Little Crow - Leader in the Dakota War of 1862
By Charles A. Eastman
Chief Little Crow
was the eldest son of Cetanwakuwa (Charging Hawk). It was on account of
his father's name, mistranslated Crow, that he was called by the whites "Little
Crow." His real name was Taoyateduta, His Red People.
As far back as
history goes, a band of the Sioux called Kaposia (Light Weight, because
they were said to travel light) inhabited the Mille Lacs region. Later
they dwelt about St. Croix Falls, and still later near St. Paul. In 1840,
Cetanwakuwa was still living in what is now West St. Paul, but he was soon
after killed by the accidental discharge of his gun.
It was during a period of demoralization for
the Kaposias that Little Crow became the leader of his people. His father, a well-known
chief, had three wives, all from different bands of the Sioux. He was the
only son of the first wife, a Leaf Dweller. There were two sons of the
second and two of the third wife, and the second set of brothers conspired
to kill their half-brother in order to keep the chieftainship in the
Two kegs of whisky were
bought, and all the men of the tribe invited to a feast. It was planned to
pick some sort of quarrel when all were drunk, and in the confusion Little
Crow was to
be murdered. The plot went smoothly until the last instant, when a young
brave saved the intended victim by knocking the gun aside with his
hatchet, so that the shot went wild. However, it broke his right arm,
which remained crooked all his life. The friends of the young chieftain
hastily withdrew, avoiding a general fight; and later the council of the
Kaposias condemned the two brothers, both of whom were executed, leaving
him in undisputed possession.
Such was the opening of a
stormy career. Little Crow's mother had been a chief's daughter,
celebrated for her beauty and spirit, and it is said that she used to
plunge him into the lake through a hole in the ice, rubbing him afterward with snow, to strengthen
his nerves, and that she would remain with him alone in the deep woods for
days at a time, so that he might know that solitude is good, and not fear
to be alone with nature.
"My son," she would say,
"if you are to be a leader of men, you must listen in silence to the
mystery, the spirit."
At a very early age she
made a feast for her boy and announced that he would fast two days. This
is what might be called a formal presentation to the spirit or God. She
greatly desired him to become a worthy leader according to the ideas of
her people. It appears that she left her husband when he took a second
wife, and lived with her own band till her death. She did not marry again.
Little Crow was an
intensely ambitious man and without physical fear. He was always in
perfect training and early acquired the art of warfare of the
type. It is told of him that when he was about ten years old, he engaged
with other boys in a sham battle on the shore of a lake near St. Paul.
Both sides were encamped at a little distance from one another, and the
rule was that the enemy must be surprised, otherwise the attack would be
considered a failure. One must come within so many paces undiscovered in
order to be counted successful. Our hero had a favorite dog which, at his
earnest request, was allowed to take part in the game, and as a scout he
entered the enemy camp unseen, by the help of his dog.
When he was twelve, he
saved the life of a companion who had broken through the ice by tying the
end of a pack line to a log, then at great risk to himself carrying it to
the edge of the hole where his comrade went down. It is said that he also
broke in, but both boys saved themselves by means of the line.
As a young man, Little
always ready to serve his people as a messenger to other tribes, a duty
involving much danger and hardship. He was also known as one of the best
hunters in his band. Although still young, he had already a war record
when he became chief of the Kaposias, at a time when the
facing the greatest and most far-reaching changes that had ever come to
At this juncture in the
history of the northwest and its native inhabitants, the various fur
companies had paramount influence. They did not hesitate to impress the
with the idea that they were the authorized representatives of the white
races or peoples, and they were quick to realize the desirability of
controlling the natives through their most influential chiefs. Little Crow became
quite popular with post traders and factors. He was an orator as well as a
diplomat, and one of the first of his nation to indulge in politics and
promote unstable schemes to the detriment of his people.
When the United States
Government went into the business of acquiring territory from the Indians
so that the flood of western settlement might not be checked, commissions
were sent out to negotiate treaties, and in case of failure it often
happened that a delegation of leading men of the tribe were invited to
Washington. At that period, these visiting chiefs, attired in all the
splendor of their costumes of ceremony, were treated like ambassadors from
One winter in the late
eighteen-fifties, a major general of the army gave a dinner to the Indian
chiefs then in the city, and on this occasion Little Crow was
appointed toastmaster. There were present a number of Senators and members
of Congress, as well as judges of the Supreme Court, cabinet officers, and
other distinguished citizens. When all the guests were seated, the
and addressed them with much dignity as follows:
"Warriors and friends: I
am informed that the great white war chief who of his generosity and
comradeship has given us this feast, has expressed the wish that we may
follow to-night the usages and customs of my people. In other words, this
is a warriors' feast, a braves' meal. I call upon the Ojibway chief, the
Hole-in-the-Day, to give the lone wolf's hunger call, after which we will
join him in our usual manner."
The tall and handsome
Ojibway now rose and straightened his superb form to utter one of the
clearest and longest wolf howls that was ever heard in Washington, and at
its close came a tremendous burst of war whoops that fairly rent the air,
and no doubt electrified the officials there present.
On one occasion Little
invited by the commander of Fort Ridgeley,
to call at the fort. On his way back, in company with a half-breed named
Ross and the interpreter Mitchell, he was ambushed by a party of Ojibways,
and again wounded in the same arm that had been broken in his attempted
assassination. His companion Ross was killed, but he managed to hold the
war party at bay until help came and thus saved his life.
