A History That Remains Overlooked – The U.S. – Dakota War of 1862

A History That Remains Overlooked – The U.S. – Dakota War of 1862

On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, for their roles in the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Today, at the site of the hanging, this heartbreaking event is commemorated by the statue of a buffalo on Riverfront Drive in downtown Mankato called Reconciliation Park. In the 161 years since it happened, the U.S. – Dakota War and the hangings that followed have been studied, written about, discussed, and commemorated in countless ways. Hundreds of books, both fiction and nonfiction, now tell the tale of the U.S. – Dakota War while in sixth-grade social studies classes students across the state of Minnesota are required to learn about the people and events involved in the war. For certain, there is no shortage of information about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.

I first discovered the U.S. – Dakota War in 2007 while studying history at Minnesota State University in Mankato. While I was shocked by the events, I was surprised that I had not learned of them before. How, in all my years of education, in all my years as a Minnesotan, had I not learned about the war, the hangings, or the exile of Dakota people that followed shortly thereafter? I was both alarmed and curious which led to my own years of research and writing about the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. Yet, after recently publishing my fifth novel related to the displacement and mistreatment of Native peoples in 19th-century Minnesota, it is apparent that most Americans still know little to nothing about this history. While my novels delve deep into the reasons, context, and outcome of the war, I’d like to take a moment to provide readers with a very brief history of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.

This scroll at Reconciliation Park in downtown Mankato, lists the names of the men who were simultaneously hanged there on December 26, 1862. Photo taken at the annual commemoration event on December 26, 2022.

To begin, it’s important to understand that the region now known as Minnesota is the homeland of the Dakota people. The word Minnesota itself is derived from the Dakota phrase Mni Sota, meaning “Land Where the Water Reflects the Clouds.” The Dakota consider the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, located between the present-day cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, a sacred place called Bdote. It is, as noted by the Minnesota Historical Society, their “sacred place of creation, identifying themselves as the Wicahpi Oyate (Star Nation) who originated in the sky and came into being on this land.”

The origins of the U.S. – Dakota War can be traced back to 1805 when Lt. Zebulon Pike met with Dakota leaders at Bdote and negotiated a treaty. With the agreement of just 2 of the 7 Dakota leaders gathered there, Pike negotiated the sale of 100,000 acres of land surrounding the confluence for the U.S. to build a fort and promote trade. While the treaty valued the land at $200,000, years later the U.S. Senate agreed to pay just $2,000. This would prove to be the first of many treaties made by the U.S. government with the Dakota people that was fraudulent and deceitful.

Treaty of Traverse des Sioux by Francis Davis Millet

Jumping ahead to 1851, two years after Minnesota became a territory of the United States, U.S. government officials and fur trade associates negotiated the sale 24 millions acres of land west of the Mississippi River from the Dakota in exchange for $3,750,000 (estimated at 12 cents per acre), to be paid over decades as annuities or annual cash payments. In addition, the Dakota agreed to remove from their lands and live on a “permanent” reservation along the Minnesota River Valley. For the U.S. this accomplished many things: it allowed traders to be paid off for the debts they incurred from trade with the Dakota, it opened the land for white settlement, and it was the first of many steps in an attempt to acculturate Dakota people into white Euro-American society. It should also be noted that while a treaty is generally considered as an agreement made between two sovereign nations, the Dakota had been coerced into signing treaties through years of manipulative policies and practices that left the Dakota with few options. For a specific example of this, read more about the Trader’s Paper.

Reservation life was hard on the Dakota people. Forced to adjust from living semi-nomadically to living permanently in one place, the Dakota were also forced to speak English, practice Christianity, cut their hair, till the soil, and change their style of dress. Many Dakota resisted the changes causing factionalism among those who wanted to maintain their traditional lifestyle and those that were pressured into agreeing to making changes and becoming farmers. Additionally, the white population of Minnesota exploded, especially after it became a state in 1858, forcing the Dakota to give up more land, further infringing upon their space and way of life. Lastly, debts between the Dakota and traders/merchants continued to increase as businessmen exploited the treaty system to enrich themselves and impoverish the Dakota.

Andrew Myrick was a trader who was among the first killed at the outbreak of war. He’s known for having said of the starving Dakota, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.”

