Chief Little Crow’s War: Part II

Published 12:58 pm Monday, November 6, 2023

By Jadon Gibson

Contributing columnist

By 1862, the Dakotas were in dire straits with insufficient food, clothing, blankets and other essential items. Hunger was rampant and with the great need for food they were forced to eat their dogs and many of their horses in order to survive. Little Crow, Chaska and other Indian leaders saw the breakdown between the Dakota and government adversely affecting the Indians while benefiting the United States. Although the payments to the Dakotas were guaranteed they were often late or not paid at all due to the government’s preoccupation with the Civil War.

Little Crow became the chief of the eastern Sioux, or Dakota following the death of his father.

They were to have a trust fund of $1.5 million at 5 percent interest paid annually. The tribe found itself on a tract of land 20×30 acres which seemed unsuitable to them. They claimed they were cut off from every natural resource. They were to be fed, clothed and taught agriculture. Houses were also to be built for them and schools for their children.

The prosperous picture painted for the Dakotas didn’t materialize. Payments promised through the treaties were not paid for nearly two years. The government was contending with the advent of the Civil War while the Indians faced starvation each winter and their standard of living continued to decline. The government bargained with Little Crow for the northern half of the reservation for $90,000. An agreement was reached but the money was paid to the traders to be applied toward the Indian account which they were unable to pay. This resulted in the loss of half of their land with nothing tangible to show for it. There were bitter feelings toward Little Crow among the Dakotas following these negotiations.

The ill will also extended to the traders who stayed in St. Paul rather than going out among the tribesmen. When the chiefs heard about the Civil War they wondered what effect it would have on them. Some of the Dakotas felt the distraction may enable them to drive the settlers from Minnesota and to reclaim their land.

Time passed and the annuity payment and food that was due the Dakotas wasn’t forthcoming. Little Crow was forced to support the decision by the war council in 1862 to pursue a course of war in order to drive the whites out of Minnesota. He let it be known that he disapproved of killing settlers who had done them no harm and told the warriors to spare the women and children.

Approximately 500 Dakota broke into the trader’s warehouse forcing Indian agent Thomas Galbraith to give them provisions. The need for food among the Dakotas was the main cause of the Dakota War of 1862.

Chief Little Crow knew the white men would seek vengeance for their acts. The war council could either turn the murders over to the soldiers to settle or go on the warpath. The majority of the council was bent on war. Little Crow led a strike the following morning in which 20 white men were killed. He had been blamed for the tribe’s misfortunes and hoped to regain his standing among them. In the days that followed as many as 800 Dakota braves rampaged throughout the area with hundreds of whites killed. Buildings were looted and homes and crops were burned. Hundreds of scalps were taken.

Fort Ridgley soldiers arrived to rescue the innocents but many fell in battle. Henry Sibley’s skirmishers moved methodically not seeming to understand that time wasted resulted in lives lost. What Little Crow started on Aug. 17 Sibley ended on Sept. 22. The Dakota War of 1862 resulted in the deaths of 400 to 900 settlers although no official tally was ever given.

Sibley didn’t differentiate between Indians. They were all the same to him. He arrested over 2,000 but as many as three-fourths were innocent. Within a month nearly 400 Indians were tried with each trial lasting 10 minutes or less. Over 300 tribesmen were sentenced to death.

Although Little Crow led attacks on New Ulm, Hutchinson, Forest City and Fort Ridgley he knew the end was near. When defeats followed early successes Little Crow retreated to the Red River with some of his people. When his braves were routed at the Battle of Wood Lake in September of 1862 he fled to Canada.

“The white men are like locusts,” he exclaimed. “They fly so thick the whole sky is like a snowstorm. We are like little herds of buffalo that were left scattered.”

It is ironic that the Dakota’s annuity payment arrived on the day the war began. One day may have caused many lives lost.

Jadon Gibson is a writer from Harrogate, Tennessee. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.