|Taoyateduta, or Little Crow, leader of the Sioux uprising of 1862.|
In August 1862, hundreds of Dakota Sioux opened a murderous rampage against settlers and soldiers in southern Minnesota, perhaps the greatest massacre of whites by Indians in American history, capping years of encroachment and confiscation by whites of traditional Indian lands. In his new book, DAKOTA DAWN: The Decisive First Week of the Sioux Uprising, August 17–24, 1862, Gregory F. Michno describes the opening of the conflict, in which the Sioux succeeded, albeit fleetingly, in driving out the white man. In the excerpt below, he explains the roots of the uprising. [Click here to order an author bookplate-signed copy from publisher Savas Beatie.]
At daybreak on August 18, 1862, the Dakota Indians of Minnesota commenced a massacre on a scale never before experienced by Americans. How did it happen?
There were two main reasons: greed and land hunger—from both white and Indian. Indian tribes coveted land and the stronger tribes took it from the weaker tribes when it suited their needs. They had no concept of legal ownership as did the white man, but they certainly understood ownership by conquest. The white man coveted land also, and although he may have used more subtle “legal” measures, if they failed, physical conquest was a tried and true option. To paraphrase an American folk song, some men will rob you with a six-gun, while others will rob you with a fountain pen. White Americans were practiced at both.
As Indian tribes were forced west, even the idea of a permanent Indian Country beyond the Mississippi was eventually scrapped; there was just too much good land out there needed by an expanding America in the throes of a fever that many called Manifest Destiny. Indian tribes could be put on reservations, colonized, and eventually they might integrate into white society. The Preemption Act of 1841 allowed Americans to settle on public land prior to purchase, without being considered trespassers. They moved to lands they considered “public,” even while tribes already occupied them, becoming de facto owners. The government needed treaties with the tribes to make them de jure owners. The fountain pen was a great conscience-soother.
The Dakotas had been slowly forced west from their lands around the upper Great Lakes by the Chippewas in the process of conquest that the tribes were all familiar with. In 1849 when Minnesota Territory was organized, the whites who began moving in created more problems for the Dakotas than the Chippewas ever did. By 1851, it was evident that something had to be done to move the Indians out of the way again. Of the four Dakota bands, agents and traders believed the Upper Sioux Sissetons and Wahpetons were less sophisticated and cautious than the Mdewakantons and Wahpekutes and that they would sign any treaty if simply for all the good presents they would receive.
Attempts at Treaties
On July 23, 1851, at Traverse des Sioux on the Minnesota River, Commissioner Luke Lea and Minnesota Territorial Governor Alexander Ramsey presided over the meeting in which the Sissetons and Wahpetons sold their lands in the state of Iowa and in western Minnesota for $1,665,000 in cash and annuities and agreed to move to a 20-mile wide reservation stretching along both banks of the western Minnesota River. Out of the money, $275,000 was to be paid to the chiefs to relocate their people and $30,000 was earmarked for the building of mills, schools, blacksmith shops, and farms. Of the remaining
$1,360,000, they were to be paid five percent interest, or $68,000, annually. From that, $28,000 was also subtracted to pay for agricultural improvement, education, and purchase of goods and provisions.
|Minnesota Governor (later US Senator) Alexander Ramsey:
“The Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or
driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”
Thirty five Indians signed the agreement, including Running Walker, Sleepy Eyes, Metal Horn, Grey Thunder, Cloud Man, and He Who Shoots as He Walks (Mazakutemani). Missionary Stephen R. Riggs interpreted, read, and explained each article to the chiefs several times. The bottom line was that the two bands would get only $40,000 a year.
With the sale, the Wahpekutes and Mdewakantons were faced with a fait accompli. At Mendota on August 5, the bands signed a treaty that sold their lands in southeast Minnesota for $1,410,000. It was not smooth. There was discord, especially among some of the older chiefs who had sold their lands east of the Mississippi back in 1837. They claimed they had not yet been paid all the money due to them from that transaction. Red Leaf (Wabasha) was in opposition, but Little Crow (Taoyateduta) — who ultimately would lead the 1862 uprising — still felt at that time that the treaty might be the solution to their economic problems.
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 a minor windfall.
