The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 is a significant event in the history and development of the state of Minnesota and in the long and complex history of the Dakota people and the United States.
When you visit Historic Fort Snelling, look for the following opportunities to learn more about the war:
- In the Officers' Quarters, talk to historical interpreters about the role of the Indian Agency and U.S. government "Indian Policy" during the early 1800s.
- Take the History on the Spot cell phone tour (877-411-4123), which describes the fort’s role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 and its aftermath.
- Look for signage describing key 1862 events near the spots where they happened.
- The U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 website contains an extensive collection of primary sources, oral histories, introductory videos and interactive maps.
Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, Franklin B. Mayer, 1885 .
Between 1805 and 1858, treaties made between the U.S. government and the Dakota nation reduced Dakota lands and significantly altered Minnesota’s physical, cultural, and political landscape. These treaties had significant impact on the lives of the Dakota people and the European-Americans flooding into Minnesota during the first half of the 1800s, and many historians agree that major factors in the lead-up to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 lie in those treaties. In 1851 the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota (in which the largest amount of land was ceded by the Dakota) established that the Dakota would be paid by the U.S. government for the land they ceded in yearly installments called “annuities.” Provisions in the treaties stated that portions of the money paid to the Dakota would go to fund trade shops (such as blacksmiths), purchase agricultural tools and supplies, as well as to pay off debts claimed by traders. Many Dakota claimed these debts had been inflated or were falsified, and were opposed to the traders being paid directly by the U.S. government. As a result resentment grew within many Dakota communities towards the traders and U.S. government.
In addition, U.S. government policies toward the acculturation of American Indians helped create divisions within the Dakota community at large. Dakota individuals who cut their hair and adopted European American agricultural methods received supplies, tools and housing at the expense of the U.S. government. Many Dakota who maintained their traditional life-ways resented what was perceived as preferential treatment of one group over another by the U.S. government.
By the summer of 1862 the situation for many Dakota families was desperate; annuity payments were late due to the U.S. government’s priority in financing the Civil War; some traders and officials at the Indian Agencies refused to extend credit for food and supplies until the Dakota had cash to pay their debts; and crop failures and poor hunting had left many Dakota families hungry. Due to these and other factors, tensions within Minnesota's Dakota community reached a breaking point.
Taoyatedute (Little Crow), ca. 1860.
MHS photographic collections.
On Aug. 17, 1862 four Dakota men killed five people living at the farms of Robinson Jones and Howard Baker in Acton Township. When word of the killings spread to the Lower Sioux Reservation, a group of Dakota men argued that it was time to go to war with Minnesota's European-American population to reclaim their ancestral land. Without consensus from the Dakota community at large, these men went directly to Taoyateduta, "His Scarlet Nation" (Little Crow), an influential Dakota leader, to convince him to lead a military effort. After intense debate, Taoyateduta reluctantly agreed, even though he feared the war would end disastrously for their nation. “You will die like rabbits when the hungry wolves hunt them in the Hard Moon,” he is quoted as having said, but added “Taoyateduta is not a coward: he will die with you.”
The following day a group of Dakota under the command of Taoyateduta attacked the Lower Sioux Agency, killing many of the civilians there. Over the next several weeks, groups of Dakota soldiers attacked European American communities throughout the Minnesota River Valley, including New Ulm, as well as launching attacks on U.S. military posts. The war lasted nearly six weeks, during which more than 600 civilians and U.S. soldiers, as well as an unknown number of Dakota, lost their lives.
The war fractured Minnesota's Dakota community. It was fought primarily by a relatively small group of Dakota and there was not universal support for the war within the Dakota community at large. Throughout the war, many Dakota as well as individuals of both Dakota and European ancestry (called "mixed-bloods" during the period) protected prisoners and worked to secure their release to U.S. soldiers. For a tense period of time it seemed as though a civil war might erupt between the Dakota on both reservations over the war.
Battle of Wood Lake (Sept. 23, 1862), MHS collections.
Fort Snelling played an important role in the war. Soldiers were organized at the fort under Col. Henry H. Sibley for a military response to the Dakota. After the Battle of Wood Lake (Sept. 23), the last major battle of the war in Minnesota, many Dakota left the state, while others surrendered to U.S. military forces at Camp Release (near present-day Montevideo). Col. Sibley established a military commission to try Dakota men suspected of killing or assaulting civilians, and by the end of the process 303 men were convicted and sentenced to death. However, upon further review of the evidence the number was reduced to 39 by President Abraham Lincoln who wanted to distinguish between Dakota men who had only fought in battles and those accused of killing and assaulting civilians. Just prior to the execution a man named Tatemina (Round Wind) was reprieved because his conviction had been based on questionable testimony. The remaining 38 men were hanged simultaneously in Mankato on Dec. 26 in the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Fort Snelling Internment Camp, 1862-63.
