Western Trips

Western Trips

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Minnesota Massacre / The Start of the Indian Wars



Minnesota is a beautiful part of the United States to visit. The land of a thousand lakes also has quite a lot of interesting history attached to it. The history minded traveler might find it interesting to explore some of the sites that played a big role during the time of the Dakota War.

Historic Fort Snelling

picture of fort snelling
Fort Snelling, artwork by John Casper Wild
One of these key sites is Fort Snelling. The fort was built in the early 1820's and was first named Fort Saint Anthony. The primary goals of the northwest frontier outposts like Fort Snelling was to deny people other than citizens of the United States commercial use of the rivers. They also worked to keep Native Indian lands free of white settlements until official treaties allowed it. In addition they were responsible for protecting legitimate travelers and traders.

Trying to keep the peace among neighboring Native Americans was also a goal. While being decommissioned several times since it's establishment in the 1820's, the fort went on to play a significant role during the Dakota War in 1862. During that war Ft Snelling was used as a kind of concentration camp overlooking the hundreds of Native Americans held on Pike Island at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

The Minnesota Massacre

Many historians contend that what was called the Minnesota Massacre and sometimes called the Dakota War was the beginning of organized resistance by Native Americans in the frontier west. The history of Minnesota is very much the events of the Dakota War. In 1862 the Sioux Nation ran all the way from the Big Woods of Minnesota west to the Rocky Mountains.

The Sioux history is largely a history of being driven further and further west. There were a total of seven Sioux tribes, including three western tribes, collectively called the Lakota, and four eastern tribes residing in Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas called the Dakota.  About 7,000 members of the four Dakota tribes lived on a reservation bordering what was in 1862 the frontier, the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota.

As recently as 1851, the area of the upper Mississippi River west to the Missouri was still considered Indian Country. In that year 1851, however, the Dakota signed a treaty giving up most of southern Minnesota. This treaty did give the Dakota a reservation about 70 miles in length and 20 miles wide that ran along the Minnesota River. In 1858 another treaty was signed by the Dakota in exchange for increased annuity payments ceded about half of their reservation land. Just as was the case with some other treaties signed between Native Americans and the U.S. Government, annuity payments (including food) often came late and sometimes not at all. Many historians contend that both the 1851 and 1858 treaties really worked to erode the "chief" system of tribal leadership. The chief was essentially replaced by the traders and Indian Agents whose loyalty and honesty might be arguable.

Sporadic Raids

new ulm minnesota picture
Siege at New Ulm
Certainly there had been Indian resistance to white emigration dating back to the early 1800's in areas such as Texas, but these were sporadic raids that were not a coordinated uprising.

In 1862, Minnesota was still a very young state, part of the western frontier inhabited by more than one million Indians. The two treaties of the 1850's that specified how much the U.S. Government would give the Dakota's food and supplies (annuities)  in return for ceding a great deal of land started to fall apart.

When the U.S. government broke its promises of supplying food to the Indians per the treaties some of the Dakota Indian tribes started to raid white settlers. One explanation as to why the supplies weren't making their way to the Indians was because of Civil War disruption which could have played a part.

The Flash Point For War

There was however a flash point that set everything off. On Sunday, August 17, 1862 four Dakota from a band of young malcontents were on a hunting trip when they discovered some hens eggs in a nest along the fence of a white settlers homestead.  One of the young Dakota took the eggs. One of his companions told him that the eggs belonged to a white man. The Indian who took the eggs became angry and threw them to the ground. and accused the other of being afraid of white men. The accuser, to show the young group that he was not afraid, went to the house and killed the white owner.  He called for the others to join him. Minutes later three white men, a white woman, and a fifteen-year old white girl lay dead.

Some but not all Dakota Indians participated in the uprising. Some actually tried to protect the settlers. The Dakota War or War of 1862 lasted for six weeks and there were many killed on both sides. While there were several chiefs involved in the bloody uprising, Little Crow was generally thought to be the main leader although he wasn't necessarily the instigator.

Former Minnesota governor Henry Sibley, a veteran of the Civil War and commander of the Minnesota militia, led an expedition of soldiers and Dakota scouts against the Dakota warriors. At this time the 1862 Civil War was front and center so much of the activity was by militia as opposed to federal troops. More than 450 settlers were killed before the warriors were defeated by a hastily assembled force of raw recruits led by Colonel Sibley. The war ended on December 26, 1862, when thirty-eight Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Afterward the government forced most of the remaining Dakota to leave Minnesota. For white Minnesotans, their experience of blood and terror negated all promises they had made to the Dakota. Stories and history books told about the great "Minnesota Massacre," but for many years the Indian side of the story was ignored.   Some very drastic action, the mass hangings, was taken at the end of this six week war.

hanging in mankato minnesota
The hanging in Mankato M

In regards to the hangings, it must be understood that hundreds of people on both sides were killed in the relatively short time of six weeks. The military charged 400 Dakotas with murder and sentenced all of them to be hanged. President Abraham Lincoln who was quite busy with the ongoing Civil War intervened and commuted the sentences for all but thirty-eight. The sentences were handed down after a series of trials.

