Little Crow’s War

1862—April 6, General Grant defeats Confederates in Battle of Shiloh. May 6, Henry D. Thoreau dies at age 45. May 20, Congress passes Homestead Act, granting 160 acres of western land to settlers at $1.25 per acre. July 2, Congress passes Morrill Act for creation of land-grant colleges. July 10, construction of Central Pacific Railroad begins. August 30, Union Army defeated in Second Battle of Bull Run. September 17, Confederate Army defeated at Antietam. September 22, Lincoln declares all slaves free from January 1, 1863. October 13, in Germany, Bismarck delivers “blood-and-iron” speech. December 13, Union Army suffers severe losses and defeat at Fredericksburg; nation plunged into gloom; some Army units near mutiny as they go into winter quarters. December 29, General Sherman defeated at Chickasaw Bayou. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons published.

1863April 2, bread riot in Richmond, Virginia. May 2–4, Confederates win victory at Chancellorsville. July 1–3, Union Army defeats Confederates at Gettysburg. July 4, Vicksburg falls to Grant’s army. July 11, drafting of soldiers for Union Army begins. July 13–17, several hundred lives lost in New York City draft riots; other riots occur in many cities. July 15, President Davis orders first conscriptions for Confederate service. September 5, bread riots in Mobile; value of Confederate dollar drops to eight cents. October 1, five Russian war vessels enter port of New York and are warmly received. November 24–25, Confederates defeated at Chattanooga. December 8, President Lincoln offers amnesty to Confederates willing to return allegiance to the Union.

The whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men—go to farming, work hard and do as they did—and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway. … If the Indians had tried to make the whites live like them, the whites would have resisted, and it was the same way with many Indians.


ALMOST A THOUSAND miles north of the Navaho country and at this same time of the white men’s great Civil War, the Santee Sioux were losing their homeland forever. The Santees were of four divisions—the Mdewkantons, Wahpetons, Wahpekutes, and Sissetons. They were woodland Sioux but kept close ties and shared a strong tribal pride with their blood brothers of the prairies, the Yanktons and the Tetons. The Santees were the “people of the farther end,” the frontier guardians of the Sioux domain.

During the ten years preceding the Civil War, more than 150,000 white settlers pushed into Santee country, thus collapsing the left flank of the once “permanent Indian frontier.” As the result of two deceptive treaties, the woodland Sioux surrendered nine-tenths of their land and were crowded into a narrow strip of territory along the Minnesota River. From the beginning, agents and traders had hovered around them like buzzards around the carcasses of slaughtered buffalo, systematically cheating them out of the greater part of the promised annuities for which they had been persuaded to give up their lands.

“Many of the white men often abused the Indians and treated them unkindly,” Big Eagle said. “Perhaps they had excuse, but the Indians did not think so. Many of the whites always seemed to say by their manner when they saw an Indian, ‘I am better than you,’ and the Indians did not like this. There was excuse for this, but the Dakotas [Sioux] did not believe there were better men in the world than they. Then some of the white men abused the Indian women in a certain way and disgraced them, and surely there was no excuse for that. All these things made many Indians dislike the whites.” 1

In the summer of 1862 everything seemed to go badly between the Santees and the white men. Most of the wild game was gone from the reservation land, and when the Indians crossed into their old hunting grounds now claimed by white settlers, there was often trouble. For the second year running, the Indians’ crop yields were poor, and many of them had to go to the agency traders to obtain food on credit. The Santees had learned to hate the credit system because they had no control over the accounts. When their annuities came from Washington, the traders held first claim on the money, and whatever amount the traders claimed in their accounts, government agents would pay them. Some of the Santees had learned to keep accounts, and although their records might be less by many dollars than the traders’ accounts, the government agents would not accept them.

Ta-oya-te-duta (Little Crow) became very angry with the traders during the summer of 1862. Little Crow was a chief of the Mdewkantons, as had been his father and grandfather before him. He was sixty years old and always wore long-sleeved garments to cover his lower arms and wrists, which were withered as the result of badly healed wounds received in battle during his youth. Little Crow had signed both the treaties that tricked his people out of their land and the money promised for the land. He had been to Washington to see the Great Father. President Buchanan; he had exchanged his breechclouts and blankets for trousers and brass-buttoned jackets; he had joined the Episcopal Church, built a house, and started a farm. But during the summer of 1862 Little Crow’s disillusionment was turning to anger.

In July several thousand Santees assembled at the Upper Agency on Yellow Medicine River to collect their annuities, which were pledged by the treaties, so that they might exchange them for food. The money did not arrive, and there were rumors that the Great Council (Congress) in Washington had expended all their gold fighting the great Civil War and could not send any money to the Indians. Because their people were starving, Little Crow and some of the other chiefs went to their agent, Thomas Galbraith, and asked why they could not be issued food from the agency warehouse, which was filled with provisions. Galbraith replied that he could not do this until the money arrived, and he brought up a hundred soldiers to guard the warehouse. On August 4 five hundred Santees surrounded the soldiers while others broke into the warehouse and began carrying out sacks of flour. The white soldier chief, Timothy Sheehan, sympathized with the Santees. Instead of firing upon them he persuaded agent Galbraith to issue pork and flour to the Indians and await payment until the money arrived. After Galbraith did this, the Santees went away peacefully. Little Crow did not leave, however, until the agent promised to issue similar amounts of food to the Santees at the Lower Agency, thirty miles downriver at Redwood.

Although Little Crow’s village was near the Lower Agency, Galbraith kept him waiting several days before arranging a council at Redwood for August 15. Early that morning Little Crow and several hundred hungry Mdewkantons assembled, but it was obvious from the beginning that Galbraith and the four traders at the Lower Agency had no intention of issuing food from their stores before arrival of the annuity funds.

Angered by yet another broken promise, Little Crow arose, faced Galbraith, and spoke for his people: “We have waited a long time. The money is ours, but we cannot get it. We have no food, but here are these stores, filled with food. We ask that you, the agent, make some arrangement by which we can get food from the stores, or else we may take our own way to keep ourselves from starving. When men are hungry they help themselves.” 2

Instead of replying, Galbraith turned to the traders and asked them what they would do. Trader Andrew Myrick declared contemptuously: “So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry let them eat grass or their own dung.” 3

For a moment the circle of Indians was silent. Then came an outburst of angry shouts, and as one man the Santees arose and left the council.

