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Other Battles of the Dakota Conflict

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February 1, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

The Upper Sioux Agency was located upriver from the Lower Sioux Agency and Fort Ridgely. Along the Minnesota River near the junction with the Yellow Medicine River, it housed the governmental support for the Dakota located in this area and did not have military support. The dozen or so building stood on high ground with a few traders located in the valley below. A warehouse and the residence of Agent Galbraith were among the governmental buildings.

About two weeks before the outbreak of the Dakota Conflict, emotions had been tense but the release of some of the provisions in the warehouse had eased the situation somewhat. The soldiers who had earlier come to the agency departed and Agent Galbraith also decided to leave the area to escort a unit of volunteers (the Renville Rangers) to Fort Snelling for enlistment in the Civil War effort. The volunteers included employees from the agency and mixed blood recruits. To many of the Dakota in the area, this seemed to indicate a shortage of soldiers and an opportunity for the Dakota to regain land without resistance.

On August 18, 1862, rumors of attacks reached the Upper Agency but were dismissed. Dr. Wakefield, the agency physician, sent his wife and children toward Fort Ridgely with an agency employee, George Gleason. As they neared the Redwood River, they encountered two Dakota from the Lower Agency, Hapa and Chaska. Hapa shot and killed Gleason. Chaska, who was a “farmer Indian,” intervened to save Mrs. Wakefield and her children, taking them to Shakopee’s camp and protecting them for the next five weeks. (Their story, a tragic one for Chaska, will be told in future weeks.)

The same afternoon, Wahpeton living near the Upper Agency and other representatives of nearby bands held a council to debate whether to join the bands attacking near the Lower Agency. Wahpeton leaders John Other Day, Chief Akepa, Simon Anawangmani, and Paul Mazakutemani (Little Paul) spoke against war and warned of long-term negative outcomes. That night Other Day encouraged residents at the Upper Agency to gather at the warehouse and organized a guard, protecting them as raids began in the valley below where one was killed and two were injured (one survivor crawled forty miles to safety). Other Day led his group of sixty-two across the Minnesota River. Three days later, they reached Cedar City, then moved on to Hutchinson where the group dispersed.  

While Other Day led one group eastward, other Wahpeton leaders opposing the war worked to warn those at nearby missions. At Pajutzee (Yellow Medicine), Dr. and Mrs. Williamson were informed of events. The Williamsons chose to remain, feeling they were not in personal danger. Little Paul and Antoine Renville traveled to the Hazelwood Mission to warn Reverend Stephan Riggs and his wife Mary, who also doubted the warning. That night, however, the Hazelwood residents did gather on an island and decided to depart after Riggs visited the deserted Upper Agency. Another group, led by John Pettijohn (a teacher at Red Iron’s village) joined them. Among the group were several from Williamson’s mission. The party of thirty narrowly escaped and reached Birch Coulee, sixteen miles west of Fort Ridgely. The Williamsons joined them there while Andrew Hunter scouted to Fort Ridgely and returned to tell the group to flee eastward. Learning teacher Amos Huggins, who had lived among the Wahpeton most of his life, had been killed at Lac qui Parle, the group departed and arrived in Henderson several days later.

The isolated settlements that stretched along the Minnesota River and on the plains of southwest Minnesota received no warnings. Many isolated farms and small settlements were attacked with hundreds killed. The attacks did not appear coordinated and goals seemed mixed. Some women and children were sent eastward or taken captive while men were killed. In other areas, entire families were killed. In a few cases, families were warned and allowed to leave. This was likely due to the varying opinions among Dakota leaders, established kinship relationships, and the responses displayed by the Whites.

These varying opinions surfaced in Renville County where thirteen farm families gathered at the Paul Kitzman home on August 18. These German settlers headed toward Fort Ridgely the following day but were overtaken by Dakota en route. Kitzman knew one of the Dakota well and the group was persuaded to return to their homes with the explanation that the attacks were by the Chippewa. Witnesses said one of the Dakota stated Kitzman was a good man and he would hate to have to kill him (seen by some as a statement of intent to kill but may have been intent to protect). On the way, one of the settlers broke away toward the fort and tensions increased. As they neared the farms, other Dakota appeared and the Whites were fired upon with a large number of the men killed. Like the Shetek story, there is likely much more to this story, layers to motivations and events that have not yet been told.

