Fiction or Fantasy: Writing an Alternate History of the U.S. – Dakota War
In my upcoming novel, Reclaiming Mni Sota, Dakota and Ojibwe soldiers join forces to defeat the US army and exile the white population of Minnesota from the borders of the state. This, of course, is fiction. It is an alternate history of what could have happened. The goal is to help readers rethink history, and to reconsider what the results of our history mean for us today. The reality is a lot more complicated.
At the time of the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862, the Dakota and Ojibwe were traditional enemies. Beginning around the year 1750 with the Battle of Izatys, the Dakota and Ojibwe fought a one hundred year war for control over the regions of what are today northern and central Minnesota. It seems very unlikely then, that they would join forces against a common enemy in 1862. However, after succeeding his father in 1847, the Mississippi bands of Ojibwe were led by Bagone-giizhig the Younger, a charismatic, cunning, and unpredictable headman who was eager to regain the autonomy his people had lost. Then, with the emergence of Taoyateduta, or Little Crow, spokesman for the Dakota and military leader during the U.S. – Dakota War, rumors abound among the white populations that Bagone-giizhig and Taoyateduta would collude against the United States.
Some of these rumors came about because Bagone-giizhig did in fact communicate with Taoyateduta and other Dakota leaders in the form of written correspondence. As noted by Ojibwe historian Anton Treuer, Bagone-giizhig “dictated his thoughts in Ojibwe, then had them translated into English and mailed. Little Crow then had Bagone-giizhig’s letters translated into Dakota and relayed to him orally.” It’s also known that when war did break out against the white population of Minnesota, Bagone-giizhig threatened to join the Dakota. Also, as reported by Andrew B. Stone in a MNOpedia article, Bagone-giizhig encouraged the Ojibwe to fight by spreading “a false rumor that the U.S. government was planning to force all Ojibwe men to fight in the Civil War.”
And so, while there is evidence to suggest that collusion was possible, there is more evidence that such a partnership was unwise and therefore very unlikely. Though Bagone-giizhig was indeed a charismatic leader with a growing following, he did not have the support of the Ojibwe leaders at Mille Lacs or Lake Superior. Rather, the Mille Lacs and Lake Superior leaders were set on supporting the US government and strengthening their alliance with state and federal officials. This is not to suggest that they did not wish to reclaim their land and autonomy, but by 1862 they determined that the best approach was through conciliation with the whites. This took on several forms.
Evidence that the Lake Superior Ojibwe did not support any kind of war effort against the United States can be found in the memoir Early Life Among the Indians by Benjamin G. Armstrong. Armstrong was a white man who moved to La Pointe on Madeline Island in the early 1840s. He married an Ojibwe woman and worked on behalf of the Ojibwe as an interpreter for many years. In his memoir, he notes that at the beginning of the Civil War columns of Union soldiers began appearing everywhere. This startled the Lake Superior Ojibwe. Therefore, in order to show that they were peaceful and cooperative, Armstrong and a delegation of nine Ojibwe leaders traveled to Washington DC in early 1862 to meet with President Lincoln. Their goal was one of appeasement. Also, as Armstrong wrote, “such a trip would give the delegation a rare chance to see the white soldiers and to thus impress upon their minds the futility of any further recourse to arms on their part.”
We know that the Ojibwe in the vicinity of Mille Lacs did not support the Dakota war effort, nor had any inclination to form an alliance, because at the outbreak of war they actively protected the white settlements. When the war began on August 18, 1862, panic spread throughout the state, and people fled to the nearest city or fortification. In central Minnesota, people fled to Fort Ripley. There, as noted by historian Anthony Godfrey, “Mille Lacs leaders arranged for some 700-750 warriors to march to Fort Ripley to highlight their support for the Americans.” The Mille Lacs leaders actually condemned the actions of Bagone-giizhig—who had orchestrated the U.S. – Ojibwe Conflict—and told the Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Dole that they would help put down the Dakota attacks. As a result, Commissioner Dole promised the Mille Lacs Ojibwe the protection of the US government and told them that they could stay upon their lands “without being molested if it was a thousand years.”
The final and most obvious piece of evidence suggesting that the Ojibwe had no intention of colluding with the Dakota is demonstrated by a letter written September 2, 1862, by Chief Naw-Gaw-Nub and Chief Shin-Gwack, two leaders of the Fond du Lac Reservation, to Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey. In it, the two leaders expressed their support and gratitude for the US government while condemning the actions of the Dakota. They went on, not only to offer support in the war, but to beg for the chance, as they stated, “to show that we are your friends and wish to serve you—to help you to preserve peace and tranquility among your children.” In return, they wanted assurances that their families would be safe, that they would be allowed to fight in their traditional manner, and that they would receive all future annuities intended for the Dakota. They ended their letter with the bold reminder that “our fathers have drove them from this country, and if you had not come between us, we would have chased him still farther.”
With the benefit of hindsight we know that Ojibwe and Dakota did not join forces, and the Dakota were not able to overcome the US army during the U.S. – Dakota War. But it is clear that there was some political maneuvering at play. Whether it was Bagone-giizhig, Taoyateduta, or other various Ojibwe leaders, they all sought to protect their interests in the best way they thought possible. My novel, Reclaiming Mni Sota, is based on realities, but it’s an alternative to what we know happened. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate history from an imagined perspective. A perspective that, hopefully, broadens our view of the past and enlightens our view of the present.
Anton Treuer, The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011).
Benj. G. Armstrong, Early Life Among the Indians: Reminiscences from the Life of Benj. G. Armstrong, (Ashland, WI: Press of A. W. Bowron, 1892).
Stone, Andrew. “Bagone-giizhig (Hole-in-the-Day the Younger), 1825–1868.” MNopedia, Minnesota Historical Society. http://www.mnopedia.org/person/bagone-giizhig-hole-day-younger-1825-1868 (accessed February 5, 2023).
Wisconsin Chippewas Wish to Fight the Sioux: Letter from Two Chiefs to Gov. Ramsey, Chief Naw-Gaw-Nub and Chief Shin-Gwack, Chicago Times, Volume VIII, No. 28, 16 September, 1862.
Anthony Godfrey, Ph.D., Non-Removable and Self-Determined: A Social History of the Mille Lacs Ojibwe, 1640–1993, Prepared for the Minnesota Historical Society, January 1993.
About the Author
Colin Mustful is an independent author, historian, editor, and publisher. His writing helps readers learn and understand the complicated and tragic history of settler-colonialism and Native displacement in the Upper Midwest. He has a Master of Arts degree in history and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. He is also the founder of History Through Fiction, an independent press that publishes high-quality fiction that is rooted in historical research. Mustful is an avid runner and soccer player who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He believes that learning history is vital to understanding our world today and finding just, long-lasting solutions for the future.