4. Little Crow, or Tshe-ton Wa-ka-wa Ma-ni, the Hawk That Hunts Walking. From a photograph taken in 1858 by A. Zeno Shindler, courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

The words of Andrew Myrick angered all the Santees, but to Little Crow they were like hot blasts upon his already seared emotions. For years he had tried to keep the treaties, to follow the advice of the white men and lead his people on their road. It seemed now that he had lost everything. His own people were losing faith in him, blaming him for their misfortunes, and now the agents and traders had turned against him. Earlier that summer the Lower Agency Mdewkantons had accused Little Crow of betraying them when he signed away their lands by treaties. They had elected Traveling Hail to be their speaker in place of Little Crow. If Little Crow could have persuaded agent Galbraith and the traders to give his people food, they would have respected him again, but he had failed.

In the old days he could have regained leadership by going to war, but the treaties pledged him not to engage in hostilities with either the white men or other tribes. Why was it, he wondered, that the Americans talked so much of peace between themselves and the Indians, and between Indians and Indians, and yet they themselves waged such a savage war with the Graycoats that they had no money left to pay their small debts to the Santees? He knew that some of the young men in his band were talking openly of war with the white men, a war to drive them out of the Minnesota Valley. It was a good time to fight the whites, they said, because so many Bluecoat soldiers were away fighting the Graycoats. Little Crow considered such talk foolish; he had been to the East and seen the power of the Americans. They were everywhere like locusts and destroyed their enemies with great thundering cannon. War upon the white men was unthinkable.

On Sunday, August 17, Little Crow attended the Episcopal Church at the Lower Agency and listened to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Samuel Hinman. At the conclusion of services, he shook hands with the other worshipers and returned to his house, which was two miles upriver from the agency.

Late that night Little Crow was awakened by the sound of many voices and the noisy entry of several Santees into his sleeping room. He recognized the voice of Shakopee. Something very important, something very bad, had happened. Shakopee, Mankato, Medicine Bottle, and Big Eagle all had come, and they said Wabasha would soon arrive for a council.

Four young men of Shakopee’s band who were hungry for food had crossed the river that sunny afternoon to hunt in the Big Woods, and something very bad had happened there. Big Eagle told about it: “They came to a settler’s fence, and here they found a hen’s nest with some eggs in it. One of them took the eggs, when another said: ‘Don’t take them, for they belong to a white man and we may get into trouble.’ The other was angry, for he was very hungry and wanted to eat the eggs, and he dashed them to the ground and replied: ‘You are a coward. You are afraid of the white man. You are afraid to take even an egg from him, though you are half-starved. Yes, you are a coward, and I will tell everybody so.’ The other replied: I am not a coward. I am not afraid of the white man, and to show you that I am not I will go to the house and shoot him. Are you brave enough to go with me?’ The one who had called him coward said: ‘Yes, I will go with you, and we will see who is the braver of us two.’ Their two companions then said: ‘We will go with you, and we will be brave, too.’ They all went to the house of the white man, but he got alarmed and went to another house where there were some other white men and women. The four Indians followed them and killed three men and two women. Then they hitched up a team belonging to another settler and drove to Shakopee’s camp … and told what they had done.” 4

On hearing of the murders of the white people, Little Crow rebuked the four young men, and then sarcastically asked Shakopee and the others why they had come to him for advice when they had chosen Traveling Hail to be their spokesman. The leaders assured Little Crow that he was still their war chief. No Santee’s life would be safe now after these killings, they said. It was the white man’s way to punish all Indians for the crimes of one or a few; the Santees might as well strike first instead of waiting for the soldiers to come and kill them. It would be better to fight the white men now while they were fighting among themselves far to the south.

Little Crow rejected their arguments. The white men were too powerful, he said. Yet he admitted the settlers would exact bitter vengeance because women had been killed. Little Crow’s son, who was present, said later that his father’s face grew haggard and great beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.

At last one of the young braves cried out: “Ta-oya-te-duta [Little Crow] is a coward!”

“Coward” was the word that had started the killings, the challenge to the young boy who was afraid to take the white man’s eggs even when he was starving. “Coward” was not a word that a Sioux chief could take lightly, even though he was halfway on the white man’s road.

Little Crow’s reply (as remembered by his young son) : “Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward, and he is not a fool! When did he run away from his enemies? When did he leave his braves behind him on the warpath and turn back to his tepee? When he ran away from your enemies, he walked behind on your trail with his face to the Ojibways and covered your backs as a she-bear covers her cubs! Is Ta-oya-te-duta without scalps? Look at his war feathers! Behold the scalp locks of your enemies hanging there on his lodgepoles! Do you call him a coward? Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward, and he is not a fool. Braves, you are like little children; you know not what you are doing.

“You are full of the white man’s devil water. You are like dogs in the Hot Moon when they run mad and snap at their own shadows. We are only little herds of buffalo left scattered; the great herds that once covered the prairies are no more. See!—the white men are like the locusts when they fly so thick that the whole sky is a snowstorm. You may kill one—two—ten; yes, as many as the leaves in the forest yonder, and their brothers will not miss them. Kill one—two—ten, and ten times ten will come to kill you. Count your fingers all day long and white men with guns in their hands will come faster than you can count.

“Yes; they fight among themselves—away off. Do you hear the thunder of their big guns? No; it would take you two moons to run down to where they are fighting, and all the way your path would be among white soldiers as thick as tamaracks in the swamps of the Ojibways. Yes; they fight among themselves, but if you strike at them they will all turn on you and devour you and your women and little children just as the locusts in their time fall on the trees and devour all the leaves in one day.

“You are fools. You cannot see the face of your chief; your eyes are full of smoke. You cannot hear his voice; your ears are full of roaring waters. Braves, you are little children—you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon of January.

