During the US Civil War a vicious war broke out in Minnesota between the whites and the Dakota Sioux in 1862. The war is important to study for several reasons.
First, the conflict is remarkably modern. Like Islamic immigrants building bombs in their Section 8 housing, the Dakota Indians went to war with American whites while literally drawing welfare.
Second, in retrospect, it is clear there were several philosophical and metapolitical errors in managing a known racial problem in Minnesota and this should be explored. Third, the war itself has several aspects to it that are used for “white guilt” reasons, so it is important to bring some balance to the story.
The area that became the State of Minnesota was incorporated into the United States between the end of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and the Anglo-American treaty of 1818. Minnesota became a state in 1858. The state’s outer boundaries were crafted from legal processes between whites, such as the treaties between British and American diplomats as well as the US Congress. However, within the state land was loosely “owned” by Indians so treaties needed to be made with the Indians to purchase the land.
There were several treaties with several tribes, but the most important treaty was the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851 between the US Government and the Dakota Sioux. This treaty gave the Dakota a strip of land along the Minnesota River and paid the Indians for the land they sold. The payment would be distributed via annual annuities. The Treaty of Traverse des Sioux was adjusted by the US Senate during the ratification process, and by the end of all the wrangling the Dakota, led by Chief Little Crow, had a strip of land on the southern bank of the Minnesota River. Later, the Dakota considered themselves cheated and a narrative has grown up around the “whites cheating Indians” idea. However, to call the treating “cheating” is not entirely true. Gregory Michno writes, “It is difficult to argue that Little Crow and the other chiefs and headmen did not know what they were signing. They had discussed the terms for two years, while the council’s explanations, interpretations, and arguments had taken eight days, and 65 men made their marks on the agreement. When $30,000 from the old 1837 treaty was handed over there was an orgy of spending, much of it on horses and liquor, and the merchants in and around St. Paul experienced and minor windfall.”
The Welfare Gravy Train Goes off the Tracks
The annuities were distributed to the Indians annually via an Indian Agent. In 1862, the Indian Agent was Thomas J. Galbraith. The common method of payment was in gold coin, so the gold had to be physically brought to the frontier. Debts incurred by the Indians and payable to the Indian Traders would be subtracted from the annuities. The US government agents were also able to get “handling fees” and otherwise skim from the Federal money in the process if disbursing the annuities. In addition to deductions for debt, there were deductions for depredations the Dakota had done against white settlers when traveling to attack the Chippewa.
The Indian Traders were private businessmen given a license to trade by the Indian Agent. Traders operated general stores. The closest modern analogy to the status of the Indian Trader is a convenience store in a black ghetto the majority of whose sales are paid by Food Stamps or an EBT Card.
Paying the debts severely cut into the annuities. Additionally, the Civil War created frictions in addition to the normal racial problems. The Republicans won across the North in the election of 1860 and new government agents were put into place by the Lincoln Administration. For example, Agent Galbraith was a recent appointee in 1862. Scott Berg writes, “For the Dakota, this change had created profound upheaval, as almost every tie they had to the white power structure was suddenly severed and made anew.” Additionally, the appalling costs of the ongoing Civil War made gold scarce. The Federal Government was starting to pay its bills with fiat currency derisively called “greenbacks.” By the end of the distribution, often each Indian would be paid $10.
In 1862, Indian Traders such as Andrew Myrick also had appointments from Whigs or Democrats. They feared the new Republican Indian Agent would not renew their charter and replace them with Republicans. Additionally, Indian Traders feared that the annuity would be paid in worthless “greenbacks” or not at all. The Indian Traders themselves had taken some considerable financial risks extending credit to the Indians and were frustrated when a particular line of credit to an Indian went bad because of failure to pay. Essentially, the welfare system was off the tracks.
The Dakota Sioux’s reservation along the Minnesota River is a breadbasket, with good soil, good rain, and good timber. The Dakota were given farming equipment and seed and encouraged to farm. Some did, but many traditional Dakota worked against the farmers. They stole the animals and burned the property of the Indian farmers and derisively called them “cut hairs.” The Indians had become addicted to the welfare/annuities and focused so much attention on the annuities that other opportunities passed them by. When the Indians went hungry they begged for food from the white farmers on the north bank of the Minnesota. The whites north of the river were prospering on land with the same soil and climate that the Dakota lived upon south of the river.
Additionally, there is something dark and angry within Dakota Sioux culture. Gregory Minchno writes
Vengeance and retaliation were primary motivators in Sioux society. Not only in warfare involving entire tribes, built in day to day affairs, their responses often appeared to be that of a spoiled child. For a perceived insult, or the denial of a request, or to assuage grief for example, the Sioux response was often to vent anger or frustration through destruction. Social rebuff could lead to horse or cattle killings, and if the person who committed the alleged offence was not available, an innocent victim would suffice. “Dakota men and women,” explained one historian, “typically sought to ease their grief by causing either themselves or other to suffer.”