While Lincoln's orders of commutation, unpopular with many locals, saved hundreds from the gallows, the mass execution was the largest ever in the United States. The condemned who had their sentences commuted by Lincoln were deemed by him to have been fighting in defense and thus not guilty of murder.

This mass execution of thirty-eight held in Mankato Minnesota on December 26, 1862 was really the last page in what would be the first chapter of the decades long Sioux Wars which did not really officially end until the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. The Mankato Minnesota hangings were a prelude to a much larger conflict. The year 1890, the year of Wounded Knee, was also when the Census Bureau declared the official end of the American frontier.

Little Crow

In regards to Little Crow, he survived the Dakota War but being landless he resorted to stealing horses from Minnesota settlers. In July of 1863 he found himself in a firefight while being spotted picking berries with his son and died of his wounds. His son escaped but after the nearby townspeople were told what happened they gathered together and went to the farm. By that time the action was over and they found the farmer and a dead Dakota. When they finally determined that the dead Dakota was Little Crow they unfortunately mutilated his body and put it on display. It wasn't until 1971 that Little Crow's remains were sent to a relative for burial. Today, a visitor to the area will find a small stone tablet at the field where Little Crow was shot and killed.


There are many who blame the War of 1862 to the federal government's failure to live up to it's earlier treaty obligations. These treaties were negotiated years previously by Dakota Chief Little Crow. When the Dakota war council decided on war in 1862, Little Crow had very little choice than to join them.

There was a severe food shortage just prior to the uprising. There were accusations that Indian Agents kept the food and money that was rightfully to go to the Indians. Instead they were accused of selling the food provisions to white settlers. The feeling among the Dakota was that the food which was eventually handed over to them was not fit to eat. The result of this was that the Dakotas were forced to hunt for food off their reservations and this was the atmosphere present when the first killings of settlers occurred. The history of Minnesota is really the history of the Dakota Indians and their struggle with white settlers and the military over the coveted land. It's also important to note on a historical perspective that what started with the Dakotas in 1862 in Minnesota led to major battles during later years in the Montana and Wyoming areas. The Fetterman Massacre in Wyoming was one and the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana was another.


Historic Sites to Visit

chief little crow
Dakota Chief Little Crow
A good stop during your Minnesota vacation is the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark. The site and museum is located at the junction of Minnesota Highways 5 and 55, one mile east of the Twin Cities International Airport. You'll find a large amount of exhibits and artifacts relating to everything Minnesota.You'll also find many interesting exhibits relating to the Dakota Indians.

Today, the city of Mankato which is the third largest of the cities in Minnesota has several historic sites regarding the Dakota people.

One is a commemorative statue located at the actual 1862 hanging site which now is home to the Blue Earth County Library and Reconciliation Park. The park was dedicated in 1997. The location of Reconciliation Park is 100 North Riverfront Drive. There is also the statue named "Winter Warrior" which was inspired by the “Year of Reconciliation” in 1987. This represented a statewide effort of healing and education between non-Dakota and Dakota people. The statue is located at 100 East Main Street. Mankato is located about 70 miles southwest of Minneapolis/St.Paul.


In New Ulm Minnesota which is about 25 miles northwest of Mankato, the history minded tourist might want to see the Kiesling House. This house was one of only three downtown buildings that survived the Dakota War in 1862. The large reason this house has survived so long was that it was kept in the family over all of the decades and finally sold in the early 1970's. The people who purchased the home then deeded it over to the city and donated funds for it's restoration. The Kiesling House is a historic treasure for the city of New Ulm Minnesota. The house is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Also in New Ulm is the Defenders Monument which was erected in 1891 to honor those who defended the town during the Dakota War.


While in New Ulm you may want to stop by the Brown County Historical Society which is located at 2 North Broadway. There are three floors of exhibits and is one of Minnesota's largest archive sites.


The large German heritage of New Ulm is also represented by the Glockenspiel in Schonlau Park. At a height of 45 feet it is one of the few free standing carillon clock towers in the world.

(Photos and images from the public domain)
                                                                                                                                                                       

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