Friday, February 20, 2015

The First Sioux War

by Lyn Horner

Most Americans are familiar with the story of Custer’s Last Stand and the Great Sioux War of 1876, but many know little about the Sioux Uprising of 1862 (also called the Dakota War of 1862.)  Indeed, some have probably never heard of it, yet this months-long war between the Eastern (Santee) Dakota and Minnesota settlers, and eventually the U.S. Army, was a deadly precursor of what would follow fourteen years later.
Siege of New Ulm, Minnesota, August 19, 1862, ca.1902

Called “one of the most tragic events in Minnesota’s history” by author Peg Meier, the 1862 uprising left hundreds of people dead, property burned and looted, white residents terrorized and the Dakotas driven out of the state. All of which could have been avoided had the Indians been treated fairly. Sound familiar? This nation does not have a stellar history when it comes to treatment of Native Americans.

The Dakota, called Sioux (meaning “snake”) by enemy tribes and by whites, had given up almost all their traditional lands under the treaties of 1805, 1837, 1851 and 1858. Constrained to live on two narrow reservations along the Minnesota River, useless for hunting, and pushed into farming which was unfamiliar to them, they depended largely on goods and cash owed them by whites as per the various treaties.

By the summer of 1862, the government was months behind on the Indians’ annuity payments. At the same time, unscrupulous traders and Indian agents often stole what was earmarked for the Dakota. They were starving, a fact most whites ignored or didn’t care about. A storekeeper named Andrew Myrick was reported to have said, “Let them eat grass.” When the uprising began, Myrick was one of the first whites killed. The Indians left his body with grass stuffed down his throat.

The killing began on August 17, 1862. Four young braves were hunting off the reservation when they came across a hen’s nest near a white family’s cabin. A discussion over whether or not to steal the eggs ensued and on a dare, one brave entered the cabin and shot the white man inside. He and his companions killed five settlers, including two women, then hastened back to the reservation.

Chief Little Crow, ca. 1857
That night, a council of Dakota chiefs and warriors gathered in the home of Chief Little Crow (Taoyateduta) and debated going to war. Little Crow was against it. Called a coward, he defended his stance, telling the others they were like little children; they didn’t know what they were doing. He warned that no matter how many whites they killed, more and more would come. Even so, he gave in, saying, “Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”
The Dakota decided to attack settlements along the Minnesota River valley in an attempt to drive whites out of the area. No official report gives an accurate count of how many settlers were killed. In Abraham Lincoln's second annual address, he stated that not less than 800 men, women, and children had died. Over 500 may be closer to the truth.

For several months, the Dakota battled settlers and later, the United States Army, but ended up surrendering. By late December 1862, more than a thousand Dakota were imprisoned in Minnesota jails. After trials and sentencing, 38 Dakota were hanged on December 26, 1862. This was the largest one-day execution in American history. In April 1863, the rest of the Dakota were removed from Minnesota to Nebraska and South Dakota, and their reservations were closed down.


  1. And so it goes. I'm thinking the individual pioneers were not to blame as much as the government. The government knew what it was doing. A simple farmer from Minnesota or Indiana who goes west to find a new life doesn't really know or realize what the Native Americans might do. And so, he plows his fields, sets out his cattle to graze, and one night a group of Sioux--or any other--goes in the cabin and kills the family.
    We're left in a conundrum. Who is to blame? We idolize our ancestors, those pioneers, do we not? Yet, they took what was offered by the government. And then history shows us the real story.
    I had ancestors in Texas by 1810,and how any of them survived is beyond me. Not only Native American Tribes but the Mexican Army was on them all the time.
    So, now I'm seeing it from the perspective of a man named John Jefferson Hughes--my ancestor generations back--who fought the Mexican Army and the Indians.

    I had never heard this particular story, and you did a good job with the telling. The Comanche were the feared tribe in Texas--it was said of them that they'd fight any other tribe, and even each other! That's another story, the Comanche. I once wrote a novel in which the hero is a young Comanche warrior who is on the run, and the heroine is a Spanish lass who lives just over the Rio Grande. But the publisher would not take it--because the Comanche were too cruel, and I should use one of the more romantic tribes. But after I researched the Comanche to the nth degree, I sort of became attached to them!
    So, my story is still filed away on my computer, and probably will never see the light of day.

  2. Interesting, Lyn. I have a tender spot for the Sioux as my first story had a Sioux blood brother for my hero and they became great friends. I learned a lot about them during my research. Of course it was set in 1849 which was on the cusp of all this tragedy happening.

  3. Celia, yes, the government knew they were taking away the Dakota lands and livelihood, but they did not care in most cases. Indians were considered heathens who needed to get out of the way of white settlement. As with other tribes, they reached a point where they couldn't sit back and watch their people starve. who among us wouldn't stand up and fight in such a situation?

  4. We love our Native American heroes, or friends of the heroes, but sadly reality was grim, not very romantic.

  5. What a tragic history. Although I had not heard about this particular bit of history, I am quite dismayed to see that Lincoln exaggerated the number of settlers killed (maybe just wrong information given to him), but that he didn't have the same compassion for the American Indians that he seemed to have for slaves, kind of deflates my opinion of him.
    Great blog, Lyn.


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