In the 2012 movie Dakota 38, which is about a modern “forgiveness ride” related to the Dakota War, tribal elder Jim Miller says the same basic thing, “We don’t have to blame the Wasi’chus anymore. We are doing it to ourselves. We’re selling drugs, we’re killing our own people.”
By the summer of 1862, the Dakota were feeling the pinch of hunger and were frustrated by the delays in the distribution of annuities. They could have been paid immediately in greenbacks, but the Dakota wanted gold. They were also frustrated by the encroaching whites. The settlement of New Ulm was cause for particular resentment among the Indians. The whites had established the town after the Treaty on a “temporarily abandoned” Dakota town (off the reservation), and it became prosperous quite quickly under the efficient hands of the German settlers.
It is important to discuss philosophical and metapolitical failures here. Whites of the 19th century had few illusions about Indians. US Government policy focused on Indian Removal, but in the case of the Dakota they didn’t remove them far enough. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 moved Indians to west of the Mississippi. The problem was that west of the Mississippi wasn’t great enough of a separation in the case of Minnesota. To keep the peace, the Indian Reservations needed to be really out of the way. The descendants of the Dakota Sioux live today on Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation is on land that is less optimal for farming and far away from major white settlements. There is no temptation for either whites or Indians to make a major move in a hostile way upon the other.
The Road to War
In conflicts between whites and Third World non-whites, it is often the case that the war is usually already engaged on the part of the non-whites prior to whites realizing such. In recent times, the Global War on Terror probably started in 1993, with the first World Trade Center Bombing. By the late 1990s, Islamic terror had escalated with the 1998 Embassy Bombings in East Africa and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. The attacks on September 11, 2001 merely made apparent to all Americans the existence of the deadly reality of Islamist hostility. In the same way, the Dakota War was really blowing hot prior to 1862. In 1857, a group of Dakota Sioux Indians called the Wahpukute renegades led by their chief Inkpuduta (Scarlet Point) had been massacring whites in Iowa and Minnesota. Indian Agent Charles Flandrau requested back up, and the US Army sent the Infantry forward. The foot soldiers never caught the Wahpukute renegades. In the spring of 1862, many whites notice sullen hostility on the part of the Dakota, but went about their daily affairs unaware of the gathering storm.
By the summer of 1862, the Dakota were “half-starved” and ready for war. The Dakota had sabotaged their own farmers, and hungry Indians went to the white farms just north of the Minnesota River to beg for food. Throughout the summer of 1862 Indians approached the Agency (the area on the Reservation with white Indian Agents, trading stores, food warehouses, missions, and such) and started to request more and more food. In late July, Indian Agent Galbraith conducted a headcount of Dakota to ensure supplies would be fairly distributed and messages were sent to Washington D.C. to get the annuities (in gold) to the Dakota. By August, the situation was very tense and a “bread raid” was launched against government warehouses on August 4, 1862. American soldiers restored order but still let the Dakota make off with 100 sacks of flour. Later, Indian Agent Galbraith distributed 130 barrels of flour and 30 barrels of pork on August 6. After the latter distribution, the whites dealing directly with the Dakota Sioux felt that the problem was solved.
Much of the narrative on the start of the war ignores the actual distribution of food mentioned above. Instead the war is blamed on Indian Trader Andrew Myrick allegedly stating to starving Indians that “They could eat grass or their own dung.” The Indians were therefore forced to attack the whites due to white injustice. This is not true. As the scope of the Dakota’s concerns made it back to Washington, the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase authorized the annuity to be paid in gold even though by this time the appalling costs of the Civil War were apparent to the US public. The gold was on the way to the Indian Agency and it arrived under armed escort six hours after the war had started.
Additionally, historians looking at the original accounts of the tense meetings between the whites and Dakota Indians in the summer of 1862 have come to suspect that the story of the “let them eat grass” remark alleged to be made by Andrew Myrick may be false. “Let them eat grass” is clearly based on Marie Antionette’s equally apocryphal “Let them eat cake.” The remark was not mentioned in any of the original accounts. Additionally, some accounts of the meetings don’t mention Myrick’s attendance at all. It is possible he or one of the white clerks on the reservation made rude remarks to an individual Indian in anger over failure to repay a debt, but the crude remarks weren’t made in the final run up to the war. Later accounts say that Indians stuffed Myrick’s mouth with grass after he was killed at the start of the Dakota War. However, original accounts describing Myrick’s mutilated body don’t mention his mouth full of grass.
