Dakota Conflict of 1862
Setting the Scene
Long before Europeans made their first forays into the
territory now known as Minnesota, Native American tribes regularly crossed
the Minnesota River at a fording place 14 miles north of the present city
of Mankato, half a mile north of St. Peter. Early French explorers gave
the site its present name, Traverse des Sioux (Cross Place of the Sioux
The solid river bottom through shallow water provided a natural gateway
between the dense woodlands on the east and the prairies and bison of the
west. As a well-traveled junction, it became a natural convergence point
for commerce both for the Native Americans and for European traders and
By the 1820's, Louis Provencalle, a Frenchman working for John Jacob Astor's
American Fur Co., had set up a permanent fur-trading post at Traverse Des
Sioux. Soon a settlement sprang up around the post.
On July 23, 1851, one of the most significant Indian treaties in our nation's
history was signed at Traverse Des Sioux between the US government and the
Wahpeton and Sisseton bands of the Dakota. Two weeks later at Mendota, a
treaty was signed with the Mdewakanton and Wahpekute bands. These treaties
were instrumental in opening the American west to European settlement.
Some 24 million acres in Minnesota were ceded by the Dakota in exchange
for reservation lands and for $3,075,000 to be paid over a 50-year period
in annual annuities of goods and money -- about 12 cents an acre for some
of the finest agricultural land in the country.
Before ratifying the Treaty the US Senate added amendments that weakened
the Dakota position. Even with the changes, the terms of the treaty were
not entirely honored by the US
The treaties left about 7,000 Dakota with two reservations, each 20 miles
wide and 70 miles long, with a 10 mile strip on each side of the Minnesota
River. In 1858 the strip of land along the north side of the river, nearly
a million acres, was also ceded to the US The government established two
administrative centers, the Upper and Lower Sioux agencies.
Delayed and skipped payments drove the Dakota to increasing desperation
with each passing year. Through deceptive business practices, unscrupulous
traders and government agents took much of what the Indians did have. Poverty,
starvation, and general suffering led to unrest that in 1862 culminated
in the U.S.-Dakota Conflict, which launched a series of Indian wars on the
northern plains that did not end until the battle of Wounded Knee in 1890.
Colonel Henry H. Sibley commanded the military. A well-known fur trader,
Sibley was the Minnesota Territory's first delegate to Congress and the
state's first governor.
With most of the able-bodied men away fighting the Civil War, the Indians
seized their opportunity and very nearly succeeded. After first advising
of the futility of challenging the white man ("Kill one, two, ten and
ten times ten will come to kill you," he said), Mdewakanton Chief Little
Crow was persuaded to head the Dakota effort.
Before the Conflict (or Sioux Uprising, as it is often called) could be
brought under control, at least 450 white settlers and soldiers were killed
and considerable property was destroyed in southern Minnesota. There were
uncounted numbers of Dakota casualties because of the Indian custom of removing
all dead and dying warriors from the battlefield.
A five-man military commission was appointed to try the Dakota who participated
in the outbreak. The commission settled up to 40 cases in a single day.
Some were heard in as little as five minutes. In all, the commission tried
392, sentenced 307 to death and gave 16 prison terms. Many historians today
feel the trial was a travesty of justice.
Authority for the final order of execution was passed to President Lincoln.
He was pressured by politicians, military leaders, the press and public
for immediate execution of the 303 still on the condemned list. Interceding
on behalf of the Dakota was Episcopalian Bishop Henry Whipple, known to
the Indians as "Straight Tongue" for his fair dealings. The Rev.
Stephen Riggs and Dr. John P. Williamson, Presbyterian missionaries to the
Dakota, wrote letters to the press calling for a fair trial.
Lincoln approved death sentences for only 39 of the 303 prisoners. One of
the 39 was later reprieved.
At 10 a.m. on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, the group of 38 ascended a
specially-erected timber gallows 24 feet square and 20 feet high. More than
1,400 soldiers of the 6th, 9th and 10th Minnesota Volunteers and of the
First Minnesota Mounted Rangers were on hand to keep order among the crowds
of hostile citizens. The Indians sang as they left their prison and continued
singing until the end. It was the largest mass execution in American history.
Excerpted from: "The US - Dakota Conflict of 1862
- A Self-Guided Tour," a pamphlet published by the
Chamber and Convention Bureau,
112 Riverfront Drive
PO Box 999
Mankato, MN 56002-0999