. Many sold these vouchers to local businessmen at deflated prices in order to have cash in hand to provide for their families while in the stockade. Businessmen, such as Franklin Steele, profited by purchasing these vouchers and later selling them to land developers for large profits.
A definitive number is unknown, but it is estimated that somewhere between 130 and 300 people died within the camp, due mostly to malnutrition and disease resulting from the conditions inside the camp. Those remaining were taken by steamboats to western reservations in May 1863.
The narrative doesn’t mention this, assuming that those reading will know the area, but the camp was on river flats that would have been extra miserable in both winter and spring.
The Minnesota Historical Society also has a page centralizing information on the war. Most of the primary sources are not online, but one outstanding exception is the collection of images related to the war. They also recommend a number of books, several of them published by the Historical Society itself, including Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862.
With this wealth of information available, and particularly as more attention is paid to the war on its anniversary, if we remain in ignorance of these events, one can only conclude that we do it by choice.