By 1862 the Dakota were nearly destitute, hemmed in on all sides by white settlement. The summer was dry, making food scarce. In addition, the Dakota’s anticipated annual cash payment was delayed by many weeks. Uncertainty over the late payment prompted traders to deny the Dakota goods on credit. Without access to food or credit, by August of 1862 the Dakota people were in an increasingly desperate situation. All of this contributed to the decision of a faction of the Dakota, led by Little Crow and known as the Soldiers’ Lodge, to launch an attack against the white settlers, traders, and government agents living at the Lower Sioux Agency on August 18, 1862.

The attack took the white settlers, who considered the Dakota as friendly neighbors, by surprise. Panic swept throughout the settlements near the reservation as Dakota warriors killed or captured hundreds of white Minnesotans. Following the initial attack, the Dakota launched two separate attacks on New Ulm and Fort Ridgely while also attacking settlements as far away as Lake Shetek. Meanwhile, groups of farmer Dakota who were not in favor of the war, protected groups of white settlers, bringing them to safety or ensuring they were not hurt while being held captive. They also sought to negotiate with the Soldiers’ Lodge for an end to the violence.

However, the Soldiers’ Lodge faced little resistance until, in late August, Colonel Henry Sibley, former governor of Minnesota, led an army of volunteer militia south from Fort Snelling to quell the violence and rescue the captives. Sibley’s presence forced the Dakota to make a hasty retreat and re-establish their camp northwest of the Upper Sioux Agency. On September 2-3, in what’s known as the Battle of Birch Coulee, the Dakota successfully pinned down for more than thirty hours a burial party of U.S. soldiers but were again forced to retreat when U.S. reinforcements arrived with cannons. Finally taking pursuit of the Dakota weeks later, Sibley and his soldiers met the Dakota on the battlefield on September 23, in what’s known as the Battle of Wood Lake, and defeated them within a few hours. Days later, Sibley marched into the Dakota camp, released the captives, and detained any Dakota who had not already fled.

The war was followed by the Dakota War Trials, a hastily established military commission led by Henry Sibley. In just over a month’s time, Sibley and his commission put more than 400 Dakota on trial for their roles in the U.S. – Dakota War. If the Dakota admitted to having shot a gun or having been present at a battle, they were determined to be guilty and sentenced to death by hanging—303 Dakota received such a conviction while sixteen others were given a ten-year prison sentence. The trial proceedings were forwarded to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States at the time, for review and approval. Lincoln approved forty of the death sentences declaring that he was “anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other…” Two more sentences were later reprieved. Then, at 10am on the morning of December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Dakota men were simultaneously hanged in Mankato, Minnesota while thousands of onlookers gathered to witness the event. The hanged men were buried in a shallow grave near the river bank and most were quickly dug up and stolen by physicians for use as medical cadavers.

Photo of the Fort Snelling Internment Camp where nearly 1700 Dakota people were held during the winter of 1862/63.

Meanwhile, the majority of the Dakota people, numbering 1,658 mostly women, children, and the elderly according to the Minnesota Historical Society, were sent to Fort Snelling where they were held in a concentration camp just below the fort. Conditions at the camp were poor and an estimated 130-300 Dakota died while being held there.

Then, in February and March of 1863, by acts of Congress, all previous treaties made with the Dakota were abrogated and the Dakota and Ho-Chunk were forced to remove from beyond the borders of the state by law forever. In May 1863, all Dakota survivors were packed aboard steamships and sent south down the Mississippi River and then northwest along the Missouri River where they were resettled at the Crow Creek Reservation, many of them never to see their homeland again.

This has been a very brief summary of the U.S. – Dakota War. For more detailed information, I highly recommend visiting https://www.usdakotawar.org/, a website published and maintained by the Minnesota Historical Society. For a historically detailed but fictional view of the conflict that will put you in the minds of the whites and Natives during the time period, I hope you’ll consider reading my novel Reclaiming Mni Sota: An Alternate History of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862.

“Reclaiming Mni Sota is a well-researched and impassioned tale of an unlikely friendship between two men: Waabi, an Ojibwe destined to reclaim his people’s land, and Samuel, a white farmer from the infant United States seeking a better life on the frontier. A painful, heart-wrenching, yet triumphant read, this is an alternate history in which Mustful paints the ending this country needed, and the Native population deserved.” 

– Lindsey S. Fera, Historical Fiction Author

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