A “Robbery Gone Wrong”
Private enterprises don’t speak for the United States government, especially in the matter of peace and war. Yet in the non-white world, the connection between individual actions and official policy is far more blurred. The Dakota Indians of the 19th century had no internal constitutional procedures to declare war in a formal way. On August 17, 1862, a group of Dakota Sioux hunting around Acton, Minnesota decided to steal eggs from a white farmstead owned by a man named Robinson Jones. They probably had been drinking whiskey, and they talked themselves into killing whites to prove to each other they weren’t cowards. (Again, all Dakota had the example of the Wahpukute renegades to look to.) They killed three adult men and one adult woman as well as a 15-year-old girl and then left without taking any more provisions. When they returned to the Reservation, Dakota Chief Little Crow felt compelled to attack the whites when one of the Acton killers accused Little Crow of cowardice.
It is important to note here that for all their faults, the whites at the Reservation worked as hard as possible to distribute food and get the annuities to the Dakota Sioux. The Dakota went to war because they were unable to self-police their young men.
When the war started, the whites who fell into the hands of the Dakota were butchered in a way not unknown in other Indian Wars and not much different than one of the Islamic State’s YouTube uploads. In one case, a living fetus was cut from the womb of a living women and nailed to the tree. Bodies of whites — including women and children — killed by the Dakota Sioux were mutilated. One man was covered in gunpowder and burned alive. Refugees streamed south towards New Ulm and Fort Ridgley.
Whites were attacked as whites. When the Dakota rose up, they attacked Germans, Norwegians, and Colonial stock Yankees from Michigan, Connecticut, and Ohio. One American born woman escaping the Indians found herself hiding in the bushes next to an Irishwoman she’d never met before. European ethnic differences that mattered so much in snobbish parlors in the civilized East shrank to insignificance in the face of the Dakota assault. If a white met an Indian and they had a good relationship prior to the uprising, it was possible for the white to be spared, but Dakota murdered Philander Humphrey, the Reservation doctor and most of his family.
The worst hit whites were the settlers immediately north of the Minnesota River as well as the white workers at the sawmill of Joseph W. De Camp. The sawmill was on the Reservation to help the Dakota. Especially valiant were the whites who operated the ferry across the Minnesota River. The ferrymen helped to evacuate fleeing whites until they were killed.
The Dakota attacked Fort Ridgley and New Ulm, and both places resisted heroically. The whites of New Ulm, Minnesota used so-called “Quaker Cannons,” i.e. logs painted black as a deceptive show of force against the Indians. They rang anvils to duplicate the sound of a cannon firing.
At the start of the Dakota insurrection, Governor Ramsey was obligated to provide troops to the Federal Government to fight the Confederate Army. Ramsey wired the Lincoln Administration to gain an extension to the draft. President Lincoln wrote back, “Attend to the Indians. If the draft can not proceed, of course, it will not proceed. Necessity knows no law. The government cannot extend the time.”
As a result, units forming across the states for the Civil War were transferred to fight the Dakota. The Dakota’s warrior culture gave the Indians the edge for about a week in August 1862. However, the civic organization of the whites proved to be superior. In a series of sharp actions along the south bank of the Minnesota River, citizen soldiers from Minnesota and Iowa defeated the Dakota. The bulk of the Dakota surrendered after The Battle of Wood Lake in September, 1862. White captives were freed at Camp Release, and Indians accused of war crimes were taken into custody.
The white soldiers had to improvise in various ways to be successful. The men were equipped with the older, Harper’s Ferry 1845 Percussion Cap Musket which had a .69 caliber bullet. The Ordinance Corps issued the .58 caliber Minié ball meant for the Springfield 1861 rifle. The soldiers had to break open artillery canister shells to repurpose the .69 caliber grapeshot therein as individual rifle bullets.
In 1863, the whites attacked into the Dakota Territory. Even after their victories on the Minnesota River, the whites were green troops. Units such as the 10th Minnesota Infantry had to learn basic soldiering while waging a campaign in a hostile environment. That summer, any remaining hostile Dakota not captured at Camp Release were driven across the Missouri River. The Dakota campaign was a tactical victory, but at best only a tie on the strategic level. Warfare continued on the Great Plains for the next few decades.
The Day of the Rope
While the campaign in Dakota Territory had mixed results, the Dakota were decisively defeated within Minnesota in 1862. The Indian defeat was so bad that the Winnebago Indians in the state who were allied with the Dakota but did not actively participate in the conflict in 1862 were also relocated to the Great Plains.