More and more as time passed, this naturally brave and ambitious man became a prey to the selfish interests of the traders and politicians. The immediate causes of the Sioux outbreak of 1862 came in quick succession to inflame to desperate action an outraged people. The two bands on the so-called "lower reservations" in Minnesota were Indians for whom nature had provided most abundantly in their free existence. After one hundred and fifty years of friendly intercourse first with the French, then the English, and finally the Americans, they found themselves cut off from every natural resource, on a tract of land twenty miles by thirty, which to them was virtual imprisonment. By treaty stipulation with the government, they were to be fed and clothed, houses were to be built for them, the men taught agriculture, and schools provided for the children. In addition to this, a trust fund of a million and a half was to be set aside for them, at five per cent interest, the interest to be paid annually per capita. They had signed the treaty under pressure, believing in these promises on the faith of a great nation.
However, on entering the new life, the resources so rosily described to them failed to materialize. Many families faced starvation every winter, their only support the store of the
trader, who was baiting his trap for their destruction. Very gradually they
awoke to the facts.
At last it was planned to secure from them the north half of their reservation for ninety-eight thousand dollars, but it was not explained to the
Indians that the traders were to receive all the money. c made the greatest mistake of his life when he signed this agreement.
Meanwhile, to make matters worse, the cash annuities were not paid for nearly two years. Civil War had begun. When it was learned that the traders had taken all of the ninety-eight thousand dollars "on account", there was very bitter feeling. In fact, the heads of the leading stores were afraid to go about as usual, and most of them stayed in St. Paul.
Little Crow was justly held in part responsible for the deceit, and his life was not safe.
The murder of a white family near Acton, Minnesota, by a party of
Indian duck hunters in August, 1862, precipitated the break. Messengers were sent to every village with the news, and at the villages of
Little Crow and Little Six the war council was red-hot. It was proposed to take advantage of the fact that north and south were at war to wipe out the white settlers and to regain their freedom. A few men stood out against such a desperate step, but the conflagration had gone beyond their control.
There were many mixed bloods among these Sioux, and some of the
Indians held that these were accomplices of the white people in robbing them of their possessions, therefore their lives should not be spared. My father, Many Lightnings, who was practically the leader of the Mankato band (for Mankato, the chief, was a weak man), fought desperately for the lives of the half-breeds and the missionaries. The chiefs had great confidence in my father, yet they would not commit themselves, since their braves were clamoring for blood.
Little Crow had been accused of all the misfortunes of his tribe, and he now hoped by leading them against the whites to regain his prestige with his people, and a part at least of their lost domain.
There were moments when the pacifists were in grave peril. It was almost daybreak when my father saw that the approaching calamity could not be prevented. He and two others said to
Little Crow: "If you want war, you must personally lead your men tomorrow. We will not murder women and children, but we will fight the soldiers when they come." They then left the council and hastened to warn my brother-in-law, Faribault, and others who were in danger.
Little Crow declared he would be seen in the front of every battle, and
it is true that he was foremost in all the succeeding bloodshed, urging his
warriors to spare none. He ordered his war leader, Many Hail, to fire the
first shot, killing the trader James Lynd, in the door of his store.
After a year of fighting in which he had met with defeat, the discredited chief
retreated to Fort Garry, now Winnipeg, Manitoba, where, together with Standing
Buffalo, he undertook secret negotiations with his old friends the Indian traders. There was now a price upon his head, but he planned to reach
St. Paul undetected and there surrender himself to his friends, who he hoped
would protect him in return for past favors. It is true that he had helped them
to secure perhaps the finest country held by any Indian nation for a mere song.
He left Canada with a few trusted friends, including his youngest and favorite son. When within two or three days' journey of St. Paul, he told the others to return, keeping with him only his son, Wowinape, who was but fifteen years of age. He meant to steal into the city by night and go straight to Governor Ramsey, who was his personal friend. He was very hungry and was obliged to keep to the shelter of the deep woods. The next morning, as he was picking and eating wild raspberries, he was seen by a wood-chopper named Lamson. The man did not know who he was. He only knew that he was an
Indian, and that was enough for him, so he lifted his rifle to his shoulder and fired, then ran at his best pace. The brilliant but misguided chief, who had made that part of the country unsafe for any white man to live in, sank to the ground and died without a struggle. The boy took his father's gun and made some effort to find the assassin, but as he did not even know in which direction to look for him, he soon gave up the attempt and went back to his friends.
Meanwhile Lamson reached home breathless and made his report. The body of the chief was found and identified, in part by the twice broken arm.
Charles A. Eastman, 1918. Compiled and
of America, updated April, 2017.
the Author: Excerpted from the book Indian Heroes and Great Chieftains, by Charles A. Eastman, 1918. (now in the public domain)
Charles A. Eastman earned a medical degree from Boston University School of Medicine in 1890, and then began working for the Office of Indian Affairs later that year. He worked at the Pine Ridge Agency, South Dakota, and was an eyewitness to both events leading up to and following the Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890. Himself part-Sioux, he knew many of the people about whom he wrote.
Indian Proverbs & Wisdom
Legends, Myths & Tales of Native Americans
Old West Legends
Native American People
Native American Tribes
Dakota War of 1862
Little Crow in "civilized clothing", 1862,
image available for photographic prints
From Legends' General Store
American Guides & Books -
Legends of America and
Legends General Store has collected a number of
Native American Guides & Books for our readers of history and
American lore. To see this varied collection, click