Dakota War of 1862

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 22nd. 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 along with a six-pounder cannon were deployed equally in dugouts and in 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, as well as 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 26th at Camp Release, near present-day Montevideo, Minnesota. With them were more than 250 European-American and “mixed-blood” prisoners who had been captured by the Dakota warriors 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 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 put on display in St. Paul, Minnesota. For killing Little Crow, the state granted Lamson an additional $500 bounty.

Many Dakota were captured and imprisoned by the U.S. military, among them 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 where they were 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 of Pike Island near Fort Snelling. Here they spent the winter of 1862-63 where 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.

Fort Snelling

Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Photo by Dave Alexander. 

In the meantime, steamboat and flatboat trade on the Red River came to a halt. 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 at the time. 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 boundaries of the state. 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 forces of the Department of the Northwest 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 24th, Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26th, and Stony Lake on July 28th. 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. For his military service, Sibley was promoted to Major General of Volunteers in 1865.

The conflicts with the U.S. Government and the Sioux continued. Within two years settlers’ encroachment on Lakota land sparked Red Cloud’s War; the US 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, the majority 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.

Compiled & edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated

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

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