On August 18, 1862, war erupted in southern Minnesota when the Dakota Soldier’s Lodge attacked and killed the white traders, clerks, and government employees at the Lower Agency. The Soldier’s Lodge then spread throughout the white settlements of south and southwestern Minnesota killing and taking captive hundreds of white and mixed-race people. The attack was precipitated by decades of poor treatment toward the Dakota people—loss of land, culture, and the resources necessary to survive. Nevertheless, by the time the attacks were subdued, an estimated 400 to 800 Minnesotans had been killed while another 250 were taken captive.
Using the scholarship of Gary Clayton Anderson in his book Massacre in Minnesota, this blog post will attempt to clarify the first few hours of the attack which began early on the morning of Monday, August 18, 1862. A day earlier, a small hunting party of Dakota murdered Robinson Jones and four other settlers near the white settlement of Acton. When the hunting party returned to their village and told the Dakota leaders what they had done, a serious debate broke out among the leaders and the Soldier’s Lodge. Fearing retribution, angered by being denied credit by the traders, and with the knowledge that the Union was embroiled in a civil war, the Dakota decided it was time to go on the offensive.
As the sun rose the next day, a group of armed Dakota, ready and painted for war, arrived at the Lower Sioux Agency—an area of stores and housing established by the government to manage relations with the Dakota people. The Dakota arrived with a plan. According to historian Gary Clayton Anderson, the akicitas, leaders of the Soldier’s Lodge, assigned certain men to open the assault by attacking the trade houses of those trader’s who they believed had wronged them. When the Dakota opened fire, the first to be shot was James Lynd who stood in the doorway of Andrew Myrick’s trade house. The next two to be gunned down were George W. Divoll and the cook “old Fritz” who were at Myrick’s counter. Andrew Myrick himself—well-known as the trader who allegedly told the Dakota, “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung”—was hit with two gunshots but managed to flee upstairs. However, once he heard of plans to burn him out, he fled through an upstairs window but was soon shot down as he ran away. The soldiers severed his head and stuffed his mouth with grass.
A trader with Dakota heritage, Francois LaBathe, was gunned down at his store. Three clerks working at Louis Roberts’ store—Patrick McClellan, Joseph Belland, and Antoine Young—were also quickly killed. At the stables, three government workers—A.H. Wagner, John Lamb, and Lathrop Dickinson—were killed while trying to prevent the theft of horses. Philander Prescott, a government worker who lived among the Dakota for forty years and had a Dakota family, was shot and killed while running for his house.
But there were also those that the Dakota protected or allowed to flee. Amidst the chaos the Reverend Samuel Hinman had a direct encounter with the Dakota leader Little Crow. Hinman asked the leader, “Crow, what does this mean?” Little Crow did not answer, leaving the Reverend to flee to the ferry crossing like so many others were doing. At William Forbe’s store, the soldiers had wounded George W. Spencer and allowed William Bouratt to escape. While planning an assault on the attic where Spencer held up, a veteran soldier, Wakinyantawa, who was friends with Spencer, publicly declared that if anyone hurt Spencer they would have to answer to him. Spencer survived.
By the end of the assault on the Lower Agency, twenty government employees and nine traders and clerks were killed while forty-six escaped. But this was just the first hour of the attack. Most people in the surrounding settlements knew nothing of the outbreak and the imminent danger they faced. It would take a day for news of the attacks to arrive in St. Paul and it would take more than a week to mount any real defensive force. In the meantime, the struggle to survive which plagued the Dakota throughout the preceding years, would plague the settler-colonialists of south and southwestern Minnesota leaving them in a struggle to survive.
About the Author
Colin Mustful is an author, historian, and publisher. He is the author of Reclaiming Mni Sota, an alternate history that reimagines the U.S. – Dakota War of 1862. He is also the founder and editor of History Through Fiction, an independent press that publishes engaging, well-researched historical novels. When not writing, Mustful enjoys hiking, running, and playing soccer. He believes that learning history is vital to understanding our world today and finding just, long-lasting solutions for the future.