The “Moscow Expedition”: Exploitation of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk Exiled to Crow Creek
“The whole operation is likely to prove a pretty expensive and a very difficult one, and to say the least, it was a great mistake on the part of the Government not to have attended to the matter before.” St. Paul Press, October 18, 1863, “A Moscow Campaign”
Following their forced exile from Minnesota, more than three thousand Dakota and Ho-Chunk people arrived at Crow Creek, South Dakota—their new reservation. The land was dry and inhospitable and could not support agriculture. Furthermore, the semi-arid terrain was not conducive to the traditional lifeways of the Native peoples which depended on woodland lakes, rivers, and streams. Right away, food was in short supply and had to be rationed. Less than two months after their arrival, seventy Dakota people had died from want of food and medical care. According to the missionary John P. Williamson, “For six weeks after they arrived at Crow Creek they died at the average rate of three or four a day” (Hyman, 153).
The man assigned to oversee the removal and resettling of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk, was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern Superintendency, Clark W. Thompson. A Republican appointed to the position in 1861 as a reward for his political loyalty to Morton Wilkinson, throughout his tenure Thompson showed little concern for the condition of Native populations. Rather, Thompson, who was a presidential elector, banker, and railroad speculator, used his position to support his political and business interests. As described by historian Mary Lethert Wingerd, Thompson was “a hard-drinking opportunist” who “used his position exclusively to enrich himself and his senatorial patron at Indian expense” (Wingerd, 293).
Unfortunately, this was not unusual in the United States Indian System at the time which was marked by corruption and fraud. As the Superintendent of Indian Affairs Thompson often faced pressures from political and business allies to overlook discretions or to assign contracts as a favor. In a letter to Thompson in early 1862, Dakota agent Thomas Galbraith actually urged Thompson to help him perpetuate a “little fraud” regarding a $52,000 claim for reimbursement (Green, 49). Meanwhile, the Ojibwe agent Lucius C. Walker “enthusiastically partnered with Thompson, falsifying annuity rolls, stealing Ojibwe goods and then reselling them to the Indians, and colluding with dishonest traders” (Wingerd, 293-294). When selecting the Crow Creek reservation, historian William E. Lass argues that Thompson was not totally to blame because Secretary of the Interior, John P. Usher, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William P. Dole, “had restricted Thompson severely in his selection area” (Lass, 228).
Whether influenced by political and business cohorts or not, the conduct of Clark W. Thompson during his tenure as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs of the Northern Superintendency was detrimental to Native populations—conduct which was amplified by his role in the “Moscow Expedition” of 1863. Because Thompson intended the Dakota and Ho-Chunk to quickly take up farming, he provided them with meager supplies at Crow Creek, also known as Fort Thompson. Throughout the summer of 1863, little was done to alleviate the condition of the Native peoples at Crow Creek which was exacerbated by a harsh drought. In fact, their condition was largely ignored by their agent St. Andre Durand Balcombe who was absent from the agency for weeks at a time. It was not until September 15 that Superintendent Thompson reported to acting commissioner of Indian Affairs, Charles E. Mix, that no provision had been made “for the subsistence of the Winnebago and Sioux . . . after the first day of October next” (Lass, 230).
Seeing this situation as an opportunity, Thompson devised a plan that would provide much needed supplies for the Dakota and Ho-Chunk while also benefiting himself and his business partners. Because of the summer drought, it would have been difficult to send supplies up the Missouri River from St. Louis or Sioux City, as would have normally been the case. With that in mind, Thompson suggested sending the supplies overland from Mankato, a distance of 292 miles. This plan would provide government contracts that would benefit local businesses including Thompson’s brother and his close friend, James B. Hubbell, a trader at Mankato.
Some newspapers at the time touted the idea. On October 2, 1863, the Mankato Weekly Union reported that such a route between Mankato and the Indian Agency would “work greatly to the advantage of the people in this vicinity” while arguing that “it will furnish a ready market at our door, for from $100,000 to $150,000, worth of provisions, annually, and the people will receive the profit . . .” Other newspapers, however, considered the idea a mistake, leading one reporter from the the St. Paul Press to liken it to Napoleon’s failed Moscow Campaign. In his report of October 18, 1863, and titled “A Moscow Campaign,” the reported declared that, “The whole operation is likely to prove a pretty expensive and a very difficult one, and to say the least, it was a great mistake on the part of the Government not to have attended to the matter before.” This led other newspapers to begin calling the plan “The Moscow Expedition.” They argued that it was too late in the season for such an expedition and that it would result in material losses.
Nevertheless, the plan moved forward quickly. Without competitive bidding, Thompson awarded Hubbell with a contract to supply five hundred head of cattle. Then, after advertising the transportation contract for just one day, Thompson awarded the transportation contract to J.C. & H.C. Burbank and Company. Finally, because of the recent military skirmishes in Dakota Territory, Thompson requested a military escort to go along with his huge supply train. The acting general, John Pope, questioned why the supplies had not been shipped from somewhere along the Missouri such as Sioux City, but because he did not want the military to seem unsympathetic to the starving peoples at Crow Creek, he readily assigned a military escort.
