Dakota War of 1862

Attack of New Ulm, Minnesota

Attack of New Ulm, Minnesota, during the 1862 Dakota War, painting by Anton Gag, 1904.

The Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux or Dakota Uprising, was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of Dakota Sioux. It began on August 17, 1862, along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota and ended with a mass execution of 38 Dakota men on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota.

Between 1805 and 1858, treaties made between the U.S. government and the Dakota nation reduced Dakota lands, significantly altered the lives of the Dakota tribe, and had severe implications for Dakota-U.S. government relations. Throughout this time, treaty violations by the United States and late or unfair annuity payments by Indian agents caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota. Further, many Dakota felt cheated because when annuity money did arrive, it was often immediately paid to traders who made claims of debts owed by the Dakota. Many Dakota claimed these debts had been inflated or falsified and opposed the traders being paid directly by the U.S. government.

By the summer of 1862, delayed annuity payments from the U.S. government due to the U.S. government’s priority in financing the Civil War, crop failures, poor hunting, and the refusal by traders and Indian agents to extend credit to the Dakota left many Dakota people hungry and desperate, particularly those who had not taken up farming. Due to these and other factors, tensions within Minnesota’s Dakota community reached a breaking point.

Little Crow

Little Crow

On August 17, 1862, four young Dakota warriors killed five settlers at the farms of Robinson Jones and Howard Baker in Acton, Minnesota. Afterward, the warriors traveled to Redwood to visit with Chief Little Crow (Taoyateduta), an influential Dakota leader, to convince him to lead a military effort against the European-Americans to reclaim their ancestral land. Upon hearing the entreaties of the warriors, Little Crow blackened his face and covered his head as if in mourning. When one of the warriors accused him of cowardice, Little Crow responded, “Braves, you are little children — you are fools. You will die like the rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in January.” Reluctantly, Little Crow agreed to lead them, stating: “Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”

The next day, a group of Dakota warriors attacked the Lower Sioux Agency, killing many civilians, and continued through the Minnesota River Valley, attacking trading posts and settlements. The U.S. – Dakota War of 1862 had begun. In the forays, 44 Americans were killed, and ten were captured.

The next day, on August 19, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey appointed Henry H. Sibley as “commander of the Indian expedition” with the rank of colonel in the state militia. Sibley was dedicated to Minnesota, but this would be a somewhat difficult task for him as he had traded with the Dakota for almost a quarter of a century. Knowing many of them well, he spoke the Dakota language, had been adopted into a Dakota band, had a Dakota child, and knew Chief Little Crow personally, as they had hunted together in the past.

On August 20, 1862, Colonel Sibley and the 6th Minnesota Infantry, a hastily-formed regiment of local volunteers and army troops marched from Fort Snelling toward the town of St. Peter. After waiting several days for supplies and reinforcements, Sibley and his forces advanced towards Fort Ridgely with approximately 1,400 soldiers, arriving on August 28. After reinforcing Fort Ridgely, Sibley focused on training the troops for battles with the Dakota.

Meanwhile, the first battle of New Ulm occurred on the afternoon of August 19, 1862, when the settlement was attacked by a relatively small group of Dakota warriors. This skirmish lasted several hours and left six settlers dead and five wounded. With other attacks occurring throughout the area, New Ulm was inundated by more than 1,000 refugees over the next several days, increasing its population to some 2,000 people, though only 300 were equipped to fight.

The siege of New Ulm, Minn by Henry A. Schwabe

The siege of New Ulm, Minn Henry August Schwabe

Dakota warriors continued their attacks throughout the Minnesota River Valley. On the afternoon of August 20, they attacked Fort Ridgely, the only military post between the Sioux Reservations and the settlers. Chief Little Crow led some 400 Dakota warriors in the attack, which lasted about five hours before the warriors retreated. However, the attacks continued into the next day, when the Dakota had nearly doubled their number. Though severely outnumbered, the soldiers were able to defend the fort successfully. In the battles, three soldiers and four civilians were killed, and 13 soldiers and 26 civilians were wounded. Because Dakota carried away their dead, only two Dakota deaths were confirmed.

On August 23, New Ulm, the largest settlement near the Sioux reservation, was attacked again by some 600 warriors led by Chiefs Wanbdiṭanka, Wabasa, and Makato. At about 9:30 in the morning, the Dakota began the attack on the city after burning many of the homes in the surrounding area. The settlement’s defenders formed a defensive picket line several blocks west of town before the Sioux warriors advanced. The Indians held their fire until one of the defenders fired a shot, and seeing the Dakota’s superior numbers; the citizens retreated to barricades in town. In the meantime, the Sioux encircled the town. Though the battle destroyed the town, leaving only 49 of the 190 structures, leaving 34 dead and 60 wounded, the citizens had successfully defended off their attackers.

