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General Overview of Dakota Conflict

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January 4, 2020 by Pamela Nowak


When the four young Wahpeton youths who had killed the Whites near Acton rode into the Rice Creek village on August 17, 1862, village leaders immediately sent word to Chief Shakopee, whose village was near the mouth of the Redwood River. The young men had married into the Mdewakanton band and their actions thus involved two bands of Dakota. Shakopee and Red Middle Voice determined a council should be called at Little Crow’s village near the Lower Agency to discuss the matter. Riders were sent to summon leaders to the meeting. The debate was strong and the Mdewakanton pressed Little Crow to lead the Sioux in a general war to drive the whites from the Minnesota River valley. An attack was ordered on the Lower Agency for August 18.

At dawn, a group of Mdewankanton men rode to the Lower Agency, splitting into smaller groups. They surrounded the main buildings at the Agency and attacked. The first White to die was James W. Lynd, a clerk at Andrew Myrick’s store (Myrick had earlier advised the hungry Dakota should eat grass rather than extending them credit for food). Lynd had been married to a Dakota woman but had deserted her and their two children for another woman. Another employee, George W. Divoll, was also killed. Myrick initially escaped but was later found dead, his mouth stuffed with grass. A number of other clerks and government employees were also killed. On the road, fleeing families were attacked including  those of a physician and an elderly fur trader whose wife was Shakopee’s mother-in-law. Thirteen were killed in the initial attack and seven while fleeing, forty-seven escaped, and ten were captured. Buildings at the agency were plundered and burned. Most of those who escaped went to Fort Ridgely, about thirteen miles distant.

The Dakota were not united in the attack. Dakota accounts, lost for many years, reveal many Dakota who had converted to farming and/or were friendly with Whites attempted to stop the attack, gave warnings to nearby settlers, and helped some to escape. An excellent collection of Dakota accounts can be found in THROUGH DAKOTA EYES (edited by Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth).

As word of the decision to attack spread, a second war council was called, this one near the Upper Agency at Yellow Medicine.  On the morning of August 18, representatives from bands in that areas gathered. About 100 Sisseton and Wahpetons and thirty young Yankton were present (the Yankton were Lakota, from present day South Dakota, and not officially part of the decision process since this was not their reservation). By noon, word came of the killings near the Redwood. There was much agitation and division at this council as well. Many (but not all) Sissetons urged the killing of all Whites and the taking of property reasoning the killing had already started and all would be punished for it anyway. Among the Wahpetons, there was general agreement to take Whites’ goods but opposition to killing with a preference toward simply sending the whites away. John Other-Day addressed the group and advised that even if they killed, the Whites would send a whole country of soldiers.

Toward evening, many of the Yanktons, Sissetons, and a few Wahpetons left, intent on killing the Whites. Some Yanktons, disagreeing with that decision, departed for the West (some members of the Fool Soldiers, who ransomed captives in Dakota Territory, said they had been “in the East” and left because they disagreed with the decisions made). Several of the leaders who participated in the council included Lean Bear (chief of Old Sleepy-Eye’s band), White Lodge, the son of Limping Devil, and Blue Face–all Sissetons who urged the killing of the Whites. Their villages were those closest to Lake Shetek and their decisions would have far-reaching consequences for the settlers there.

In the days following August 17, 1862, attacks occurred throughout Minnesota (I’ll detail some of them further in future posts). Fort Ridgely, where most of the Lower Agency fugitives fled, was the only military outpost in southwestern Minnesota; there were seventy-six soldiers and two officers stationed there but fifty men and Captain Marsh had left the day before for Fort Ripley. On August 18, word was sent for those soldiers to return and preparations began to defend the fort with the remaining twenty-six soldiers. Marsh’s party was ambushed near Redwood Ferry with only fifteen escaping.

Attacks occurred at the Upper Agency and at twice at Fort Ridgely. The settlement of New Ulm was the largest near the reservation, founded by Germans in 1854-55 was populated by around 900 people in 1862. New Ulm was also attacked in two prongs, on August 19 and again on August 23, before finally being evacuated on August 25 (some 2000, many from surrounding settlements fled to Mankato, thirty miles distant). Major battles occurred at Birch Coulee and Wood Lake. An estimated 1200 lived in Renville County with more than 160 killed and 100 taken captive. Milford Township, a German settlement just west of New Ulm lost more than fifty residents. West Lake and Lake Shetek were attacked between August 20 and 22. Acton and Fort Abercrombie were attacked in early September.   

At the same time attacks were occurring, those Dakota bands and individuals who disagreed with the war warned settlers and led many to safety. Many Dakota had formed relationships with settlers and those ties were akin to kinship, creating internal conflict for those involved.

As the war stretched on, many of those Dakota who originally were enthusiastic about it began to realize the effort would not turn out as anticipated. White soldiers had been sent to the state despite the Civil War. As well, captives taken with the intent to use them as hostages were proving problematic. The Dakota, already without food now had captives to feed. Within bands that held captives, tribal members were unsure how to treat them since they were not taken for the purpose of adoption into the village. Traditional values were being challenged, captives were starving along with tribal members, and hostile emotion was threatening normal kinship values.

The Dakota Peace Party was formed on August 26, 1862, by Upper Agency Dakotas who formed a Soldiers’ Lodge to oppose the war. This group began negotiations with General Sibley just after the battle at Birch Coulee when Sibley learned that the Dakota held more than 250 hostages. The final battle, a huge defeat for Little Crow, occurred at Wood Lake on September 23.  The hostages who were not taken westward with scattered bands were surrendered to Sibley at Camp Release three days later by the Dakota Peace Party.

As fall advanced in 1862, a few remaining bands left Minnesota for the Dakota Territory, most wandering in zig-zag patterns to avoid pursuit of White soldiers. For the most part, these were the bands that still held captives and still held out hope that these hostages could be ransomed for food and supplies. But as winter advanced, the captives became more of a drain on resources and most leaders began to trade them away and flee to the west. Only a few leaders, White Lodge among them, continued to hold captives.

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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.

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