Along with the beef cattle, Thompson was to supply Crow Creek with pork and flour. In order to do this, Thompson sought to use the pork and flour that had been left behind at the Ho-Chunk Agency when the Ho-Chunk were forcibly exiled. According to their former agent, C.G. Wyckoff, who inspected the barrels, only a small portion was safe for consumption. Thompson, however, told Wyckoff to put the barrels up for auction and when they were not sold, Thompson bought the condemned pork and flour because he considered it unfit for soldier’s consumption, “but good enough for hungry Indians” (Folwell, 440).
The expedition assembled at Lake Crystal, Minnesota, with the last of the wagons departing from there on November 12, 1863. The wagon train extended one and a half miles and included 153 wagons—each with two yoke of oxen—2,500 to 3,000 pounds of goods, three companies of infantry totally 175 men, a detachment of nine men with a small howitzer, and twenty-five wagon loads of supplies and three ambulances (Lass, 235).
The wagon train reassembled at Leavenworth, Minnesota, about forty miles west of Mankato, where it encountered numerous problems. Because the expedition was short on teamsters, many of the soldiers were asked to drive the wagons. However, the soldiers were disgruntled and made several attempts to sabotage the expedition by removing the axeltree nuts of the wagons. Under the conditions, the expedition could not proceed until Colonel William Crooks was called in. Crooks established order by arresting the key troublemakers, calling for a night watch on the wagons, and increasing the pay for soldiers who drove the wagons.
With the expedition able to continue, it traveled another 252 miles “without seeing anyone outside the party” (Lass, 237). On November 26, they encountered a blizzard but avoided any other setbacks, arriving at Crow Creek on December 2, 1863. Upon their arrival, Thompson found the agency in a desperate situation. Hundreds of Ho-Chunk had fled south to other reservations while many of the Dakota were threatening to leave for the Yankton Agency. Unfortunately, for the Native peoples at Crow Creek, the arrival of the expedition provided minimal relief. As noted by missionary John P. Williamson, most of the supplies that reached the reservation were consigned either to the traders or to the military (Lass, 238). As for the cattle, several had died along the way while the rest were “fatigued, lean, and starving” (Lass, 239).
Like they had been before, the supplies given to the people at Crow Creek were rationed, much of which were unsuitable for consumption. In order to work around that problem, officials at Crow Creek built a wooden barrel out of cottonwood and connected it by a pipe to the boiler from the saw mill. Inside the barrel, officials put beef, pork, flour and water. It also included things like beef heads, entrails, hearts, and lungs. The barrel was heated from the steam produced by the boiler, and the soup, which had the composition of a thin gruel, was fed to the hungry Dakota and Ho-Chunk. According to Dakota leader Passing-Hail, reservation officials, “built a box and put the beef in it and steamed it and made soup; they put salt and pepper in it, and that is the reason these hills about here are filled with children’s graves; it seemed as though they wanted to kill us” (Hyman, 148).
According to Dakota leader Passing-Hail, reservation officials, “built a box and put the beef in it and steamed it and made soup; they put salt and pepper in it, and that is the reason these hills about here are filled with children’s graves; it seemed as though they wanted to kill us” (Hyman, 148).
The reservation at Crow Creek caused much suffering and death among the Dakota and Ho-Chunk peoples, who were forced to resettle there after the U.S. – Dakota War. While the Dakota and Ho-Chunk were at Crow Creek, officials and businessmen such as Clark W. Thompson continued to use the the Native peoples for personal gain as exemplified by the “Moscow Expedition.” According to the editor of the Mankato Record, John C. Wise, as summarized by historian William E. Lass, Minnesota had benefited greatly by the removal of the Sioux and Winnebago and the Moscow Expedition seemed “a final desperate attempt of Senator Wilkinson and his associates to exploit the Indians” (Lass, 234). Thompson, for his part, moved on from this tragedy as a successful businessman and politician. Thompson established the Southern Minnesota railroad from the Mississippi River to Winnebago City, he was a member of Minnesota’s constitutional convention, he became a state senator, and he was president of the State Agricultural Society. Now, his actions, and the actions of those like him, who exploited Native populations for personal gain, should be interrogated and discussed.
William E. Lass, “The “Moscow Expedition”,” Minnesota History, 39:6 (Summer, 1965); 227–240.
Colette Hyman, “Survival at Crow Creek, 1863–1866,” Minnesota History, 61:4 (Winter 2008–2009); 148–161.
William D. Green, The Children of Lincoln: White Paternalism and the Limits of Black Opportunity in Minnesota 1860–1876, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
Mary Lethert Wingerd, North Country: The Making of Minnesota, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Warren Upham and Rose Barteau Dunlap, “Clark W. Thompson” in “Minnesota Biographies 1655–1912,” Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, Vol. 14, (St. Paul: Published by the Society, 1912).
William Watts Folwell, “The Moscow Expedition” in A History of Minnesota, Vol. 2, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1924).
For various newspaper accounts read: Mankato Record October 3, 10, 17, 24; Mankato Union October 2, 30, November 6; St. Paul Pioneer November 22, December 30; St. Paul Press October 18, 28, 1863.