People escaping from the Indian massacre of 1862 in Minnesota

People escaping from the Indian massacre of 1862 in Minnesota

Two days later, on August 25, out of ammunition, food, and medicine, 2000 people, including 153 wagons and many refugees, evacuated the city and headed to Mankato, St. Peter, and St. Paul. Fortunately, they arrived unopposed and safe from their perilous journey.

In early September, Sibley tried to negotiate a settlement with Little Crow (Taoyateduta), but he would not agree to stop the fighting; but did explain the reasons for the war and that he was willing to release prisoners. Though Sibley demanded surrender, Little Crow refused. However, there were two other leaders, Chiefs Wabasha and Taopi, who had opposed the war and were willing to discuss surrender, as the war was fracturing the tribe. Fought by a relatively small group of Dakota warriors, there never was universal support from the community at large.

On September 2, the Minnesota militia counterattacked in the Battle of Birch Coulee, located about 16 miles from Fort Ridgely. Colonel Sibley, stationed at Fort Ridgely, had sent out a detachment of 150 soldiers to find survivors, locate and bury the remains of civilians, and report on the location of Dakota warriors. In the process, the burial party was attacked by Dakota warriors at Birch Coulee in the early morning, resulting in a three-hour firefight in which 13 soldiers were killed, and 47 were wounded. In this defeat, only two Dakota were known to have been killed. When reports of the attack arrived at Fort Ridgely, Colonel Sibley immediately led a column of 240 soldiers to relieve the detachment at Birch Coulee the same afternoon. After the Dakota withdrew, Sibley and his troops returned to Fort Ridgely to continue their training.

Due to the demands of the Civil War, the region’s representatives had to repeatedly appeal for aid before President Abraham Lincoln formed the Department of the Northwest on September 6, 1862, and appointed General John Pope to command it with orders to quell the violence. Pope dispatched troops dispatched to the front as soon as companies were formed.

Dakota attacks were also taking place farther north as warriors laid siege to several unfortified stagecoach stops and river crossings along the Red River Trails, a settled trade route between Fort Garry (now Winnipeg, Manitoba) and Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota and eastern Dakota Territory. Many settlers and employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company and other local enterprises in this sparsely populated country took refuge in Fort Abercrombie, located about 25 miles south of present-day Fargo, North Dakota. Though the Dakota launched several attacks on Fort Abercrombie between late August and late September, all were repelled by its defenders.

Henry Sibley

Henry Sibley

Under considerable political pressure to defeat the Dakota quickly, Sibley and his reinforced troops moved up the Minnesota River, arriving at Lone Tree Lake (mistakenly identified as Wood Lake), where they camped on the night of September 22. The next morning, several soldiers left camp to forage for food and stumbled upon a group of Dakota warriors who had been preparing to attack Sibley’s forces. This resulted in the Battle of Wood Lake on September 23, 1862. According to the official report, troops and a six-pounder cannon were deployed equally in dugouts and a skirmish line. After brief fighting, the forces in the skirmish line charged against the Dakota and defeated them overwhelmingly. It was the last major battle of the Dakota War of 1862.

The war lasted nearly six weeks, during which more than 600 civilians and U.S. soldiers and an estimated 75-100 Dakota lost their lives.

After the Battle of Wood Lake, many of the Dakota who participated in the war fled Minnesota. Of the approximately 2,000 who remained, of which 1,600 were non-combatants, they surrendered to Sibley’s military force on September 26 at Camp Release, near present-day Montevideo, Minnesota. With them were more than 250 European-American and “mixed-blood” prisoners whom the Dakota warriors had captured during the war.

After their surrender, Colonel Sibley established a Military Commission, and 498 trials were held in November 1862. Some trials lasted less than 5 minutes. No one explained the proceedings to the defendants, nor were the Sioux represented by defense attorneys. By the end of the process, a total of 307 men were sentenced to death, but Sibley reduced the initial number to 303 after reviewing the testimonies.

Execution of 38 Sioux, Mankato Minnesota, December 26, 1862

Execution of 38 Sioux, Mankato Minnesota, December 26, 1862

The execution orders needed to be approved by the President of the United States before they could be carried out, and the number of condemned men was further reduced to 38 by President Abraham Lincoln, who sought to distinguish between Dakota warriors who had participated in battles with U.S. soldiers and those accused of killing and assaulting civilians. The remaining 38 men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, on December 26, 1862, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The mass execution was performed publicly on a single scaffold platform. After regimental surgeons pronounced the prisoners dead, they were buried en masse in a trench in the sand of the riverbank.

