Remembering: 150 Years After the U.S. – Dakota War

August 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Imperialism

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In the Footsteps of Little Crow: Six Part Series

Part 1: A Man Lost in History

Many historians look back to that Monday morning as the day it all began. For the next 30 years, similar scenes would repeat, tribe by tribe, from Minnesota to Texas and points west, as native people struggled against a genocidal east-west tide of white settlement and federal policy. The era of the great Indian wars in the West would close three decades later at Wounded Knee.

But no other conflict between Indians and settlers would come close to the number of civilians killed in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. Estimates put the eventual toll of soldiers and settlers at 600, many buried where they fell in unmarked graves. If the same percentage of Minnesota’s population were killed today, 15,000 people would be dead. The Dakota lost roughly 100 warriors on the battlefields. But a far greater toll was coming for them in the wake of the war.

Part 2: Born to Lead

The sad scene appeared to dash Little Crow’s wave of sweet nostalgia about Kaposia. The treaties he had signed forever forfeited this childhood home to the whites. He had thought it would be worth it. But with the agreements unfulfilled, life for the Dakota was turning out far differently than he had imagined. They were barely surviving on the thin ribbon of reservation land.

The reporter wrote that Little Crow stalked out of the gallery without a word. He returned to a Minnesota now teeming with white settlers.

The lake into which his mother had plunged him as a boy, preparing him for just such a crisis, now belonged to other people.

Part 3: “When men are hungry they help themselves”

After the Dakota stormed the Upper Sioux Agency warehouse for food, Little Crow argued that the other warehouse at the Lower Sioux Agency should also be opened.

But citing protocol, Galbraith [ Lincoln’s new Indian Agent] refused to do that until the gold money arrived. He didn’t want to have to organize the pay-table lineup and check the rolls twice.

Little Crow protested: “We have waited a long time. The money is ours but we cannot get it. We have no food but here these stores are filled with food.”

He asked Galbraith to arrange for credit with the traders until the annuity payments arrived “or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry, they help themselves.”

Listening to Little Crow speak through a translator, Galbraith asked the shopkeepers what he should do. They shrugged and turned to store owner Andrew Myrick. Disgusted by the whole mess, Myrick walked away until Galbraith demanded a response.

“So far as I’m concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own dung,” Myrick said.

As those bitter words were translated, all grew silent. Then, amid what witnesses described as whoops and wild gestures, the Dakota disappeared

Part 4: Terror spreads across the prairie

Little Crow sent a response five days later, explaining his justification for war.

“Dear Sir, for what reason we have commenced this war I will tell you. We made a treaty with the government … for what little we can’t get until our children were dying.” He complained bitterly about Galbraith, the Indian agent, and the defrauding traders.

He didn’t skirt responsibility for the war: “If the young braves have pushed the white man I have done this myself.”

Despite his clarity on the reasons for war, Little Crow knew his position was weakening. He not only faced Sibley’s mounting forces, but a potential civil war among the Dakota. Peace factions along the upper Minnesota River, including Chief Other Day, were pressuring him to give up the now 269 hostages. Little Crow had hoped they would be bargaining chips to broker peace with Sibley. But the reports of abuse made it less likely white leaders would negotiate over the hostages. Little Crow knew the officials would not see starvation of Dakota children and abuse of Dakota women as equivalent outrages.

Ramsey, reacting to the rising public fury, called for extermination of the Dakota.

Part 5: In Little Crow’s wake, horrors for the Dakota

Lincoln next outraged Sibley, Gov. Alexander Ramsey and many Minnesotans by paring the number of Dakota to be hanged from 303 to 39. Lincoln’s hand-written original letter, painstakingly listing each man condemned to die, is on display at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. One of the 39 would receive a last-minute reprieve.

But even with the list reduced, Lincoln’s action set the stage for what remains the largest mass execution ever on U.S. soil.

A bitter day in Mankato

There wasn’t enough rope to make all the nooses, so the hangings were delayed until the day after Christmas.

Amid the chill of a 25-degree morning, nearly 4,000 citizens — kept orderly by 1,400 armed soldiers under martial law — crowded on rooftops and building stoops in Mankato, elbowing for vantage points as the doomed Dakota were marched onto a large square scaffolding constructed of massive timbers.

Many wriggled their tied wrists loose so they could grasp hands with the next man, chanting a slow, rhythmic Dakota death song as muslin hoods were rolled over their faces.

Part 6: Little Crow’s legacy

Little Crow’s great-great-grandson Billy Gilbert stood at the grave early this summer, thinking back to that day when he was 14 years old and his great-great-grandfather was finally buried…..

Unlike most tombstones, Little Crow’s bears three dates. The first is his birth year, estimated as 1818. Then comes July 3, 1863, the day of his death in the raspberry bushes near Hutchinson. Finally, there is Sept. 27, 1971, the day his remains were buried.

