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The Immediate Aftermath of the Dakota Conflict


June 14, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

There is no way to discuss the aftermath of the U.S.-Dakota War in a single week of posts or a single blog post. There were both immediate actions and long-term impacts that last even until today. There were consequences for the Dakota and for Whites in Minnesota, for race-relations, and for peoples living in other areas who had nothing to do with the war. I’ll try to touch on the topic but will only be able to scratch the surface in this format.

In terms of raw numbers, the losses during the conflict were significant in terms of White civilian impact. There is no historical record indicating how many Dakota lost their lives in the conflict though there are estimates of lives lost in the year after the war. The numbers of Whites who died were compiled by historian Curtis Dahlin, who compiled the information form public and cemetery records and media reports. I am quoting from

“Of the more than 600 white people killed during the war, just over 70 were soldiers, and about 50 more were armed civilians. The others were unarmed civilians–mostly young men, women, and children who were recent immigrants to Minnesota. Historian Curtis Dahlin, who has extracted figures from public and cemetery records as well as from media reports, estimates that 30 per cent of the civilians killed were children aged ten and under. Another 40 per cent were adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

Historians have names for 32 of the estimated 75-100 Dakota soldiers who died during the war (and before the executions on December 26). These names have been gleaned primarily from the testimony of Dakota eyewitnesses.

More than one-quarter of the Dakota people who surrendered in 1862 died during the following year.”

After the Dakota War Trials, the 1,658 Dakota who were considered to be non-combatants were removed to Fort Snelling per order of General Pope. They began their march November 7, 1862, accompanied by 300 troops. Most were women, children, and elderly. Those who survived would be forcibly removed from Minnesota.

The Dakota arrived at the fort five days later. At first, a camp was made on a bluff about a mile from the fort. This was moved to the river bottom area, Pike Island, just downriver from the fort where a concentration camp was constructed. It consisted of a twelve-foot high wooden stockade, enclosing about two to three acres.  A warehouse serving the fort was used as a hospital for the guarded camp. Of the 1600 plus Dakota, historian Curtis Dahlin estimated one-quarter died that winter. Other estimates range from 130-300 but most put the number at more than 300. Most of the deaths resulted from the poor living conditions, poor sanitation, and diseases such as measles and smallpox. 

While the camp was not part of a systematic extermination effort or death camp in the sense of what would be widespread in Europe during World War II, it was nonetheless a place where noncombatants were held, mistreated, and died. It was a part of the genocidal governmental policies aimed at native peoples since the Americas were colonized.

During the spring of 1863, the U.S. Congress annulled all treaties with the Dakota and stated that all lands and annuities under those treaties were forfeited. A bill was also passed to remove the Dakota from their ancestral homelands. In Minnesota, a bounty of $25 per scalp was placed on any Dakota found in the state (except to 208 Mdewakanton who had assisted Whites or remained neutral during the Conflict). Their former lands were made available for White settlement.

Included in the removal, under a separate bill, were members of the Ho-Chunk Nation (Winnebago). Though part of the Siouan language family, these peoples were not Dakota. Native mainly to Wisconsin and surrounding areas (Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois), a band resided in the Blue Earth area of Minnesota, on prime agricultural lands. They did not participate in the Dakota Conflict. As a result of the bill, they were evicted from their lands and moved to the camp at Fort Snelling to be removed from the state.

In early May, removal of the Dakota and Ho-Chunk began. The captive non-combatants were loaded on steamers and moved a reservation at Crow Creek in Dakota Territory. Many moved three years later to the Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska due to the poor conditions at the Crow Creek Reservation.

The remaining Dakota who had been convicted of participating in the conflict but who had not been hung were held in prison in Minnesota over the winter of 1862-3, then transferred to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa to serve out their terms. They were imprisoned there for almost four years. Nearly one-third died of disease during that time. Survivors were sent to their families in Dakota Territory.

Military expeditions related to the Dakota War continued after the official end of conflict in 1862. In the fall of 1862 and early 1863, expeditions were led into Dakota Territory in pursuit of bands holding White captives with the mission of ransoming them. In the summer of 1863, and continuing into 1864, Punitive Expeditions were launched by the U.S. Army into Dakota Territory in the effort to punish any Dakota who had been involved in the Conflict and had fled Minnesota and evaded capture.

This campaign resulted in several battles in Dakota Territory. Some of those who had fled now lived on Lakota lands. Colonel Sibley and 2,000 troops defeated Lakota/Dakota forces in four major battles: the Battle of Big Mound on July 24, 1863; the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26, 1863; the Battle of Stony Lake on July 28, 1863; and the Battle of Whitestone Hill on September 3, 1863. In 1864, the Sully Expedition (led by General Alfred Sully) departed Fort Pierre, Dakota Territory and defeated Sioux at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864 and at the Battle of the Badlands on August 9, 1864. In 1865, Sully led a second expedition.

Those captured or who surrendered were taken to Fort Snelling, then exiled. Records exist to indicate there were isolated fights with Lakota along the Missouri River and that some were held at Fort Randall. Some were taken prisoner for admitting they had “been in the East” when the conflict began. These may have been Lakota who were present at the war council on August 18 who returned home rather than participate in the fighting because they were not in agreement with the killings being discussed. There are records of at least one Lakota death at Fort Randall and oral histories of descendants of the Fool Soldiers also mention deaths.

Two final trials occurred in November 1865 at Fort Snelling. Mdewakanton leaders Sakpedan (Little Six) and Wakan Ozanzan (Medicine Bottle) were charged with murder and participation in “murders, massacres, and other outrages.” Both asked (and received) permission to seek counsel, a luxury not afforded at the other trials, but neither was able to secure an attorney. They plead not-guilty to all charges.

Sakpedan was the son of Chief Shakopee II. Wakan Ozanzan was a holy man, who by all accounts was a gentle man who gave up his role to fight with his people. After the war, the men fled to Canada with Wakan Ozanzan leading hundreds of non-combatant refugee Dakota (women, children, and elderly) to safety there. The men were captured by British soldiers in 1864 at the request of the U.S. Army and brought to Fort Snelling. Sakpedan was accused of killing 13 women and children. Wakan Ozanzan was accused in the murder of Philander Prescott and others whose names were unknown. The testimony was hearsay with witnesses saying they had heard the men or other men talk about the killings; there was no eye-witness testimony. In the case of Wakan Ozanzan, the five witness all said they did not know know anything except what they had heard from others. 

Just prior to preparing his final statement, Wakan Ozanzan was able to secure the assistance of attorneys Willis A. Gorman and Cushman K. David. In that statement, they argued he was illegally abducted from Canada and thus the trial was invalid. He claimed he and Sakpedan had been drugged with opiates, kidnapped, and delivered across the border. Sibley rejected the argument saying they had not been captured until Canadians forced them back into the U.S. Both men were sentenced to death.

Had the two cases been reviewed by Lincoln, the sentences would likely have been commuted due to lack of direct evidence. President Jackson confirmed the sentences and the two were hung on November 11, 1865 at Fort Snelling. Like many of the others hung in 1862 in Mankato, it is suspected that their bodies were removed during the night and used as scientific cadavers.  No record was kept of the exact burial location but a later newspaper interview mentioned the disinterred bodies had been shipped to a university in Pennsylvania.

Wakon Ozanzan’s final words were recorded as: “I am a common human being. Some day, the people will come from the heart and look at each other as common human beings. When they do that, come from the heart, this country will be a good place.”

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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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