“Ta-oya-te-duta is not a coward; he will die with you.” 5

Big Eagle then spoke for peace, but he was shouted down. Ten years of abuse by white men—the broken treaties, the lost hunting grounds, the unkept promises, the undelivered annuities, their hunger for food while the agency warehouses overflowed with it, the insulting words of Andrew Myrick—all rose up to put the murders of the white settlers into the background.

Little Crow sent messengers upstream to summon the Wahpetons and Sissetons to join in the war. The women were awakened and began to run bullets while the warriors cleaned their guns.

“Little Crow gave orders to attack the agency early next morning and to kill all the traders,” Big Eagle said afterward. “The next morning, when the force started to attack the agency, I went along. I did not lead my band, and I took no part in the killing. I went to save the lives of two particular friends if I could. I think others went for the same reason, for nearly every Indian had a friend he did not want killed; of course he did not care about anybody’s else friend. The killing was nearly all done when I got there. Little Crow was on the ground directing operations. … Mr. Andrew Myrick, a trader, with an Indian wife, had refused some hungry Indians credit a short time before when they asked him for some provisions. He said to them: ‘Go and eat grass.’ Now he was lying on the ground dead, with his mouth stuffed full of grass, and the Indians were saying tauntingly: ‘Myrick is eating grass himself.’” 6

The Santees killed twenty men, captured ten women and children, emptied the warehouses of provisions, and set the other buildings afire. The remaining forty-seven inhabitants (some of whom were aided in their escapes by friendly Santees) fled across the river to Fort Ridgely, thirteen miles downstream.

On the way to Fort Ridgely the survivors met a company of forty-five soldiers marching to the aid of the agency. The Reverend Hinman, who the previous day had preached the last sermon ever heard by Little Crow, warned the soldiers to turn back. The soldier chief, John Marsh, refused to heed the warning and marched into a Santee ambush. Only twenty-four of his men escaped alive to make their way back to the fort.

Encouraged by his first successes, Little Crow decided to attack the Soldiers’ House itself, Fort Ridgely. Wabasha and his band had arrived, Mankato’s force had been increased by more warriors, fresh allies were reported on their way from the Upper Agency, and Big Eagle could no longer remain neutral while his people were at war.

During the night these chiefs and their several hundred warriors moved down the Minnesota Valley and early on the morning of August 19 began assembling on the prairie west of the fort. “The young men were all anxious to go,” said Lightning Blanket, one of the participants, “and we dressed as warriors in war paint, breechclouts and leggings, with a large sash around us to keep our food and ammunition in.” 7

When some of the untried young men saw the sturdy stone buildings of the Soldiers’ House and the armed Bluecoats waiting there, they had second thoughts about attacking the place. On the way down from the Lower Agency they had talked of how easy it would be to raid the village on the Cottonwood, New Ulm. The town across the river was filled with stores to be looted, and no soldiers were there. Why could they not do their fighting at New Ulm? Little Crow told them the Santees were at war, and to be victorious they must defeat the Bluecoat soldiers. If they could drive the soldiers from the valley, then all the white settlers would go away. The Santees could gain nothing by killing a few white people at New Ulm.

But in spite of Little Crow’s scoldings and entreaties, the young men began to drift away toward the river. Little Crow consulted with the other chiefs, and they decided to delay the assault on Fort Ridgely until the next day.

That evening the young men returned from New Ulm. They had frightened the people there, they said, but the town was too strongly defended, and besides, a bad lightning storm came out of the sky in the afternoon. Big Eagle called them “marauding Indians” without a chief to lead them, and that night they all agreed to stay together and attack Fort Ridgely the following morning.

“We started at sunrise,” Lightning Blanket said, “and crossed the river at the agency on the ferry, following the road to the top of the hill below Faribault’s Creek, where we stopped for a short rest. There the plans for attacking the fort were given out by Little Crow. …

“After reaching the fort, the signal, three volleys, was to be given by Medicine Bottle’s men to draw the attention and fire of the soldiers, so the men on the east (Big Eagle’s) and those on the west and south (Little Crow’s and Shakopee’s) could rush in and take the fort.

“We reached the Three Mile Creek before noon and cooked something to eat. After eating we separated, I going with the footmen to the north, and after leaving Little Crow we paid no attention to the chiefs; everyone did as he pleased. Both parties reached the fort about the same time, as we could see them passing to the west, Little Crow on a black pony. The signal, three shots, was given by our side, Medicine Bottle’s men. After the signal the men on the east, south, and west were slow in coming up. While shooting we ran up to the building near the big stone one. As we were running in we saw the man with the big guns, whom we all knew, and as we were the only ones in sight he shot into us, as he had gotten ready after hearing the shooting in our direction. Had Little Crow’s men fired after we fired the signal, the soldiers who shot at us would have been killed. Two of our men were killed and three hurt, two dying afterward. We ran back into the creek and did not know whether the other men would come up close or not, but they did and the big guns drove them back from that direction. If we had known that they would come up close, we could have shot at the same time and killed all, as the soldiers were out in the big opening between the buildings. We did not fight like white men with one officer; we all shot as we pleased. The plan of rushing into the buildings was given up, and we shot at the windows, mostly at the big stone building, as we thought many of the whites were in there.

“We could not see them, so were not sure we were killing any. During the shooting we tried to set fire to the buildings with fire arrows, but the buildings would not burn, so we had to get more powder and bullets. The sun was about two hours high when we went around to the west of the fort, and decided to go back to Little Crow’s village and come and keep up the fighting next day. …

“There were about four hundred Indians in this attack; no women were along. They all stayed at Little Crow’s village. The cooking was done by boys ten to fifteen years of age, too young to fight.” 8

That evening in the village, both Little Crow and Big Eagle were low in spirits because they had not been able to take the Soldiers’ House. Big Eagle opposed another attack. The Santees did not have enough warriors to storm the soldiers’ big guns, he said. They would lose too many men if they made another attack. Little Crow said he would decide later what to do. Meanwhile everyone should go to work making as many bullets as possible; there was plenty of gunpowder left from the agency storehouse.

Later in the evening the situation changed. Four hundred Wahpeton and Sisseton warriors came in from the Upper Agency and offered to join the Mdewkantons in their war against the white men. Little Crow was elated. The Santee Sioux were united again, eight hundred strong, surely enough warriors to take Fort Ridgely. He called a war council and issued strict orders for the next day’s fighting. This time they must not fail.

