Q&A: What event sparked the U.S. – Dakota War?

By the summer of 1862, conditions on the Dakota reservations had significantly deteriorated, leaving the Dakota poor and destitute.  Annuity payments were delayed, and many storekeepers began withholding credit for fear that payment would not be made at all.  As conditions worsened, desperation led to frustration and anger.  When confronted by the Dakota, storekeeper Andrew Myrick responded, “You will be sorry.  After a while you will come to me and beg for meat and flour to keep you and your wives and children from starving, and I will not let you have a thing.  You and your wives and children may starve, or eat grass, or your own filth.”  Let them eat grass became a symbol of the injustices and humiliation endured by the Dakota Indians.

Dakota Indians at the Upper Agency, 1862

On August 4, thousands of Dakota Indians gathered at the Upper Agency to protest their wretched conditions.  Despite the presence of troops from Fort Ridgely, several hundred braves defiantly stormed the storehouse in search of food.  Violence seemed imminent, but with the help of Little Crow, the spokesman for the Dakota, the situation was calmed and provisions were handed out.  However, it became clear that it if payment were not made soon, an outbreak was inevitable.

Chief Little Crow

Then, on August 17, four young Dakota braves approached a farmhouse near the small settlement of Acton.  What happened at the farmhouse isn’t clear, but a conflict broke out which resulted in the killing of seven white settlers.  The Dakota, understanding the punishment they would face, rushed back to their village for protection.  It was at this point that the young Dakota braves used this event as an opportunity to lead their people in war against the whites.  Several hundred braves then gathered at Little Crow’s home, urging him to lead them in battle against the whites.  Little Crow was reluctant and warned the Dakota braves that success against the white government was impossible.  But the braves were determined to go to war and chided Little Crow, calling him a coward.  Knowing the outcome could mean the end of his people, Little Crow decided he had done all he could.  He agreed to the request of the fanatical Indian braves saying, “You will die like rabbits when hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon.  Taoyateduta (Little Crow) is not a coward; he will die with you.”

Read Little Crow’s entire speech – pages 343-344

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Mary Lethert Wingerd, North Country:  The Making of Minnesota, (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 2010).