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The Last Days of the Dakota Conflict

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May 16, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

In terms of ending the Dakota Conflict, Little Crow’s letter (posted last week), with its explanation of the reasons behind the start of the conflict and hints that captives might be released, was not the settlement Colonel Sibley was seeking. Instead, the commander refused to negotiate further and demanded Little Crow’s full surrender.

William Hastings Sibley was well-known in Minnesota. A long-time politician in Iowa and Wisconsin Territories, he was a natural choice for appointment to the Minnesota Territorial legislature when Wisconsin became a state and Minnesota Territory was formed in 1849. With statehood, Sibley was elected Minnesota’s first governor. He was appointed colonel of the hastily formed state militia, with the responsibility of responding to the Dakota Conflict and protecting exposed settlements. He found a collection of volunteers in need of training and spent his early weeks in command focused on that task. The first major battle after his appointment was the Battle of Birch Coulee in early September 1862.

The Battle of Birch Coulee had not been planned. It occurred when Sibley directed a burial party, led by J. R. Brown under the command of Hiram P. Grant, to the area and the detail was ambushed. The battle is considered the most deadly for U.S. forces in the Dakota Conflict. Sibley, still at Fort Ridgely—sixteen miles away—could hear the battle and sent a relief party, then reinforcements. By the time Sibley arrived with those reinforcements, twenty-two men were dead and forty-seven were wounded. The siege had lasted thirty-one hours. It was a lesson for Sibley and his forces and one which likely impacted Sibley’s decision to demand full surrender from Little Crow.

For the Dakota, Birch Coulee was a decisive victory and many bands spent time celebrating while Sibley prepared his forces for attack. It would be the last engagement of the war.

In mid-September, Sibley advanced up the Minnesota River and camped east of Lone Tree, or Battle, Lake (which Sibley’s guide thought was Wood Lake, about three to four miles distant). Little Crow planned to ambush the soldiers with 700 warriors while the troops were exposed on the road the next day. Things did not go as planned. A regiment left early on September 23 to forage for food and encountered a group of Dakota about a half mile from the main camp. A runner was sent to alert the main column, giving enough time to form a defense. After a two-hour battle, heavy casualties and the death of Chief Mankato forced the remaining Dakota to retreat with 2000 Dakota captured. Sibley was promoted to Brigadier General.

The Dakota were weary of fighting, unable to feed themselves or their captives, and many leaders saw no positive outcome. Those leaders seeking peace were achieving more leverage and this group arranged for the release of captives and the surrender of many of the Dakota.

By that time, 250 captive Whites had been gathered together at “Camp Release” along with half-breed captives. Christina Koch and George Wright were among them. Three days after the Battle of Wood Lake, the Dakota Peace Party surrendered these 269 hostages to the military. Within a few days after that, sixteen more released.  Sibley was largely credited with the release though the Dakota Peace Party had been advocating for the action for several weeks.

Sibley later wrote,

“The Indians and half-breeds assembled . . . in considerable numbers, and I proceeded to give them very briefly my views of the late proceedings; my determination that the guilty parties should be pursued and overtaken, if possible, and I made a demand that all the captives should be delivered to me instantly, that I might take them to camp.”

Of those captured at the Battle of Wood Lake, 321 would be tried and 303 sentenced to death. The commission of military officers given responsibility for trying the Dakota was established by Sibley two days after the surrender at Camp Release (where more Dakota surrendered).

The words of Wakandayamani (George Quinn) in 1898:

“I surrendered at Camp Release and gave my gun to Samuel J. Brown. He put me under guard, but said I would not be a prisoner very long. I was a prisoner for four years, being sent to Rock Island. Nothing was proved against me except that I was in some of the battles against the whites. I took no part in killing the settlers and was opposed to such work.”

Sibley went on to lead forces into Dakota Territory to pursue remaining bands of Dakota, While Lodge among them. He would continue to serve on the western frontier throughout the Civil War and be brevetted as Major-General in 1865.

I will detail the injustices of the trials in next week’s posts.

* * * *

As I count down to my January 2021 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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