“Early on August 22 we started,” Lightning Blanket said, “but the grass was wet with dew, more than on the day of the first attack, so the sun was quite high before we traveled very far and it was just before the middle of the day when we reached the fort. … We did not stop to eat this time, but each carried something to eat in his legging sash and ate it in the middle of the day, while fighting.” 9

Big Eagle said the second fight at Fort Ridgely was a grand affair. “We went down determined to take the fort, for we knew it was of the greatest importance to us to have it. If we could take it we would soon have the whole Minnesota Valley.”

This time, instead of approaching the fort boldly, the Santee warriors fastened prairie grass and flowers to their headbands as a means of concealment and then crept up the gullies and crawled through the brush until they were close enough to fire upon the defenders. A shower of blazing arrows set roofs afire; then the Santees rushed the stables. “In this fight,” said Wakonkdayamanne, “I came up on the south side to the stables and tried to get a horse. As I was leading it out a shell burst in the stable near me and the horse sprang over me and got away, knocking me down. When I got up I saw a mule running and I was so mad I shot it.” 10 For a few minutes there was hand-to-hand fighting around the stables, but again the Santees had to give way before fierce blasts of the soldiers’ artillery.

5. Big Eagle. Photo by Simons and Shepherd at Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa. Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

Little Crow was wounded, not seriously, but the loss of blood weakened him. When he withdrew from the field to regain his strength, Mankato led another assault. Double-charges of canister shot cut down the rushing warriors, and the attack failed.

“But for the cannon I think we would have taken the fort,” Big Eagle said. “The soldiers fought us so bravely we thought there were more of them than there were.” (About 150 soldiers and twenty-five armed civilians defended Fort Ridgely on August 22.) Big Eagle lost the most men in the fighting that day.

Late in the afternoon the Santee leaders called off the attack. “The sun was now setting low,” Lightning Blanket said, “and after we saw the men on the south and west driven back by the big guns, and could see Little Crow and his men going to the northwest, we decided to join them and see what to do. … After joining them we supposed we were going back to Little Crow’s village for more warriors. … Little Crow told us there were no more warriors, and a discussion followed. Some wanted to renew the attack on the fort the next morning and then go to New Ulm; others wanted to attack New Ulm early the next morning and then come back and take the fort. We were afraid the soldiers would get to New Ulm first.” 11

The soldiers that Lightning Blanket referred to were 1,400 men of the Sixth Minnesota Regiment approaching from St. Paul. They were led by a soldier chief quite well known to the Santee Sioux. He was the Long Trader, Colonel Henry H. Sibley. Of the $475,000 promised the Santees in their first treaty, Long Trader Sibley had claimed $145,000 for his American Fur Company as money due for overpayments to the Santees. The Santees believed the fur company had underpaid them, but their agent Alexander Ramsey had accepted Sibley’s claim, as well as the claims of other traders, so that the Santees received practically nothing for their lands. (Ramsey was now the governor of Minnesota, and he had appointed the Long Trader to be the Eagle Chief of the Minnesota regiment.)

At midmorning of August 23, the Santees attacked New Ulm. They streamed out of the woods in bright sunlight, formed an arc across the prairie, and swept toward the town. The citizens of New Ulm were ready for them. After the abortive attack by the young braves on August 19, the townspeople had built barricades, brought in more weapons, and secured the help of militia from towns down the valley. When the Santees came within a mile and a half of the forward line of white defenders, the mass of warriors began spreading like a fan. At the same time, they increased their speed and began yelling war cries to frighten the white men. Mankato was the war leader on this day (Little Crow lay wounded in his village), and his plan of attack was to envelop the town.

The firing on both sides was sharp and rapid, but the onrush of Indians was slowed by the citizens, who used loopholed buildings for defensive positions. Early in the afternoon the Santees set fire to several structures on the windward side of New Ulm in expectation of advancing under a smoke screen. Sixty warriors, mounted and on foot, charged a barricade, but were driven back by heavy volleys. It was a long and bitter battle, fought in the streets, dwellings, outhouses, and store buildings. When darkness fell, the Santees departed without a victory, but they left behind them the smoldering ruins of 190 buildings and more than a hundred casualties among the stubborn defenders of New Ulm.

Three days later the advance column of Long Trader Sibley’s regiment reached Fort Ridgely, and the Santees began withdrawing up the Minnesota Valley. They had with them more than two hundred prisoners, mostly white women and children and a considerable number of half-breeds known to be sympathetic toward the whites. After establishing a temporary village about forty miles above the Upper Agency, Little Crow began negotiating with other Sioux leaders in the area, hoping to gain their support. He had little success. One reason for their lack of enthusiasm was Little Crow’s failure to drive the soldiers from Fort Ridgely. Another reason was the indiscriminate killing of white settlers on the north side of the Minnesota River, a bloody slaughter carried out by marauding bands of undisciplined young men while Little Crow was besieging Fort Ridgely. Several hundred settlers had been trapped in their cabins without warning. Many had been brutally slain. Others had fled to safety, some to the villages of the Sioux bands that Little Crow hoped would join his cause.

Although Little Crow was contemptuous of those who made war on defenseless settlers, he knew that his decision to begin the war had unleashed the raiders. But it was too late to turn back. The war against the soldiers would go on as long as he had warriors to fight them.

On September 1 he decided to make a scout downriver to test the strength of Long Trader Sibley’s army. The Santees divided into two forces, Little Crow leading 110 warriors along the north side of the Minnesota, while Big Eagle and Mankato scouted the south bank with a larger force.

Little Crow’s plan was to avoid a frontal meeting with the soldiers, and instead slip around to the rear of Sibley’s lines and try to capture the army’s supply train. To do this he made a wide swing to the north, bringing his warriors close to several settlements which had withstood attacks from marauders during the previous two weeks. The temptation to raid some of the smaller settlements brought on dissension among Little Crow’s followers. On the second day of the reconnaissance, one of the subchiefs called a war council and proposed that they attack the settlements for plunder. Little Crow was opposed. Their enemies were the soldiers, he insisted; they must fight the soldiers. At the end of the council, seventy-five warriors joined the subchief for plundering. Only thirty-five loyal followers remained with Little Crow.

