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Dakota Leaders


May 10, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

Little Crow is most recognized as his role as leader of the Sioux during the Dakota Conflict. He was the chief leader of a band of Mdewakanton living along the Minnesota River and had a long history of leadership prior to 1862.

Born around 1810, he was known as “Thaóyate Dúta”, which translates to “His Red/Scarlet Nation” but became known as Little Crow, after his father (from a European mistranslation of his grandfather’s name “Čhetáŋ Wakhúwa Máni” literally, “Hawk that chases/hunts walking”). Born into a family of leaders, both Little Crow and his brother felt they should take over upon the death of their father. As the story goes, they fought and Little Crow was wounded in both wrists, wearing long sleeves for the rest of his life to cover the scars. By 1849, he was recognized as leader of his band and represented them in the negotiations for the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and Treaty of Mendota in 1851. These treaties limited the Dakota to lands along the Minnesota River, west of their traditional territory. During the ratification process, changes were made to the first treaty, forcing the second, which limited the Dakota to only one side of the river.

Little Crow was a complicated individual. He became an effective leader who clearly saw both the large picture and the interplay of individual events. He adapted to White customs (wearing trousers and jackets, living in a frame house, taking up farming) and was among those leaders who visited Washington, D.C.

In 1862, when annuities guaranteed under the signed treaties failed to arrive, Little Crow realized the treaties were not being honored and that unrest was growing. Walking a thin line, he strived to convince the starving Dakota that attempts to negotiate with local traders. On August 4, 1862, he was among the leaders who met with the Indian Agent at the Lower Sioux Agency, Thomas J. Galbraith. Food annuities had been received at the agency but the monetary payments had not yet arrived. Galbraith was waiting for the monetary portion (in the system that had developed, the Dakota were required to use the money to purchase the food). The Dakota leaders asked that the food be released from the warehouses before the money arrived.  During the council, Little Crow pointed out that hungry men often helped themselves. One of the traders, Andrew Myrick told him if the people were hungry, they could eat grass. A few weeks later, on August 17, a small group of young Dakota men and White settlers argued over food and the Dakota killed the Whites.

For Little Crow, the moment of crisis had arrived. He understood the consequences of further violent action and spoke of it when Dakota leaders met that night to discuss what to do. He advised that the Whites far outnumbered the Dakota and that the Dakota would suffer ultimate defeat. Reportedly, he told the group not to kill women and children and that only those who had robbed the Dakota should be killed. Still, when the majority of others at the council advocated for forcing the Whites from the area, Little Crow agreed to support the decision and serve as war leader. Once the conflict began in earnest the next day, Little Crow’s ability to control the bands slipped. Some attacked with the purpose of driving out the Whites while others were intent on killing all Whites.

Little Crow led the ambush at Redwood Ferry, the attack on the burial party at Birch Coulee, and attacks on Fort Ridgely (among others) and was wounded by cannon fire at Fort Ridgely. Throughout, he attempted to mitigate the damage of the actions taken, writing to General Sibley on September 7, 1862 to explain the reasons for the Dakota going to war.

“Dear Sir – For what reason we have commenced this war I will tell you. it is on account of Maj. Galbrait [sic] we made a treaty with the Government a big for what little we do get and then cant get it till our children was dieing with hunger – it is with the traders that commence Mr A[ndrew] J Myrick told the Indians that they would eat grass or their own dung. Then Mr [William] Forbes told the lower Sioux that [they] were not men [,] then [Louis] Robert he was working with his friends how to defraud us of our money, if the young braves have push the white men I have done this myself.”

Five days later, he wrote again.

“Red Iron Village or Mazawakan

To Hon H. H. Sibley

We have in Mdewakanton band one hundred & fifty five prisoners. not including the Sisiton [sic] & Warpeton [sic] prisoners. then we are waiting for the Sisiton what we are going to do with the prisoners they are coming down. they are at Lake qui Parl now. the words that I have sent to the governed I want to here [sic.] from him also. and I want to know from you as a friend what way that I can make peace for my people. in regard to prisoners they fair [sic.] with our children or our self just as well as us

your truly friend

Little Crow

per Scott Campbell”

Following defeat at the Battle of Wood Lake, Little Crow and his band fled west with three captives. By spring, they were camped near the Canadian border and traded the captive boys for blankets and food in June 1863. He was unable to gather support to continue the war and accepted there would be no return to the lands the Dakota had occupied a year earlier. But he returned to the area and led raiding parties for food and horses. During one of these, on July 3, 1863, he engaged in a firefight with the Lamson family. The alarm was sounded and a search party found the body of Little Crow the following day. The man was scalped and his body taken to nearby Hutchinson where it was dragged down Main Street and further mutilated.

His remains were buried but late exhumed and put on public display. In 1971, the remains were finally repatriated to his grandson and buried in Flandreau, South Dakota.  

As to those leaders involved at Lake Shetek, there is little information.

White Lodge was the leader of one of the Sisseton bands that held the Lake Shetek Captives. History tells us nothing of his birth or his death. He was leader of an off-reservation band whose village was located 25 miles west of Big Stone Lake in present South Dakota. White Lodge’s sons were Black Hawk and Chased by the Ree. He was present at the wart council on August 18 (per accounts of John Other Day) and was among those urging the killing of all Whites. He was the captor of Christina Koch and of Julia Wright and traded them as needed. According to survivors’ stories, he respected the strength of these women and was unwilling to part with Julia Wright when the Fool Soldiers were negotiating for the captives. He was also involved in the attack on Sioux Falls.

Lean Bear/Grizzly Bear was another leader of an off-reservation band of Sisseton. His village was located at Lake Shaokaton or Bullhead Lake near present day Lake Benton, MN. White Owl and Old Pawn (Cross River, Pawn, Across the River) were members of this band. This was part of Old Sleepy Eye’s band. This village was to the northwest of Lake Shetek, about 30 miles. Lean Bear was present at the war council on August 18 and also advocated killing of all Whites. He was killed at “Slaughter Slough” on August 20, 1862. He was previously known to the settlers there and was described as short and stocky, not bad looking.

Pawn (Old Pawn, Cross River, Across the River) did not attend the war council (or at least was not mentioned as having attended) and was a member of Lean Bear’s band. His wife was a relative of Old Sleepy Eye, though, and thus held prestige within the village. Pawn was a frequent visitor to Lake Shetek, described as “the worst looking Indian I ever saw” and was 6’3″ tall.

On August 20, 1862, Pawn was camped near the Wright cabin and had told the settlers he was hunting. He was well-known to the settlers and always had a good relationship with them. Julia Wright seemed to know him well. The accounts of surviving settlers generally indicate a consensus that Pawn tricked the settlers but a closer examination of his actions seem to indicate he was caught in the middle, a friend of the Whites at the lake but not having the same status of leaders who wished to kill all Whites. From the accounts, it does appear that Pawn negotiated departure for the settlers but that the killing of Lean Bear negated that agreement. He later took several of the women as his own captives and perhaps stepped into a leadership role which was never truly secure. For the purpose of my novel, I have chosen to represent him in this way. Had Julia Wright ever left her account, history might know more of his actual role.

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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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