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Events Leading to the Dakota Conflict


December 28, 2019 by Pamela Nowak

The roots of the Dakota Conflict were many, varied, and complex. White settlement and the reservation/treaty system, annuity payments (or lack thereof), the Civil War, direct hostile interaction between the cultural groups, and the decisions of those attending the war council were among them.

Ever increasing White settlement and demand for land diminished game and led the U.S. government to propose treaties to restrict the Sioux to small areas. In 1851, at Traverse des Sioux, the Wahpeton and Sisseton bands ceded lands in southern and western Minnesota Territory, Iowa, and Dakota with the U.S. promising $1,665,000 in cash and annuities. Two weeks later, at Mendota, the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute signed away lands in the southeast corner of the territory for $1,410,00 in cash and annuities. Payment was to be made over a 50-year period. In all, the bands gave up some 24,000,000 acres and were relegated to land along on the upper part of the Minnesota River extending ten miles on either side of a 70 mile stretch. Two reservations were created for the 7000 Sioux. Two administrative centers were created to serve them: the Upper (Yellow Medicine) Agency near Granite Falls and the Lower (Redwood) Agency near Redwood Falls. The two agencies were about thirty miles apart.

From the start of the reservation system in Minnesota, there were problems. The Upper Sioux were satisfied with their lands, which included many of their old villages. However, the Lower Sioux had been relocated from woodland areas to a stretch of prairie land. Traditionally hunters, many would have to adjust to becoming farmers, forcing them to make changes that were inherent to their culture. While some of the reservation Santee did adapt to farming, most did not. The traditional “blanket Indians” derided the “cut-hairs” or “breeches Indians” and began to live off the reservation in scattered villages. These were generally tolerated by agency officials as long as things remained peaceful and the villages were located away from White settlements. But, as the Whites moved ever closer to the villages, isolated problems occurred and hostile events.

By 1857, Whites were crowding the reservation lands and demands were made to reduce tribal holdings. Several Santee leaders visited Washington, D.C. in 1858 seeking to increase annuity payments. Instead, they were persuaded to sign another pair of treaties. The Santee gave up all reservation lands north of the Minnesota River (a million acres, half their holdings) in exchange for what they thought would be a beneficial payment “to be fixed by the U.S. Senate.” In 1859, the Senate finally fixed the payment at thirty cents per acre, much less than anticipated by those who signed. By the time traders deducted their claims, the amount was reduced by fifty percent.

During the 1850s, the Sioux in Minnesota began to recognize treaties had included hidden clauses (the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux included extension of rights to traders and mixed-blood for claims against the Wahpeton and Sisseton worth some $400,000 which was to be deducted from their cash payments. In the end, $495,000 was diverted to pay traders’ debts for incurred for advances of food and supplies. The remaining funds were set aside for future years’ payments. Governor Ramsey and his secretary took 10-15% fees and the representative of the American Fur Company (Henry Hastings Sibley) received $145,000. 

Treaty payment was a combination of cash (paid over many years) and annuities (supplies of food, clothing, and tools). These two payments arrived at the agencies for dispersal to the bands. Usually, the payments arrived together and agents released both monetary and annuity payments at the same time. However, if there was a delay in one, it impacted the other.  Both annuities and cash payments occurred on an annual basis. Delays were common, disrupted by congressional budget issues and delivery problems. Those delays could be disastrous since game was no longer plentiful and farming was not well adapted to and was impacted by the weather.

As well, there were issues with the understanding of money and credit, neither part of Sioux culture. Traders, who extended credit between annual payments, often inflated costs or otherwise cheated the Santee who did not understand the monetary system. The value of items purchased was viewed differently by each culture and monetary denominations were a foreign concept to the Santee; they had no understanding they were being cheated of change owed them when they used the money to make purchases. When annuities did arrive, the supplies were often useless and food stores were often inedible (worms, rotting, etc.).

The Civil War laid groundwork for the Dakota Conflict in two ways. First, it created major issues in the treaty payment system. The U.S. government was diverting all monetary resources to the war effort and cash payments to tribes were delayed across the country. As well, annuities were not being sent. In 1862, there were months of delay.

For the Sioux, this meant a severe shortage of food. 1861 had been a year with many crop failures, including on the reservations. The Santee had literally run out of food and had depleted the available wild game.  To complicate matters, when the annuities were finally released to the agency representatives, the food was put into storage to await the monetary payments so that both could be released together. Food supplies were sitting in storage but were not released to the Santee.

The other side-impact of the Civil War was enlistments. Men from throughout Minnesota were enlisting in the war effort, leaving families on the frontier. This fact was not unnoticed by the Sioux. Bands observed that farms were less protected and towns had many fewer men than previously and that soldiers had left the forts. Strategically, if the Sioux were to push the Whites from the area, the time would be ideal.

Hostility on the frontier led to an attack in 1857 (Spirit Lake, Iowa) by a renegade band of Santee led by Inkpaduta (the attack was in response to murder of a dozen Santee). While this was one band, it created to ill-feelings and set the stage for increased issues in the next five years. The frontier settlements included many Irish, Dutch, and German settlers who often did not get along with the Sioux. Leaders such as Little Crow (Taoyateduta) worked to keep restless young men under control. Among the Dakota, there were rumors that tribes from Dakota Territory planned to lay claim to some of the annuities to satisfy their claims to lands that had been ceded in 1851.

In June, 1862, Agent Galbraith determined to wait until the monetary payments arrived from Washington in order to release everything at the same time and food annuities were stored at Fort Ridgely. On July 2, a group of 3000 hungry Wahpetons and Sissetons waited for Galbraith and leaders demanded the release of the food. Galbraith told them to go hunt and come back in a month. By mid-July, the number of Dakota waiting for release of the food had grown, along with tempers. On August 4, a group broke into the warehouse. Soldiers aimed a howitzer at them but finally released some pork and flour to the starving group.

Little Crow acted as spokesman for the Dakota in the negotiations with Galbraith and the traders, who had been asked by the Dakota to extend more credit. Trader Andrew Myrick suggested if the Dakota were hungry, they could eat grass. At the translation of the comment, many of those with Little Crow left shouting threats. To add further insult, most of the traders were married to Dakota women and thus had kinship obligations to their wives’ families. They were denying their responsibilities and had insulted them. This was unpardonable behavior within Dakota culture.

On August 17, 1862, a group of young Mdewakanton men near Acton, Minnesota were returning to their village after an unsuccessful hunt. Already Agent Galbraith, anticipating good local harvests, had broken his word that he would distribute food to the agency tribes. One of the youths indicated he planned to steal eggs from a farmer. Another pointed out the trouble it might start and was called a coward. He responded that he was not afraid of White men. The quarrel led to a confrontation with a White man and a “target-shooting” challenge. Five Whites were shot.

Now, village chiefs had to make a decision. Many Dakota recognized the annuities might be in jeopardy of any delivery. Others believed troops would come to punish the tribes. Some felt the time had come to pursue war. A Soldiers Lodge was called and trusted warriors from many villages met to discuss what should happen next. There was heavy debate with opinions ranging widely. Some wanted to drive out the Whites. Still others wanted to kill them. Little Crow advised against hostile action. When the council broke the next morning, there was still disagreement on the exact nature of the to be taken (driving out the Whites or killing them) but war was imminent and Little Crow determined to stand with his people.

On the morning of August 18, 1862, the attacks began.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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