On the following morning Little Crow’s small party unexpectedly met a company of seventy-five soldiers. During the running battle which followed, the sound of musketry brought the defecting Santees of the previous day rushing back to Little Crow’s rescue. In bloody close-in fighting, the soldiers used their bayonets, but the Santees killed six and wounded fifteen of their enemy before the latter escaped in a hasty retreat to Hutchinson.

For the next two days the Santees reconnoitered around Hutchinson and Forest City, but the soldiers remained within stockades. On September 5 runners brought news of a battle a few miles to the southwest. Big Eagle and Mankato had trapped the Long Trader’s soldiers at Birch Coulee.

During the night before the battle at Birch Coulee, Big Eagle and Mankato had quietly surrounded the soldiers’ camp so they could not escape. “Just at dawn the fight began,” Big Eagle said. “It continued all day and the following night until late the next morning. Both sides fought well. Owing to the white men’s way of fighting they lost many men. Owing to the Indians’ way of fighting they lost but few. … About the middle of the afternoon our men became much dissatisfied at the slowness of the fight, and the stubbornness of the whites, and the word was passed around the lines to get ready to charge the camp. The brave Mankato wanted to charge after the first hour. …

“Just as we were about to charge, word came that a large number of mounted soldiers were coming up from the east toward Fort Ridgely. This stopped the charge and created some excitement. Mankato at once took some men from the coulee and went out to meet them. … Mankato flourished his men around so, and all the Indians in the coulee kept up a noise, and at last the whites began to fall back, and they retreated about two miles and began to dig breastworks. Mankato followed them and left about thirty men to watch them, and returned to the fight at the coulee with the rest. The Indians were laughing when they came back at the way they had deceived the white men, and we were all glad that the whites had not pushed forward and driven us away. …

“The next morning General Sibley came with a very large force and drove us away from the field. We took our time getting away. Some of our men said they remained till Sibley got up and that they fired at some of his men as they were shaking hands with some of the men of the camp. Those of us who were on the prairie went back to the westward and on down the valley. … There was no pursuit. The whites fired their cannons at us as we were leaving the field, but they might as well have beaten a big drum for all the harm they did. They only made a noise. We went back across the river to our camps in the old village, and then on up the river to the Yellow Medicine and the mouth of the Chippewa, where Little Crow joined us. … At last the word came that Sibley with his army was again on the move against us. … He had left a letter for Little Crow in a split stick on the battlefield of Birch Coulee, and some of our men found it and brought it in. …” 12

The message left by the Long Trader was brief and noncommittal:

If Little Crow has any proposition to make, let him send a half-breed to me, and he shall be protected in and out of camp.

H. H. Sibley, Col. Com’d Mil. Ex’n.13

Little Crow of course did not trust this man who was sharp enough to get away with so much of the Santees’ treaty money. But he decided to send a reply. He thought that perhaps the Long Trader, who had been up at the White Rock (St. Paul), did not know why the Santees had gone to war. Little Crow also wanted Governor Ramsey to know the reasons for the war. Many of the neutrals among the Santees were frightened at what Ramsey had told the white Minnesotans: “The Sioux Indians must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.” 14

Little Crow’s message of September 7 to General Sibley :

For what reason we have commenced this war I will tell you. It is on account of Major Galbraith. We made a treaty with the government, and beg for what we do get, and can’t get that till our children are dying with hunger. It is the traders who commenced it. Mr. A. J. Myrick told the Indians that they would eat grass or dirt. Then Mr. Forbes told the Lower Sioux that they were not men. Then Roberts was working with his friends to defraud us out of our moneys.* If the young braves have pushed the white men, I have done this myself. So I want you to let Governor Ramsey know this. I have a great many prisoners, women and children. … I want you to give me an answer to the bearer.

General Sibley’s reply:

LITTLE CROW—You have murdered many of our people without any sufficient cause. Return me the prisoners under a flag of truce, and I will talk with you then like a man.15

Little Crow had no intention of returning the prisoners before the Long Trader gave some indication of whether he meant to carry out Governor Ramsey’s dictum of extermination or exile for the Santees. He wanted to use the prisoners for bargaining. In the councils of the various bands, however, there was much disagreement over what course the Santees should take before Sibley’s army reached the Yellow Medicine. Paul Mazakootemane of the Upper Agency Sissetons condemned Little Crow for starting the war. “Give me all these white captives,” he demanded. “I will deliver them up to their friends. … Stop fighting. No one who fights with the white people ever becomes rich, or remains two days in one place, but is always fleeing and starving.” 16

Wabasha, who had been in the battles at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm, was also in favor of opening a road to peace by freeing the prisoners, but his son-in-law Rda-in-yan-ka spoke for Little Crow and the majority of the warriors: “I am for continuing the war, and am opposed to the delivery of the prisoners. I have no confidence that the whites will stand by any agreement they make if we give them up. Ever since we treated with them, their agents and traders have robbed and cheated us. Some of our people have been shot, some hung; others placed upon floating ice and drowned; and many have been starved in their prisons. It was not the intention of the nation to kill any of the whites until after the four men returned from Acton and told what they had done. When they did this, all the young men became excited, and commenced the massacre. The older ones would have prevented it if they could, but since the treaties they have lost all their influence. We may regret what has happened, but the matter has gone too far to be remedied. We have got to die. Let us, then, kill as many of the whites as possible, and let the prisoners die with us.” 17

On September 12 Little Crow gave the Long Trader one last chance to end the war without further bloodshed. In his message he assured Sibley that the prisoners were being treated kindly. “I want to know from you as a friend,” he added, “what way that I can make peace for my people.”

Unknown to Little Crow, on that same day Wabasha sent Sibley a secret message, blaming Little Crow for starting the war and claiming that he (Wabasha) was a friend of the “good white people.” He did not mention that he had fought them a few weeks earlier at Fort Ridgely and New Ulm. “I have been kept back by threats that I should be killed if I did anything to help the whites,” he declared, “but if you will now appoint some place for me to meet you, myself and the few friends that I have will get all the prisoners we can, and with our family go to whatever place you will appoint for us to meet.”

