The Dakota Conflict Trials


A  framed sketch of the scene depicted on this site's homepage, the execution of thirty-eight Sioux on December 26, 1862, used to fascinate me when, as a boy in Mankato, Minnesota, I would visit the Blue Earth County Historical Museum.  Apart from its macabre appeal, the picture impressed me because it captured the most famous event in the history of my hometown (easily surpassing in significance the death there of an obscure Vice President who died while changing trains on his way to the Black Hills).  The hanging, following trials which condemned over three hundred participants in the 1862 Dakota Conflict, stands as the largest mass execution in American history. Only the unpopular intervention of saved 265 other Dakota and mixed-bloods from the fate met by the less fortunate thirty-eight.  The mass hanging was the concluding scene in the opening chapter of a story of the American-Sioux conflict that would not end until the Seventh Cavalry completed its massacre at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on December   29, 1890.


In 1862 the Sioux Nation stretched from the Big Woods of Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains.  There were seven Sioux tribes, including three western tribes, collectively called the Lakota, and four eastern tribes living in Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas called the Dakota.  About 7,000 members of the four Dakota tribes lived on a reservation bordering what was in 1862 the frontier, the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota. The Dakota Conflict (or Dakota War or Sioux Uprising) involved primarily the two southernmost Dakota tribes, the Mdewakantons and Wahpekutes.  Tribes consisted of bands, each with a leader or chief.  The Mdewakantons, for example, were divided into nine bands. A majority of the 4,000 members of the two northern tribes, the Sissetons and the Wahpetons, were opposed to the fighting. A large number of Sissetons and Wahpetons had been converted both to farming and Christianity, and had both moral objections and strong reasons of self-interest for keeping peace with the whites.  In addition to pure-blood Indians, there were many so-called mixed-bloods, the products of relationships between Indians and settlers.  A majority of mixed-bloods sided with whites or avoided participation in the Conflict altogether.


A decade before the Dakota Conflict, the Minnesota Territory, stretching from the upper Mississippi to the Missouri River, was still mostly Indian country.  The conifer forest and lakes of Northern Minnesota belonged to the Ojibway (or Chippewa), while the deciduous forests and prairie of southern Minnesota was shared by the Dakota and a much smaller number of Winnebago.  In 1851, however, the Dakota by treaty agreed to give up most of  southern Minnesota.  The land was ceded to the United States in return for two twenty-mile wide by seventy-mile long reservations along the Minnesota River and annuity payments totaling $1.4 million dollars over a fifty-year period.  Seven years later, in exchange for increased annuity payments, the Dakota ceded about half of their reservation land.


The causes of the the Dakota Conflict are many and complex.  The treaties of 1851 and 1858 contributed to tensions by undermining the Dakota culture and the power of chieftains, concentrating malcontents, and leading to a corrupt system of Indian agents and traders. Annuity payments reduced the once proud Dakota to the status of dependents.  They reduced the power of chiefs because annuity payments were made directly to individuals rather than through tribal structures.  They created bitterness because licensed traders sold goods to Indians at 100% to 400% profit and frequently took "claims" for money from individual Dakota paid out of tribal funds.  No effective means of legal recourse was available to wronged Dakota, leading some Dakota to talk of another option open to them: robbery and violence. The fact that the Dakota people were squeezed into a small fraction of their former lands made it easy, according to Minnesota historian William Folwell, "for malcontents to assemble frequently to growl and fret together over grievances."


Annuity payments for the Dakota were late in the summer of 1862.  An August 4, 1862 confrontation between soldiers and braves at the Upper Agency at Yellow Medicine led to a decision to distribute provisions on credit to avoid violence.  At the Lower Agency at Redwood, however, things were handled differently.  At an August 15, 1862 meeting attended by Dakota representatives, Indian Agent Thomas Galbraith, and representatives of the traders, the traders resisted pleas to distribute provisions held in agency warehouses to starving Dakota until the annuity payments finally arrived.  Trader Andrew Myrick summarized his position in the bluntest possible manner:  "So far as I am concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass."  Unbeknownst to those gathered at the Lower Agency, the long delayed 1862 annuity payments were already on their way to the Minnesota frontier. On August 16, a keg with $71,000 worth of gold coins reached St. Paul.  The next day the keg was sent to Fort Ridgely for distribution to the Dakota.  It arrived a few hours too late to prevent an unprecedented outbreak of violence.


On Sunday, August 17, four Dakota from a breakaway band of young malcontents were on a hunting trip when they came across some eggs in a hen's nest along the fence line of a settler's homestead.  When one of the four took the eggs, another of the group warned him that the eggs belonged to a white man.  The first young man became angry, dashed the eggs to the ground, and accused the other of being afraid of white men, even though half-starved.  Apparently to disprove the accusation of cowardice, the other Dakota said that to show he was not afraid of white men he would go the house and shoot the owner.  He challenged the others to join him.  Minutes later three white men, a white woman, and a fifteen-year old white girl lay dead.

Part 2