Gilbert remembered that his mother and other women had collected gourds and pumpkins to decorate the grave that day. The autumn sun was shining on a few dozen family members.

The burial was private — the family worried that far-flung tribes would make a big fuss if there was publicity. The cement mixer was parked nearby. Little Crow’s great-grandson, the Rev. Floyd Louis Heminger, said a few prayers in Dakota and English.

Suddenly a cloud of hundreds of black birds rose from the Big Sioux River north of the graveyard.

“People watched in total silence as everybody’s head turned and the birds came from the river, up this hill,” Gilbert said, gesturing northeast.

“Then they flew around the people and headed east as if to say, ‘We recognize you and we’ve come to get you and we’re taking your spirit home where you were born, where you lived, where you walked and hunted, where you were just a father in your community, an everyday man and leader. We’re taking you home now.”’

Gilbert remembers that his mouth opened wide in surprise and that he pointed as the birds disappeared toward Minnesota, and that his mother nodded that, yes, everyone sees this.

Then Little Crow’s great-great-grandson looked up at his elders and saw the tears streaming down their cheeks


Governor Mark Dayton’s Statement Commemorating the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

August 16, 2012(Saint Paul) – In commemoration of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Governor Mark Dayton released the following statement calling for tomorrow to be a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in Minnesota:

August 17, 1862 marked a terrible period in Minnesota’s history. The first victims of the “U.S.-Dakota War of 1862” lost their lives on that day, 150 years ago. The ensuing attacks and counter-attacks killed hundreds more U.S. soldiers, Dakota braves, conniving traders, and innocent people. Tragically, those deaths started a vicious cycle of hate crimes, which continued long after the war was ended.

The events leading to those atrocities actually began before 1862. The United State Government, through its agents in the new State of Minnesota, either persuaded, deceived, or forced the state’s long-time inhabitants from Dakota and Ojibwe Indian tribes to give up their lands for promises of money, food, and supplies. Many of the government’s promises were repeatedly broken.

The displaced Dakota and Chippewa tribes watched newly arrived settlers claim the lands that had been theirs. They were denied their treaty payments of money and food, which resulted in starvation for many of their children and elderly. Often, when annuity payments did finally arrive, they were immediately plundered by some dishonest officials and traders.

On August 17, 1862, a group of Dakota braves attacked and killed five new settlers at Acton in Meeker County. The Dakota community was not unanimous in the decision to go to war; some of them helped the settlers. Nonetheless, the war began. Atrocities were committed by combatants on both sides against combatants and noncombatants alike. Hundreds of people were killed. Many more Indian and immigrant lives were ruined. And the lives of Minnesotans were altered for the next 150 years.

The war ended, but the attacks against innocent Indian children, women, and elderly continued. They were even encouraged by the Governor of Minnesota.

On September 9, 1862, Alexander Ramsey proclaimed: “Our course then is plain. The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State. . . .”

“They must be regarded and treated as outlaws. If any shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders and our frontier garrisoned with a force sufficient to forever prevent their return.”

A Minnesota newspaper chimed in, “We have plenty of young men who would like no better fun than a good Indian hunt.”

I am appalled by Governor Ramsey’s words and by his encouragement of vigilante violence against innocent people; and I repudiate them. I know that almost all Minnesotans, living today, would be just as revolted. The viciousness and violence, which were commonplace 150 years ago in Minnesota, are not accepted or allowed now.

Yet hostile feelings do still exist between some Native Americans and their neighbors. Detestable acts are still perpetrated by members of one group against the other. Present grievances, added to past offenses, make it difficult to commemorate the past, yet not continue it.

I call for tomorrow, the 150th anniversary of August 17, 1862, to be “a Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation in Minnesota.” I ask everyone to remember that dark past; to recognize its continuing harm in the present; and to resolve that we will not let it poison the future.

To everyone who lost family members during that time, I offer my deepest condolences for your losses. I ask you especially to help lead us to better attitudes and actions toward others.

To honor the American soldiers, Dakota people, and settlers who lost their lives in that war, I order that all state flags shall be flown at half-staff from sunrise to sunset on August 17, 2012.

And I urge everyone participating in the events commemorating this 150th Anniversary to practice not only remembrance, but also reconciliation.


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Richard Lyon
Richard Lyon 1 Like

Racism was deeply embedded in the US constitution. Not only was slavery confirmed and slaves treated as 3/5 of a person, but the legal fiction of separate nations was created in order to place them beyond the newly created polity. They were deprived of civil rights and dealt with as aliens within the continental space.  The treaties were one sided documents imposed by the American government. They turned out to be worthless when they presented an inconvenience to the call of manifest destiny.