Sibley answered both messages immediately. He scolded Little Crow for not giving up the prisoners, telling him that was not the way to make peace, but he did not answer the war leader’s plea for a way to end the fighting. Instead Sibley wrote a long letter to Little Crow’s betrayer, Wabasha, giving him explicit instructions for using a truce flag for delivery of the prisoners. “I shall be glad to receive all true friends of the whites,” Sibley promised, “with as many prisoners as they can bring, and I am powerful enough to crush all who attempt to oppose my march, and to punish those who have washed their hands in innocent blood.” 18

After Little Crow received the Long Trader’s cold reply to his entreaty, he knew there was no hope for peace except abject surrender. If the soldiers could not be beaten, then it was either death or exile for the Santee Sioux.

On September 22 scouts reported that Sibley’s soldiers had gone into camp at Wood Lake. Little Crow decided to give them battle before they reached the Yellow Medicine.

“All our fighting chiefs were present and all our best fighting-Indians,” Big Eagle said. “We felt that this would be the deciding fight of the war.” Again as they had done at Birch Coulee, the Santees silently prepared an ambush for the soldiers. “We could hear them laughing and singing. When all our preparations were made Little Crow and I and some other chiefs went to the mound or hill to the west so as to watch the fight better when it should commence …

“The morning came and an accident spoiled our plans. For some reason Sibley did not move early as we expected he would. Our men were lying hidden, waiting patiently. Some were very near the camp lines in the ravine, but the whites did not see a man of all our men. I do not think they would have discovered our ambuscade. It seemed a considerable time after sun-up when some four or five wagons with a number of soldiers started out from the camp in the direction of the old Yellow Medicine agency. We learned afterwards that they were going without orders to dig potatoes over at the agency, five miles away. They came on over the prairie, right where part of our line was. Some of the wagons were not in the road, and if they had kept straight on would have driven right over our men as they lay in the grass. At last they came so close that our men had to rise up and fire. This brought on the fight, of course, but not according to the way we had planned it. Little Crow saw it and felt very badly. …

“The Indians that were in the fight did well, but hundreds of our men did not get into it and did not fire a shot. They were out too far. The men in the ravine and the line connecting them with those on the road did most of the fighting. Those of us on the hill did our best, but we were soon driven off. Mankato was killed here, and we lost a very good and very brave war chief. He was killed by a cannon ball that was so nearly spent that he was not afraid of it, and it struck him in the back, as he lay on the ground, and killed him. The whites drove our men out of the ravine by a charge and that ended the battle. We retreated in some disorder, though the whites did not offer to pursue us. We crossed a wide prairie, but their horsemen did not follow us. We lost fourteen or fifteen men killed and quite a number wounded. Some of the wounded died afterwards, but I do not know how many. We carried off no dead bodies, but took away all our wounded. The whites scalped all our dead men—so I have heard.” (After the soldiers mutilated the dead Santees, Sibley issued an order forbidding such action: “The bodies of the dead, even of a savage enemy shall not be subjected to indignities by civilized and Christian men.”) 19

That evening in the Santees’ camp twelve miles above the Yellow Medicine, the chiefs held a last council. Most of them were now convinced that the Long Trader was too strong for them. The woodland Sioux must surrender or flee to join their cousins, the prairie Sioux of the Dakota country. Those who had taken no part in the fighting decided to stay and surrender, certain that the delivery of the white prisoners would win them the friendship of Long Trader Sibley forever. They were joined by Wabasha, who persuaded his son-in-law Rda-in-yan-ka to stay. At the last minute, Big Eagle also decided to stay. Some of the half-breeds assured him that if he surrendered he would only be held as a prisoner of war a short time. He would live to regret his decision.

Next morning, bitter with defeat and feeling the weight of his sixty years, Little Crow made a last speech to his followers. “I am ashamed to call myself a Sioux,” he said. “Seven hundred of our best warriors were whipped yesterday by the whites. Now we had better all run away and scatter out over the plains like buffalo and wolves. To be sure, the whites had wagon-guns and better arms than we, and there were many more of them. But that is no reason why we should not have whipped them, for we are brave Sioux and whites are cowardly women. I cannot account for the disgraceful defeat. It must be the work of traitors in our midst.” 20 He and Shakopee and Medicine Bottle then ordered their people to dismantle their tepees. In a few wagons taken from the agency, they loaded their goods and provisions, their women and children, and started westward. The Moon of the Wild Rice (September) was coming to an end, and the cold moons were near at hand.

On September 26, with the assistance of Wabasha and Paul Mazakootemane, who displayed truce flags, Sibley marched into the Santee camp and demanded immediate delivery of the captives; 107 whites and 162 half-breeds were released to the soldiers. In a council which followed, Sibley announced that the Santees should consider themselves prisoners of war until he could discover and hang the guilty ones among them. The peace leaders protested with obsequious avowals of friendship, such as Paul Mazakootemane’s: “I have grown up like a child of yours. With what is yours, you have caused me to grow, and now I take your hand as a child takes the hand of his father. … I have regarded all white people as my friends, and from them I understand this blessing has come.” 21

Sibley replied by putting a cordon of artillery around the camp. He then sent out half-breed messengers to warn all Santees in the Minnesota Valley to come in to Camp Release (as he had named the place). Those who refused to come in voluntarily would be hunted down and captured or killed. While the Santees were being rounded up and disarmed, the soldiers cut down trees and constructed a huge log building. Its purpose was soon made clear, when most of the male Santees—about 600 of the camp’s 2,000 Indians—were chained together in pairs and imprisoned there.

Meanwhile Sibley had chosen five of his officers to form a military court to try all Santees suspected of engaging in the uprising. As the Indians had no legal rights, he saw no reason to appoint a defense counsel for them.

The first suspect brought before the court was a mulatto named Godfrey who was married to a woman of Wabasha’s band and had been living at the Lower Agency for four years. Witnesses were three white women who had been among the captives. None accused him of rape, none had seen him commit a murder, but they said they had heard Godfrey boast of killing seven white people at New Ulm. On this evidence the military court found Godfrey guilty of murder and sentenced him to be hanged.