The temporary euphoria notwithstanding, after the subtractions for education, relocation, and infrastructure—much as with the treaty with the Sissetons and Wahpetons—the Mdewakontans and Wahpekutes would get only $30,000 a year. In total the four tribes would get $70,000 divided up among
7,000 people, making about $10 per person.
Washington undercuts the deal
That was not all, for the U.S. Senate was not finished with it. Former Secretary of the Interior Alexander H. H. Stuart had warned Ramsey and Lea that a reservation should not be established within the confines of the land purchase, but rather off to the west in Dakota Territory. He knew many senators were not in favor of the concept and he knew it might affect votes, but he may not have realized it might also affect life and death.
Ramsey and Lea were hamstrung; they could not get Indian signatures without the reservation closer to their old homelands. They included it, and the Senate promptly scratched it out. The Dakotas felt betrayed and would not accept the amended version. Governor Ramsey scrambled for a solution, coming up with a temporary expedient that allowed the Dakotas to occupy the reservation lands for 25 years, after which the president could decide if they were to stay or move. Perhaps reluctant to face the chiefs again, Ramsey got trader Henry M. Rice to persuade them. The proceedings were not recorded; Rice got signatures on the amended treaty, but many Dakotas came away with the idea that they could stay on the reservation forever.
Undercut by Ramsey and the traders
After all the legalities and paper chasing, there was a lot of money floating around, and the traders wanted a hand in it. Moments after the Indians had signed the treaties, the traders handed them a second document to sign, called the “traders’ paper.” This pact said the Indians agreed to hand over $210,000 of their treaty money to pay the traders for past debts. Most Dakotas agreed that the debts should be paid, but they wanted control over the distribution to cover only legitimate debts. Still, only the Mdewakantons refused to sign.
|Henry H. Sibley, later a congressman and Governor, would be appointed
colonel in the Minnesota militia and held crush the 1862 Sioux uprising.
In November 1852, Governor Ramsey picked up the treaty money. After much discussion, all the Dakotas now wanted him to give them the money directly so they could pay their debts. Ramsey refused. Instead, he told them they must sign a receipt for the money and let him distribute it. Wabasha and Wakute adamantly disagreed, along with many of the mixed-bloods. On the other hand, chiefs such as Good Road and Bad Hail supported Ramsey. All had their reasons; Bad Hail had a son in prison and Ramsey offered to free him for his support.
Greed and self-interest took over, as it usually did. The whites sought Little Crow’s help. Mixed-blood Alexander Faribault, Little Crow’s trader and a protege of Henry H. Sibley, made a deal with Little Crow to pay him $3,000 in exchange for signing Ramsey’s receipt. Little Crow agreed, as did Wabasha, Wakute, and others. Ramsey went to the Sissetons and Wahpetons. This time, Red Iron resisted so vehemently that Ramsey threw him in jail. With Red Iron out of the way, the others signed, got paid, and Ramsey was free to distribute the money as he saw fit.
By the end of the year $495,000 was gone into the traders’ coffers, and Governor Ramsey had deducted a 10% handling fee for all his hard work. Charges were brought against the governor for misappropriation of funds, but although it was found that he “was not warranted under the circumstances in paying over the money,” he was exonerated by a senate resolution. Ramsey, as ex officio superintendent, was supposed to have the Indians’ interest at heart—instead he looked to protect the traders at the Indians’ expense.
The money designated for removal and subsistence was gone, whites were moving into the Dakotas’ lands west of the Mississippi, and there was no money to relocate them or set up the new reservation.
More treaty violations
The Dakotas tried to exist under the rules that seemed ambiguous at best. Several years later, however, they were forced back to the treaty table. Minnesota had been admitted to the Union as a state in May 1858. More whites were moving in, encroaching on the reservation, and clamoring for the lands. In the summer of 1854, about 30 men, mostly recent German immigrants, left Chicago and searched for new farmland near the junction of the Cottonwood and Minnesota Rivers. The first site they found for a potential town having just the right amount of fertile land, timber, and water was in a temporarily abandoned Dakota village! They moved in, and when the Indians returned, naturally there was a confrontation. Bloodshed was avoided, however, mainly through the intercession of a nearby trader.
