US-Dakota War of 1862

In the years following the signing of the Mendota and Traverse des Sioux treaties of 1851, tensions mounted as the US government failed to make payments and provide the food and supplies promised to the Dakota people.

1851 treaties

In the treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux, the Dakota ceded 24 million acres of land to the US government and the Dakota people relocated to two adjoining strips of land on each side of the Minnesota River, stretching from northwest of New Ulm to the present-day South Dakota border.

Under the terms of the 1851 treaties, in exchange for their land, the Dakota would receive annual payments of goods and money over a 50-year period, as well as services that included blacksmith and carpenter shops, doctors’ offices, and schools. Private traders, under license from the government, supplied a variety of goods to Dakota villages lining the river valley in exchange for furs and money.

To promote self-sufficiency through European American farming methods, the US government provided farming instruction along with oxen, horses, and other livestock, seed, farm tools, tool repair, milling services, and small farmhouses. The government also encouraged the presence of missionaries to help convert the Dakota to a new way of life.

Tensions mounted

Fur traders operated on the reservation under license from the government to sell tools, blankets, clothing, firearms, fabrics, traps, cooking utensils, and many other goods. At the Lower Sioux Agency, traders’ stores and homes occupied the area west of the government complex.

While they were not agency employees, the traders’ business and conduct nonetheless had considerable impact on agency operations. The traders extended credit to the Dakota for repayment in furs and more importantly, for the Dakota's annual government payments. As soon as the Dakota received their annual payments, the traders laid claim to a good portion of the money. This was a source of considerable friction in US and Dakota relationships.

After experiencing crop failure, poor hunting, postponed annuity payments by the government, and tightened credit by fur traders, conditions on the reservations became desperate, and tensions were at a breaking point.

I was still of the belief that it [starting the war] was not best, but I thought I must go with my band and my nation, and I said to my men that I would lead them into the war, and we would... do the best we could." — 1894 interview with Wanbditanka (Big Eagle), Mdewakanton Dakota leader

On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota men murdered five white colonist-settlers near Acton Township in Meeker County. After fleeing to their village, the men begged the leaders of the soldiers’ lodge for protection. The leaders appealed to Taoyateduta (Little Crow) for war, and he reluctantly agreed. The next morning, Dakota warriors attacked the Lower Sioux Agency just before daybreak. Fighting started at the traders’ stores, then spread across agency grounds.

Over the next six weeks, fighting raged up and down the Minnesota River Valley as the Dakota tried to reclaim their homeland. More than 200 settler-colonists were killed in these raids, and more than 200 women, children, and civilians of mixed ancestry were taken hostage. Refugees fleeing attacks streamed into eastern Minnesota towns, leaving 23 southwestern counties nearly deserted. Both Fort Ridgely and the community of New Ulm were attacked twice, but both locations held off advances by Dakota soldiers.

On September 23, 1862, six weeks after the fighting began, the war ended at the Battle of Wood Lake. Members of the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, led by Colonel Henry H. Sibley, fought Taoyateduta's (Little Crow’s) Dakota warriors in a vicious two-hour battle before Taoyateduta and his followers fled west.

The war brought devastation to all. More than 600 white citizens, citizens of mixed ancestry, and soldiers — and an estimated 75-100 Dakota soldiers — were killed during the war. More than one-quarter of the Dakota people who surrendered in 1862 died during the following year.

The Dakota community was divided over the conflict. While some supported the Dakota cause, others supported the government and settler-colonists, and still others simply wanted to avoid the war altogether. Of the estimated 6,500 Dakota people living on the reservations at the time, historians believe that no more than 1,000 actually fought in the war.

The aftermath

On September 28, 1862, two days after the surrender at Camp Release, a commission of military officers established by Henry Sibley began trying Dakota men accused of participating in the war.

As weeks passed, cases were handled with increasing speed. On November 5, the commission completed its work. Three hundred and ninety-two prisoners were tried, 303 were sentenced to death, and 16 were given prison terms.

President Lincoln and government lawyers then reviewed the trial transcripts of all 303 men sentenced to death. Wanting to avoid cruelty and prevent yet another outbreak, Lincoln reduced that number to include only those who were found guilty of rape or who had participated in massacres. After making his final decision, Lincoln forwarded a list of 39 names to Sibley.

After one had been given a reprieve at the last minute, the 38 remaining Dakota prisoners were led to a scaffold specially constructed for their execution. An estimated 4,000 spectators crammed the streets of Mankato and surrounding land. Col. Stephen Miller, charged with keeping the peace in the days leading up to the hangings, had declared martial law and had banned the sale and consumption of alcohol within a 10-mile radius of the town.

As the men took their assigned places on the scaffold, they sang a Dakota song as white muslin coverings were pulled over their faces. Drumbeats signalled the start of the execution, and the men grasped each others’ hands. At 10 am on December 26, Capt. William Duley gave a single blow from an ax and cut the rope that held the platform. After dangling from the scaffold for a half hour, the men’s bodies were cut down and hauled to a shallow mass grave on a sandbar between Mankato’s main street and the Minnesota River. Before morning, most of the bodies had been dug up and taken by physicians for use as medical cadavers.

After the war, the Dakota were driven from their homes in the Minnesota River Valley and forced to relocate to reservations in Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Canada. A small number of Dakota who had supported the US government were allowed to remain and settled on small parcels of land near Mendota and Faribault.

More than one-quarter of the Dakota people who surrendered in 1862 died during the following year. After their exile from Minnesota, the Dakota faced concentration onto reservations, pressure to assimilate, and opening of reservation land for white settlement.

To learn more about the war itself, visit the US-Dakota War of 1862 website.