There is no way to avoid the fact that the Dakota were not an innocent party in this conflict. The Dakota viciously went to war against the whites when those whites were working very hard to prevent a war. Dakota chief Little Crow went to war because his hand was forced by the “robbery gone wrong” in Acton. Upon the orders of Little Crow, Dakota attacked and killed whites that were not involved in the distribution of annuities.
The impulse for revenge was quite powerful in 1862. The Minnesota public felt emotions not unlike those of the American public on the morning of September 12, 2001. Following the Battle of Wood Lake, the Dakota arrested or captured by the Union Army were put on trial for war crimes and more than 300 were sentenced to hang. President Lincoln ordered a legal review on all cases where the accused Indian was sentenced to death. Lincoln eventually cut down the number to be hanged to 38. One Dakota named Chaska was hanged by mistake. His name was common among the Dakota and he was confused with another Indian with the same name.
The Republicans suffered in the mid-term elections of 1862 because Lincoln commuted so many death sentences. Some Minnesotans may have felt cheated in “getting back” at the Dakota. Yet many Indians perished in the hands of the whites regardless. Many Dakota were interred at Fort Snelling where more than 300 died of various illnesses. There was no outcry from the public over the conditions there, and the Lincoln Administration did not intervene. Eventually, the Dakota were removed by river boat to the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in the Dakota Territory where more died of illnesses and hunger. Additionally two more Indians, Little Six and Medicine Bottle were hanged in 1865.
Even at a time when hatred for the Indians blew hot as a furnace, a sitting US President could not stomach hanging more than 38 people at a time. It is simply impossible to carry out mass executions within American culture, but nobody really cares about deaths due to indifference when those dying are out of sight and out of mind.
The Welfare War of Today?
After the Dakota War there was a great deal of soul searching, but the Lincoln Administration was consumed by the Secession Crisis, and no reform occurred. The loudest voice that claimed to know the answer was Benjamin Whipple, the Episcopalian Bishop of Minnesota. Bishop Whipple argued that politically appointed Indian Agents were corrupt and the system would work better with religious men in charge. The Grant Administration took Bishop Whipple’s advice and sent churchmen to the frontier.
Bishop Whipple’s faith-based welfare program didn’t work either. It first broke down in the early 1870s during the Comanche War. A cynic could claim that Bishop Whipple might have been more interested in getting his and his religious colleagues’ hands on the flow of annuities. After all, faith-based groups can charge “handling fees” too. Indeed, the biggest thing cutting down on the annuity payments to the Indians was servicing debt, not corruption. It would have been far better for bankers to go to the Reservation Agency and restructure the debt payments (or forgive them) than merely replace political appointees with preachers.
The Indian Wars are over, but the evil which grew from Bishop Whipple’s reforms live on. Faith-based groups are quite busy importing various groups of pathology ridden non-whites into Minnesota and they’re getting plenty of “handling fees.” Today, Somali and Hmong refugees occupy a niche no different than the Dakota in 1862. Recently a Somali went on an Islamist inspired stabbing rampage in St. Cloud. In Minnesota, the entire Somali community draws welfare and other forms of public assistance while carrying out violence against both whites and each other. Ultimately, separation not annuities worked to end the Dakota threat. That idea should be remembered when dealing with modern violent groups on welfare.
1. Gregory F. Michno, Dakota Dawn, The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 17-24, 1862 (El Dorado Hills, Cal.: Savas Beatie Press, 2011), pp. 11 and 12.
2. Scott Berg, 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier’s End, 2012 Kindle Loc 473
3. For more information on Greenbacks: https://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/omalley/389money/greenbacks.html
4. At the time, an acre of land was worth $1.25. Today, land in Minnesota is worth upwards of $20,000 per acre.
5. Michno, Dakota Dawn, pp. 12 and 13
8. Michno, Dakota Dawn, p. 43
9. Michno gives a detailed rundown on how the “Let them eat grass” remark came to be part of the historical narrative related to the war later (Dakota Dawn, pp. 34–39).
10. There are several names offered up describing who exactly was operating the ferry at the time of the Dakota attack. These details are beyond the scope of this article and so I am collectively describing the ferry operators.
11. This comment has been taken out of context by some historians to mean that Lincoln authorized the Minnesota whites to commit war crimes against the Indians. This is not true; Lincoln was talking about the draft. https://dwkcommentaries.com/2013/05/21/president-abraham-lincolns-involvement-in-the-u-s-dakota-war-of-1862/
12. For further reading, I suggest Michael A. Eggleston, The Tenth Minnesota Volunteers, 1862-1865: A History of Action in the Sioux Uprising and the Civil War, with a Regimental Roster (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012).