In the meantime, Chief Little Crow had fled to Canada, where he stayed for a time before returning to Minnesota. He was killed on July 3, 1863, near Hutchinson, Minnesota, by white settler Nathan Lamson, who shot him to collect the bounty. Once it was discovered that the body was that of Little Crow, his skull and scalp were displayed in St. Paul, Minnesota. The state granted Lamson an additional $500 bounty for killing Little Crow.

The U.S. military captured and imprisoned many Dakota, including Sakpedan (Little Six) and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle). The two men fled to Canada after the war but were captured and delivered to U.S. authorities by British agents in January 1864. Both men were subsequently imprisoned at Fort Snelling, charged and convicted for their participation in the war, and sentenced to death. Their execution took place at Fort Snelling on November 11, 1865, in the presence of the fort’s garrison and numerous civilians.

The rest of the approximately 1,600 Dakota and “mixed-bloods,” comprised mostly of women, children, and old men, surrendered at Camp Release and were removed to an internment camp on Pike Island near Fort Snelling. They spent the winter of 1862-63 when living conditions and sanitation were poor, and infectious disease struck the camp, killing more than 300 people. According to reports in local newspapers and Dakota oral histories, some of the prisoners endured assaults and violence at the hands of soldiers and local civilians.

Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Photo by Dave Alexander.

In the meantime, steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River halted. Mail carriers, stage drivers, and military couriers were killed while attempting to reach settlements such as Pembina, North Dakota, Fort Garry, St. Cloud, and Fort Snelling. Eventually, the garrison at Fort Abercrombie, North Dakota, was relieved by a U.S. Army company from Fort Snelling, and the civilian refugees were removed to St. Cloud.

In April 1863, the U.S. Congress abolished the Dakota reservation, declared all previous treaties with the tribe null and void, and undertook proceedings to expel the Dakota people entirely from Minnesota. In May 1863, Dakota survivors were forced aboard steamboats and relocated to the Crow Creek Reservation in the southeastern Dakota Territory, a place stricken by drought. Many of the survivors of Crow Creek moved three years later to the Niobrara Reservation in Nebraska. By the summer of 1863, the vast majority of Dakota had left Minnesota, heading into the western territories or north into Canada. As a result of the war, approximately 6,000 Dakota and “mixed-blood” people were displaced from their Minnesota homes.

To this end, a bounty of $25 per scalp was placed on any Dakota found free within the state’s boundaries. The only exception to this legislation applied to 208 people of the Mdewakanton band of Sioux, who remained neutral or assisted white settlers in the conflict.

After the expulsion of the Dakota, some refugees and warriors made their way to Lakota lands. During the summer of 1863, newly-promoted Brigadier General Sibley and Brigadier General Alfred Sully mounted a joint military operation called the “Punitive Expedition” against those Dakota who left Minnesota and headed into the western territories. Battles continued between the Department of the Northwest forces and combined Lakota and Dakota forces through 1864.

In the Sibley Expedition of 1863, Colonel Henry Sibley, with 2,000 men, pushed past Devil’s Lake towards the Missouri River, fighting three major battles against combined Dakota and Lakota forces: Big Mound on July 24, Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26, and Stony Lake on July 28. By the end of August, Sibley had returned to Minnesota, while the Sully expedition continued on and engaged an encampment of Yanktonai, Santee, and Lakota warriors at Whitestone Hill on September 3-5. The Sioux retreated further but faced Sully’s Northwest Indian Expedition in 1864. General Alfred Sully led a force from near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and decisively defeated the Sioux at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864. The following year Sully’s Northwest Indian Expedition of 1865 operated against the Sioux in Dakota Territory. Sibley was promoted to Major General of Volunteers for his military service in 1865.

The conflicts between the U.S. Government and the Sioux continued. Within two years, settlers’ encroachment on Lakota land sparked Red Cloud’s War; the U.S. desire for control of the Black Hills in South Dakota prompted the government to authorize an offensive in 1876 in what would be called the Black Hills War. By 1881, most of the Sioux had surrendered to American military forces. In 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre ended all effective Sioux resistance.

Today, Dakota communities remain spread throughout Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Canada.

©Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.


Also See:

Sioux Indian Wars

Henry Hastings Sibley – Minnesota Pioneer

Little Crow (Taoyateduta)

Sioux Nation

Fort Snelling, Minnesota


Essling, Ann; Historic Mendota Before 1863: A Walk Though Time Where the Waters Meet; Friends of the Sibley Historic Site; 2015
Historic Fort Snelling
Sibley Historic Site