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 serious implications on 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 were falsified, and were opposed to 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.
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 10 were captured.
The very next day, on August 19th, Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey, appointed Henry H. Sibley as “commander of the Indian expedition” with the rank of colonel in the state militia. Though Sibley was dedicated to Minnesota, 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 towards 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 28th. 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.
Dakota warriors continued their attacks throughout the Minnesota River Valley and on the afternoon of August 20th, 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, by which time the Dakota had nearly doubled their number. Though severely outnumbered, the soldiers were able to successfully defend the fort. 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 23rd, 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, left 34 dead and 60 wounded, the citizens had successfully defended off their attackers.
Two days later on August 25th, out of ammunition, food, and medicine, 2000 people, including 153 wagons and a large number of 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. There were, however, two other leaders, Chiefs Wabasha and Taopi, who had opposed the war, that 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 2nd, 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.