MHS photographic collections.
The rest of the approximately 1,600 Dakota and "mixed-bloods" who surrendered at Camp Release (mostly women, children and the elderly) were removed to Fort Snelling where they spent the winter of 1862-63 in a civilian internment camp, sometimes referred to as a concentration camp, below the fort (located in the present-day Fort Snelling State Park) to await forced relocation to western reservations. According to reports in local newspapers and Dakota oral histories some of the prisoners endured assaults and violence at the hands of soldiers and local civilians. "Amid all this sickness and these great tribulations," remembered Tiwakan (Gabriel Renville), a "mixed-blood" man who was held in the stockade along with his family, "it seemed doubtful at night whether a person would be alive in the morning."
Many detainees sold personal possessions in order to purchase food to supplement the military-issue rations they were given. Some of the “mixed-blood” families owned land vouchers (called scrip) that had been granted them in treaties with the U.S. government. These vouchers granted each head-of-household up to 640 acres of any unsurveyed, non-federal land in exchange for giving up claim to land in Minnesota. Many sold these vouchers to local businessmen at deflated prices in order to have cash in hand to provide for their families while in the stockade. Businessmen, such as Franklin Steele, profited by purchasing these vouchers and later selling them to land developers for large profits.
A definitive number is unknown, but it is estimated that somewhere between 130 and 300 people died within the camp, mostly due to disease (a measles outbreak swept the region that winter). The majority of those remaining were taken by steamboats to the Crow Creek reservation in May 1863. By summer of 1863 the vast majority of the Dakota had left Minnesota, heading into the western territories or north into Canada, where many of their descendants live today. As a result of the war, approximately 6,000 Dakota and "mixed-blood" people were displaced from their Minnesota homes. Today Dakota communities remain spread throughout Minnesota, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana and Canada.
Sakpedan (Little Six), left, and
Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle), right, 1864.
MHS photographic collections.
After the war many Dakota were captured and imprisoned by the U.S. military, among them Sakpedan (Little Six) and Wakanozhanzhan (Medicine Bottle). The two men fled to Canada after the war but were apprehended and delivered to U.S. authorities by British agents in Jan. 1864. Both men were subsequently imprisoned at Fort Snelling. They were charged and convicted by a military commission for the deaths of civilians and sentenced to death. Their execution took place at Fort Snelling on Nov. 11, 1865 in the presence of the fort’s garrison and numerous civilians. Tradition says that as they climbed the scaffold a steam train whistle blew in the distance, prompting Sakpedan to say, “As the white man comes in, the Indian goes out.”
During the summer of 1863, newly-promoted Brig. Gen. Sibley, along with Brig. Gen. Alfred Sully, mounted a joint military operation, called the “Punitive Expedition,” against those Dakota who had left Minnesota and headed west. Sibley’s troops pushed past Devil’s Lake and towards the Missouri River, fighting three major battles against combined Dakota and Lakota forces: Dead Buffalo Lake (July 26); Stony Lake (July 28); and Whitestone Hill (Sept. 3). In 1864 Sibley remained in Minnesota while a second expedition was launched. Sully commanded the operation and defeated a large, combined group of Dakota, Lakota and Yanktonai at the Battle of Tahchakuty, or Killdeer Mountain (July 28). Eventually, the U.S. military forcibly removed many Dakota to reservations in North and South Dakota. Intermittent fighting continued between the U.S. military and the Dakota nation in the western territories throughout the late 1800s, culminating at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890.
Explore more online historical resources about Fort Snelling and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650-1862. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1997.
Anderson, Gary Clayton. Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986.
Anderson, Gary Clayton and Alan R. Woolworth, eds. Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Indian War of 1862. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988.
Carley, Kenneth. The Dakota War of 1862. 2nd ed. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.
Clodfelter, Michael. The Dakota War: The United States Army Versus the Sioux, 1862-1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1998.
Manjeau-Marz, Corinne. The Dakota Indian Internment at Fort Snelling, 1862-64. St. Paul, MN: Prairie Smoke Press, 2006.
Millikan, William. “The Great Treasure of the Fort Snelling Prison Camp,” Minnesota History Quarterly 62, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 4-17.
Wingerd, Mary Lethert. North Country: The Making of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.