Other remote areas also became battle sites. Throughout, patterns of war differed. Accounts left by White survivors reveal a variety of interpretations of the same events. Bias and sharp opinion existed among both Whites and the Dakota. Those interested in reading primary accounts of White survivors should visit the Minnesota Historical Society website to view the Dakota Conflict manuscript collection. For primary accounts of Dakota survivors, see THROUGH DAKOTA EYES by Gary Clayton Anderson. Reading accounts from both perspectives is helpful in wading through the biases.

As word of the war reached Fort Snelling and Governor Ramsey, troops under the command of General Henry Hastings Sibley were sent westward to engage the Dakota and end the conflict. This response had been predicted by some of the Dakota but dismissed by the pro-war factions, who believed the soldiers were all away at the Civil War. By September, many Dakota were advocating to end the war but others fought on, tired and hungry. Most had retreated beyond the Yellow Medicine River.

A military burial party made its way up the Minnesota River valley, encamping near Birch Coulee (sixteen miles from Fort Ridgely). Major Joseph Brown, seeing Little Crow’s deserted village and having encountered no Dakota for about four days, was convinced there would be no problems. The Dakota were quite aware of Brown and had deliberately allowed them to isolate from Sibley’s other troops.

On September 1, Little Crow led a force of 110 on a plundering expedition along the lower portion of the Minnesota River. Gray Bird and 350 men headed toward Fort Ridgely and Sibley’s main arm. En route, Gray Bird discovered the burial party.

Brown had camped in an area surrounded by woods. Though he’d set out pickets, they were only about thirty yards from the center of camp. Two hundred warriors circled the camp under cover of darkness and attacked just before dawn on September 2.  The surprise effort was deadly. Heavy fighting occurred for about an hour, during which the troops stacked dead horses as barricades. The Dakota continued the siege throughout the day though it weakened after the initial surge. Sounds of the battle carried and Sibley sent out a relief party of 240 men. Additional forces were requested and Sibley’s entire six companies responded.

By the time Sibley arrived, late morning of September 3, the battle had waned. Artillery had driven back the Dakota. Ninety horses and 13 men were dead, 47 seriously wounded, and many less wounded. The siege had lasted 31 hours and the stench was rank. Justina Kriegher, who had escaped from Renville County and wandered the prairie for 13 days before being found by the burial party, was among the survivors of Birch Coulee as well, undoubtedly highly traumatized—a factor that may have contributed to her later stories about her experiences. The Battle of Birch Coulee resulted in the highest number of casualties of the war and gave many of the tired Dakota a reason to hope.

At the same time that Gray Bird was attacking Birch Coulee, Little Crow headed toward Forest City and Hutchinson. During their march, around 75 of his warriors broke away from the group, disagreeing with Little Crow’s plan. Captain Richard Strout and 55 men were camped in the area, sent to protect settlers in Meeker County. The forces stumbled across Little Crow’s party on September 3 near Hutchinson, losing several men in the fight. The following day, Little Crow’s forces reunited and were joined by more forces from the Upper Agency.

Little Crow planned to split his forces to attack both Hutchinson and Forest City. At both locations, the encountered make-shift stockades that had been quickly constructed by area residents. These settler forts, stretching from Little Falls to Glencoe, were highly effective and attacks on them were unsuccessful. Most were about ten to twelve feet high and a hundred feet square with holes for guns. They were often constructed in less than a day. At Maine Prairie, the settlers managed to construct a two-story fort with a double wall. At St. Cloud, a strong circular fort was built with a bullet-proof tower. The fort as Hutchinson housed 400 people. As September continued, more and more of these fortifications went up and defenders became more proactive.

Fort Abercrombie, a military post located along the Red River on the western border of Minnesota was one of three regular Army outposts in the state. It had no stockade and scattered buildings, cannons, and three 12-pound howitzers. In mid-August, a train of thirty wagons en route to St. Cloud had reached the fort with annuity supplies for the Dakota. The goods had been detained by the commanding officer until an escort could accompany it the rest of the way. As reports of warfare came in, soldiers prepared. Forces were on constant sentry duty and were weary when a small raiding party of Dakota attacked on August 30. Another attack occurred on September 3. For the most part, the attackers were mainly interested in securing horses. But by the time this was realized, much of the ammunition had been used and the third attack, on September 6, was more effective. Dakota entered the stables of the fort and attacked the commissary building. Casualties were high, however, and the Dakota withdrew to the woods to siege the fort. Vander Horck waited for reinforcements, having sent out a dispatch days earlier. The siege lasted, with occasional attacks, until September 29. The next day, troops finally arrived to escort the 60 men, women, and children to safety.

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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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