When Godfrey learned later that the court would be willing to commute his death sentence if he would identify Santees guilty of participating in the attacks, he became a willing informant, and the trials proceeded smoothly, as many as forty Indians a day being sentenced to imprisonment or death. On November 5 the trials ended; 303 Santees had been sentenced to death, sixteen to long prison terms.

The responsibility for extinguishing so many human lives, even if they were “devils in human shape,” was more than Long Trader Sibley wanted to bear alone. He shifted the burden to the commander of the Military Department of the Northwest, General John Pope. General Pope in turn passed the final decision to the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. “The Sioux prisoners will be executed unless the President forbids it,” General Pope informed Governor Ramsey, “which I am sure he will not do.”

Being a man of conscience, however, Abraham Lincoln asked for “the full and complete record of the convictions; if the record does not fully indicate the more guilty and influential of the culprits, please have a careful statement made on these points and forward to me.” On receipt of the trial records, the President assigned two lawyers to examine them so as to differentiate between murderers and those who had engaged only in battle.

Lincoln’s refusal to authorize immediate hanging of the 303 condemned Santees angered General Pope and Governor Ramsey. Pope protested that “the criminals condemned ought in every view to be at once executed without exception. … Humanity requires an immediate disposition of the case.” Ramsey demanded authority from the President to order speedy executions of the 303 condemned men, and warned that the people of Minnesota would take “private revenge” on the prisoners if Lincoln did not act quickly. 22

While President Lincoln was reviewing the trial records, Sibley moved the condemned Indians to a prison camp at South Bend on the Minnesota River. While they were being escorted past New Ulm, a mob of citizens that included many women attempted “private revenge” on the prisoners with pitchforks, scalding water, and hurled stones. Fifteen prisoners were injured, one with a broken jaw, before the soldiers could march them beyond the town. Again on the night of December 4 a mob of citizens stormed the prison camp intent upon lynching the Indians. The soldiers kept the mob at bay, and next day transferred the Indians to a stronger stockade near the town of Mankato.

In the meantime Sibley decided to keep the remaining 1,700 Santees—mostly women and children—as prisoners, although they were accused of no crime other than having been born Indians. He ordered them transferred overland to Fort Snelling, and along the way they too were assaulted by angry white citizens. Many were stoned and clubbed; a child was snatched from its mother’s arms and beaten to death. At Fort Snelling the four-mile-long procession was shunted into a fenced enclosure on damp bottomland. There, under soldier guard, housed in dilapidated shelters and fed on scanty rations, the remnants of the once proud woodland Sioux awaited their fate.

On December 6 President Lincoln notified Sibley that he should “cause to be executed” thirty-nine of the 303 convicted Santees. “The other condemned prisoners you will hold subject to further orders, taking care that they neither escape nor are subjected to any unlawful violence.” 23

Execution date was the twenty-sixth day of December in the Moon When the Deer Shed Their Horns. That morning the town of Mankato was filled with vindictive and morbidly curious citizens. A regiment of soldiers marched in to keep order. At the last minute, one Indian was given a reprieve. About ten o’clock, the thirty-eight condemned men were marched from the prison to the scaffold. They sang the Sioux death song until soldiers pulled white caps over their heads and placed nooses around their necks. At a signal from an army officer, the control rope was cut and thirty-eight Santee Sioux dangled lifeless in the air. But for the intercession of Abraham Lincoln there would have been three hundred; even so, a spectator boasted that it was “America’s greatest mass execution.”

A few hours later, officials discovered that two of the men hanged were not on Lincoln’s list, but nothing was said of this publicly until nine years afterward. “It was a matter of regret that any mistakes were made,” declared one of those responsible. “I feel sure they were not made intentionally.” One of the innocent men hanged had saved a white woman’s life during the raiding. 24

Several others who were executed that day maintained their innocence until the end. One of them was Rda-in-yan-ka, who had tried to stop the war from starting, but later joined with Little Crow. When Little Crow and his followers left for Dakota, Wabasha had persuaded Rda-in-yan-ka not to go.

Shortly before his execution, Rda-in-yan-ka dictated a farewell letter to his chief:

Wabasha—You have deceived me. You told me that if we followed the advice of General Sibley, and gave ourselves up to the whites, all would be well; no innocent man would be injured. I have not killed, wounded, or injured a white man, or any white persons. I have not participated in the plunder of their property; and yet today I am set apart for execution, and must die in a few days, while men who are guilty will remain in prison. My wife is your daughter, my children are your grandchildren. I leave them all in your care and under your protection. Do not let them suffer; and when my children are grown up, let them know that their father died because he followed the advice of his chief, and without having the blood of a white man to answer for to the Great Spirit.

My wife and children are dear to me. Let them not grieve for me. Let them remember that the brave should be prepared to meet death; and I will do as becomes a Dakota.

Your son-in-law,

Rda-in-yan-ka 25

Those who escaped execution were sentenced to prison. One of them was Big Eagle, who readily admitted participating in the battles. “If I had known that I would be sent to the penitentiary,” he said, “I would not have surrendered, but when I had been in the penitentiary three years and they were about to turn me out, I told them they might keep me another year if they wished, and I meant what I said. I did not like the way I had been treated. I surrendered in good faith, knowing that many of the whites were acquainted with me and that I had not been a murderer, or present when a murder had been committed, and if I had killed or wounded a man it had been in fair open fight.” 26 Many of the others regretted that they had not fled from Minnesota with the warriors.

By the time of the executions, Little Crow and his followers were camped on Devil’s Lake, a wintering place for several Sioux tribes. During the winter he tried to unite the chiefs in a military alliance, warning them that unless they were prepared to fight they would all go down before the invading whites. He won their sympathy, but few of the Plains Indians believed they were in any danger. If the white men moved into the Dakota country, the Indians would simply move farther west. The land was big enough for everybody.