The settlers survived by living in the Indians’ bark huts through the winter. The impasse was settled by territorial Governor Willis A. Gorman, who ruled that the Indians were technically off their reservation, which began about nine miles upriver at the mouth of Little Rock Creek. The Dakotas reluctantly moved away and more Germans moved in, their town site eventually becoming the village of New Ulm. Within three years, every quarter-section open for settlement had been pre-empted and hundreds of newcomers were in the area. Although most settlers had no serious confrontations with the Indians in the 1850s, the boundary between the “Dutchmen” and the Dakotas would remain a sore point, and the settlers would pay the price in 1862.
Not only did the Dakotas clear out of the area, but the Senate in 1852 removed that part of the treaty that guaranteed the Dakotas a reservation in Minnesota. To prevent future confrontations with settlers and to finally secure legal title, government officials now tried to convince the Indians that it would be better to sell a portion of the reservation that they didn’t really own than to have the state take it by force.
Confrontation in Washington, D.C.
In the spring of 1858 a delegation of 27 Dakotas, including Little Crow, Wabasha, Shakopee, Mankato, Big Eagle, Red Iron, Mazakutemani, and Otherday, traveled to Washington D.C. This time they sat down at the negotiation table with a new Commissioner, Charles E. Mix, who was not so conciliatory and was not averse to bullying. In meetings stretching from March through June, the Dakotas met with President James Buchanan once and with Mix a number of times. Little was resolved.
|US Commissioner Charles E. Mix (seated at center) meeting with a delegation from the Sauk & Fox and Kaw tribes in Washington, D.C, 1867.|
Little Crow complained of German settlers moving on to his lands, but Mix showed him a map where the boundary was made at Little Rock Creek, and besides, the Senate had removed not only the boundary, but the reservation. The Dakotas occupied the land only “by the courtesy of their Great Father.” If they wanted to stay there they should sell the northern half above the Minnesota River and become farmers on the southern half, which would be divided into 80-acre individual allotments.
By June the weather in Washington grew extremely hot, humid, and stifling. Tempers were on edge and the Indians were being worn down. They wanted to go home. At times Little Crow and Mix exchanged heated words. Little Crow was ashamed of what he and his Sioux were being forced to sign, but he rationalized once again that the deal would at least give them more money to pay off those ever-present trade debts. The chiefs signed the agreement on June 19, without even knowing what amount they would be paid for the land. Two years passed before the US Senate resolved to pay them, but only at 30 cents per acre for lands said to be worth five dollars an acre.
The Lower Sioux (Mdewakantons and Wahpekutes) got $96,000 and the Upper Sioux (Sissetons and Wahpetons) got $170,880. Of course, the traders’ claims were subtracted from that, leaving the Upper Sioux with about half of the amount, and the Lower Sioux with virtually nothing.
Although 27 chiefs had signed the treaty, most of the Indians back in Minnesota were outraged, especially at the loss of half the reservation. The money issue was another sore spot. The Indians never seemed to get what they thought was their due.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, a whole new set of Republican administrators came to office in the spring of 1861, including the Minnesota Superintendent Clark W. Thompson, and Agent Thomas J. Galbraith. The Mdewakanton Big Eagle succinctly summed up the regime change: the Indians “did not like the new men.”
Usually, presidential changes meant good news for the tribes. John Nairn, a carpenter at the Lower Agency, recorded a conversation that may have been apocryphal, but nevertheless illustrated the Dakotas’ mindset. Two Indians sat smoking. One said, “Have you heard the news? We are getting a new great father.” The other man was pleased. “That is news indeed,” he replied with a laugh, “I wonder if his pockets are deep? Our great father always sends us a new father with deep pockets and the Dakotas have to fill them.”
Galbraith quickly learned that the Lower Sioux believed they would be paid “one hundred boxes of money” per year (a box meaning to them $1,000), and the Upper Sioux a similar amount. Instead, the Lower Sioux fund was used to pay off debts and two-thirds of the Upper Sioux money disappeared the same way. If the plan was to have debts subtracted every year, Galbraith said, “I shall not pretend to relate in detail.” All he knew for a fact was that “from the first day of my arrival upon the reservation, up to the outbreak, this matter was a perpetual source of wrangling, dissatisfaction, and bitter, ever-threatening complaints on the part of both the upper and lower bands.”
If the Dakotas hadn’t realized it earlier, they certainly now knew what it meant to be robbed with a fountain pen.