In the spring Little Crow, Shakopee, and Medicine Bottle took their bands north into Canada. At Fort Garry (Winnipeg) Little Crow attempted to persuade the British authorities to aid the Santees. For his first meeting with them he dressed in his best clothing—a black coat with a velvet collar, a blue cloth breechclout, and deerskin leggings. He reminded the British that his grandfather had been their ally in previous wars with the Americans, and that in the War of 1812 the Santees had captured a cannon from the Americans and presented it to the British. On that occasion, Little Crow said, the British had promised the Santees that if they were ever in trouble and wanted help, the British would bring the cannon back to them with men to work it. The Santees were now in trouble and wanted the cannon brought back.

An issue of foodstuffs, however, was all that Little Crow could obtain from the British Canadians. They had no cannon to give the Santees, not even ammunition for the weapons they had.

In the Strawberry Moon, June, 1863, Little Crow decided what he must do. If he and his family were forced to become Plains Indians, they must have horses. The white men who had driven him from his land had horses; he would take their horses in exchange for the land. He decided to return to Minnesota with a small party to capture horses.

His sixteen-year-old son, Wowinapa, later told about it: “Father said he could not fight the white men, but would go below and steal horses from them and give them to his children, so that they could be comfortable, and then he would go away off.

“Father also told me that he was getting old, and wanted me to go with him to carry his bundles. He left his wives and other children behind. There were sixteen men and one squaw in the party that went below with us. We had no horses, but walked all the way down to the settlements.” 27

In the Moon of the Red Blooming Lilies they reached the Big Woods, which only a few years before had been Santee country but now was filling up with farms and settlements. On the afternoon of July 3, Little Crow and Wowinapa left their hidden camping place and went to pick raspberries near the settlement of Hutchinson. About sundown they were sighted by two settlers returning home from a deer hunt. As the state of Minnesota had recently begun paying twenty-five-dollars bounty for Sioux scalps, the settlers immediately opened fire.

Little Crow was hit in the side, just above the hip. “His gun and mine were lying on the ground,” Wowinapa said. “He took up my gun and fired it first, and then fired his own gun. The ball struck the stock of his gun, and then hit him in the side, near the shoulder. This was the shot that killed him. He told me that he was killed and asked me for water, which I gave him. He died immediately after. When I heard the first shot fired, I lay down, and the men did not see me before father was killed.”

Wowinapa hurriedly dressed his dead father in new moccasins for the journey to the Land of Ghosts. He covered the body with a coat and fled to the camp. After warning the other members of the party to scatter, he started back to Devil’s Lake. “I traveled only at night, and as I had no ammunition to kill anything to eat, I had not strength enough to travel fast.” In an abandoned village near Big Stone Lake he found a single cartridge and managed to shoot a wolf. “I ate some of it, which gave me strength to travel, and I went on up the lake until the day I was captured.” 28

Wowinapa was captured by some of Long Trader Sibley’s soldiers who had marched into the Dakota country that summer to kill Sioux. The soldiers returned the sixteen-year-old boy to Minnesota, where he was given a military trial and sentenced to be hanged. He learned then that his father’s scalp and skull had been preserved and placed on exhibition in St. Paul. The state of Minnesota presented the settlers who had killed Little Crow with the regular scalp bounty and a bonus of five hundred dollars.

When Wowinapa’s trial record was sent to Washington, military authorities disapproved of the proceedings and commuted the boy’s sentence to imprisonment. (Some years later, after his release from prison, Wowinapa changed his name to Thomas Wakeman, became a church deacon, and founded the first Young Men’s Christian Association among the Sioux.)

Meanwhile Shakopee and Medicine Bottle remained in Canada, believing themselves beyond reach of the vengeful Minnesotans. In December, 1863, however, one of the Long Trader’s little chiefs, Major Edwin Hatch, marched a battalion of Minnesota cavalry to Pembina, just below the Canadian frontier.

From there Hatch sent a lieutenant across the line to Fort Garry to meet secretly with an American citizen, John McKenzie. With the aid of McKenzie and two Canadians, the lieutenant arranged the capture of Shakopee and Medicine Bottle. During a friendly meeting with the two Santee war chiefs, the conspirators gave them wine mixed with laudanum, chloroformed them while they slept, bound their hands and feet, and strapped them to a dog sled. In complete disregard of international law, the lieutenant hauled his captives across the border and delivered them to Major Hatch at Pembina. A few months later Sibley staged another spectacular trial, and Shakopee and Medicine Bottle were sentenced to be hanged. Of the verdict the St. Paul Pioneer commented: “We do not believe that serious injustice will be done by the executions tomorrow, but it would have been more creditable if some tangible evidence of their guilt had been obtained … no white man, tried before a jury of his peers, would be executed upon the testimony thus produced.” After the hangings, the Minnesota legislature gratefully appropriated a thousand dollars as payment to John McKenzie for his services in Canada. 29

The day of the Santee Sioux in Minnesota now came to an end. Although most of the war chiefs and warriors were dead, in prison, or far beyond the borders of the state, the uprising had given the white citizens an opportunity to seize the Santees’ remaining lands without even a pretense of payment. Previous treaties were abrogated, and the surviving Indians were informed that they would be removed to a reservation in Dakota Territory. Even those leaders who had collaborated with the white men had to go. “Exterminate or banish,” was the cry of the land-hungry settlers. The first shipment of 770 Santees left St. Paul by steamboat on May 4, 1863. White Minnesotans lined the river landing to see them off with shouts of derision and showers of hurled stones.

Crow Creek on the Missouri River was the site chosen for the Santee reservation. The soil was barren, rainfall scanty, wild game scarce, and the alkaline water unfit for drinking. Soon the surrounding hills were covered with graves; of the 1,300 Santees brought there in 1863, less than a thousand survived their first winter.

Among the visitors to Crow Creek that year was a young Teton Sioux. He looked with pity upon his Santee cousins and listened to their stories of the Americans who had taken their land and driven them away. Truly, he thought, that nation of white men is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in its path. Soon they would take the buffalo country unless the hearts of the Indians were strong enough to hold it. He resolved that he would fight to hold it. His name was Tatanka Yotanka, the Sitting Bull.

* Thomas J. Galbraith was the reservation agent. A. J. Myrick, William Forbes, and Louis Roberts were post traders at the Lower Agency.

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